I want to address two comments about the Michael Vick incident that provoked much controversy and discussion. In reaction to the public’s response to Vick’s participation in a dogfighting ring, New York Knicks pointguard, Stephon Marbury made news by making the following statement.
“I think it’s tough, I think, you know, we don’t say anything about people who shoot deer or shoot other animals. You know, from what I hear, dogfighting is a sport. It’s just behind closed doors.”
First of all, the context of this quote was manipulated and many outlets just ran the “dogfighting is a sport” part. As a result, Marbury was portrayed as a supporter of Vick, or worse, of dogfighting. Given the media’s troubled relationship with Marbury, that was hardly a surprise. Marbury may not be the most eloquent speaker, but if you unpack his comments, there’s something that merits serious consideration.
It is important to note that Marbury did not claim that he believed that dogfighting is a sport. At least that’s not the way I interpreted his comment. If his intent was to proclaim dogfighitng as a sport, there would be no need to preface that opinion with the qualifier, “from what I hear.” Marbury was basically claiming that those involved in dogfighting see it as a sport. Assuredly, it is not, and as a defense for the Vick’s actions, claiming the participants view it as a sport is entirely irrelevant. Perhaps, gang members view drive-by shooting as a sport… I address this part of the quote only to establish that Marbury is not, as the media seemed to portray, supporting dogfighting or claiming it to be a “sport.”
The first part of the quote is interesting. One could interpret it as an implicit defense of Vick, or just as a general comment regarding society, double standards, and the context of Vick’s actions. As a defense of Vick, it would be the classic example of two wrongs not equaling a right, but on its own terms the comment has merit. There are many sets of standards by which society judges the infringement upon animal rights. Marbury’s example of hunting is probably the closest parallel to dogfighting. For one, a substantial segment of the population, even beyond hunters themselves, consider hunting to be a sport, or at least a sports-like activity. Assuredly, hunting is no more of a sport than dogfighting… or drive-by shooting. Still, there are hundreds of professional athletes who are avowed hunters, yet that hasn’t been seen as anything of a moral issue for professional sports leagues at all, despite strong efforts of anti-hunting activists in our country. One simple and logically consistent argument holds that the slaughter of animals for sport is immoral, period.
As you progress further along the spectrum of animal rights activism more issues arise. It might be easier to count the number of professional athletes who don’t own mink coats than the ones who do. At the fringes of the animal rights spectrum we encounter those who feel that a vegan diet is a moral responsibility, specifically for animal cruelty reasons. For society at large, some of these opinions seem to fall squarely in the arena of personal choice, as opposed to moral responsibility. It would be absurd for the NFL to mandate vegan diets for its players, but would it be inconceivable to voice a disapproval of hunting? Of, course, the fallback position is that hunting is legal, while dogfighting is illegal. Most people skirt these difficult debates by using legality as a moral loophole – as if our society has never legalized clearly immoral behavior…
At the very least, the isolation of and disproportionate public response to the Michael Vick situation, as compared to other animal rights issues, is evidence of the obvious tunnel vision through which we perceive the underlying morality issues of this case. And in that sense, Marbury’s point is correct.
The second comment I’d like to address was made by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter, Paul Zeise. It was made on a sports roundtable discussion show, aired on a CBS affiliate, about a month ago – Zeise was not invited back to the show.
“It’s really a sad day in this country when somehow … Michael Vick would have been better off raping a woman if you look at the outcry of what happened. Had he done that, he probably would have been suspended for four games and he’d be back on the field. But because this has become a political issue, all of a sudden the commissioner has lost his stomach for it.”
I’m not going to defend this guy anymore than to say that it seemed as if he was speaking solely in terms of Vick’s football career. He did not say that rape was a less disgusting act than dogfighting. The fact is that Vick would have had a greater likelihood of settling out of court, or beating the case altogether were he to be accused of rape. That seems like a pretty grounded assessment of the situation given the outcry against Vick, compared with the record of athletes accused of various levels of sexual misconduct who have either walked or simply cut a check.
Zeise isn’t the only person to make this type of comment; this argument has been used in many slightly different forms, they all revolve around the claim that we are making too much of this because there are other, worse, evils going on in the world. That argument is terribly problematic.
Its initial hypocrisy is that there are always news stories that dominate the headlines, despite their scope being undeserving of the coverage. If these people are truly crying out for responsible news coverage that reflects the importance of the event, they’d be kicking and screaming everyday. Britney Spears has received exponentially more news coverage than Darfur. The selective application of this argument leads me to believe that it is disingenuous. But, let’s even assume for a second that it is not – there are several other grounds on which it fails.
The fact that other, more profound, wrongs exist does not preclude people from taking action and judging the said behavior as wrong. One can’t beat a misdemeanor by citing the extent of felonies committed. The perspective endorsed by the above argument ultimately leads to having to arbitrarily choose a specific degree of wrong at which the public, the authorities, or whoever, should begin to give a shit. Individually, one can certainly feel as if too much has been made of the case, but invoking a subjective, slippery slope argument as a standard to measure responsible collective behavior doesn’t seem like a legitimate criticism. In fact, ironically, it was this perspective that caused authorities to let dogfighting continue, virtually unabated, all this time.
Additionally, this is an apples to oranges comparison. There are many reasons why this issue pulls at people’s heartstrings, and galvanizes them to protest, making the dynamic of this scandal more complicated than an immorality pissing contest.. First and foremost, this is a type of scandal and depravity that is unfamiliar to the public; the shock-factor is huge. More subtlety, the comparison of “rape” is something of a strawman in this context. When a reporter says that Vick would have been better off raping a woman, the image we get is of a seedy character huddled in an alley waiting to snatch a victim and force sex upon her at the explicit threat of violence. This is not the “rape” that we are used to seeing athletes accused of.
Most cases involving rape and other forms of sexual misconduct involve aggressive coercion or fuzzy consent. We are less likely to vilify a celebrity who is accused of rape than we are of dogfighting because of the relative ambiguity of the nature of the indiscretion. We have seen money-hungry groupies disingenuously file lawsuits; we have seen people throw themselves at celebrities. We’ve seen the interminable confusion of the Duke athletes case. We’ve seen tell-all books by individuals whose identities were based around sleeping with as many athletes as possible. Simply put, it is conceivable and precedented that rape allegations could be false, disingenuous, or even a matter of miscommunication; one can understand how a celebrity may find him/herself in such a situation. Zeise’s critics are thinking of rape in the police sketch on the local news sense of the word, when he in fact meant that Michael Vick may have been better off, in strictly pragmatic terms, if he was accused of date-rape by a cheerleader.
You can kill a man in cold blood, so long as it’s done in a boxing ring. Rape is a code word for completely unacceptable conduct, and yet day-to-day life is not nearly so black-and-white. Dogfighitng, on the other hand, is a sadistic and foreign behavior; it is not something we civilized people can understand or fathom an appreciation of, or desire to participate in, even in the theoretical, or abstract. Dogs are cute and innocent; people can be cruel and manipulative. It’s pretty simple really. Of course, the blanket statement that human emotion need not follow some sort of linear reaction pattern that mirrors some sort of “objective reality” about what is reacting to, is also relevant to this discussion.
I find it hard to believe that arguments like Zeise’s can be taken as anything more than rhetorical or quizzical. And, I find it all too convenient to simply twist and dismiss comments like Marbury’s.