What ESPN’s ‘White Michael Vick’ Story Got Wrong

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If the point of a good magazine story is to get people talking (hey, we even try it here at TIME), consider a piece in the new issue of ESPN The Magazine, “What if Michael Vick Were White?,” a grand success.

More than the article itself, the accompanying picture—a photo-illustration-imagination of Vick as a white football player— stirred passions on the blogosphere. Most of the reaction, however, was negative. Sites called it “disgraceful” and “trash” with “racist undertones.”

When the picture was suddenly pulled off the web on Thursday, things got even more heated. ESPN must be admitting its error! A few hours later, however, the illustration returned. The magazine’s editor said it was removed due to a “licensing” issue, which was quickly resolved.

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This NewsFeed correspondent finds the picture more silly than offensive. Rather than starting an interesting, important sociological discussion about Vick, which was part of the illustration’s intention, it sparked jokes. “Who Does ESPN The Magazine’s White Michael Vick Look Like?” asked Deadspin.com. One answer: Brian Austin Green. TheBigLead.com also asked that question, and Kevin Federline was a popular response.

The picture comes across as gimmicky, and the double standard can make you queasy. Given America’s shameful history with blackface, it’s just too flippant to flip it around and give an African-American a white identity.

But is ESPN The Magazine abhorrent for running the picture? No way. The words in the story, however, got me thinking about Vick. And my beef is that these words are confusing, and miss parts of the Vick saga that speak volumes about race in America.

First off, the headline asks: “What if Michael Vick Were White?” The subhead of the story says, “Since the day he was arrested, people have been asking that question. The answer isn’t what you think.” I disagree with the premise that since the day he was arrested, people have been pondering about his race.

In the course of reporting a story for TIME, headlined “The Meaning of Michael Vick,” back in January, I asked dog owners, a few ex-dogfighters, Eagles players, and African-American residents of inner-city Philadelphia if they thought Vick was properly punished for his crimes. I can’t recall one person – white dog owner, football player, black resident, ex dogfighter – feeling that Vick’s almost two-year sentence was impacted, one way or the other, by his race. (And since it’s probably germane at this point, I am white, though I spoke to people of many races and ethnic groups.)

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Some people thought that Vick was unfairly punished because of his celebrity. The justice system wanted to push a humane message, and made an example of him. Maybe his less-than-perfect past – Vick was busted for marijuana, and had to settle a civil suit alleging that he knowingly spread a sexually transmitted disease – cost him too.

But did anyone wonder if a star white quarterback with Vick’s checkered past would have gotten off easier because of his race?  Even if he had, like Vick,  “[pounded] the creature against the ground until, at last, the little red dog was dead?”

These are fair questions. But “What If Michael Vick Were White?” – the screaming ESPN headline – wasn’t part of the discussion.

The writer of the story, Touré, poses a more specific version of this question at the top of his essay. “But after his arrest for dogfighting, so many people asked: Would a white football player have gotten nearly two years in prison for what Vick did to dogs?” Presuming to know the nature of Touré’s Vick discussions over the four years since his arrest would be extremely dishonest. Indeed, it’s only fair to take him at his word, and trust that, in his experience, “so many” people asked “What if Michael Vick were white?”

All I can say is that in talking to a broad range of sources about Vick for our story, including many African-American supporters of Vick, and over the course of discussing the Vick case in social and professional settings for over four years, “so many people” were not posing this hypothetical. Few, if any, were. But that’s just my experience. And based on the Internet feedback, others have shared this experience.

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But here’s the really confusing part: in the very next sentence, Touré writes, “That question [Would a white football player have gotten nearly two years in prison for what Vick did to dogs?”] makes me cringe. It’s so facile, naïve, shortsighted and flawed that it is meaningless.” If that’s the case, what’s the point of this whole exercise? Why print a screaming headline – “What if Michael Vick Were White?” – if the writer himself says the question is “meaningless.” Again: the writer of a story is saying that a premise of a story is “meaningless” (and for good measure, let’s again mention “facile, naïve, shortsighted and flawed.”)

Touré then proceeds, with great intelligence and insight, to show why this question, in fact, has no meaning. If Michael Vick were indeed white, odds are his life circumstances would have been very different. “That person is unknowable,” he writes. Maybe Vick would not have started dogfighting in the first place. If he did, maybe he would have not have gotten caught. Touré nails the end of the essay: “And to those who believe we should judge a man by how he responds when dealing with the worst life has to offer – with how he climbs after he hits rock bottom – Michael Vick has become heroic. And that has nothing to do with race.”

(On Twitter, Touré said that ESPN’s editors headlined the story “What If Michael Vick Were White?” despite his objections. He said he had nothing to do with illustration of Vick in whiteface. “Judge me on the story not the art,” Touré tweeted.)

But the biggest letdown of this entire package is that it didn’t address the real racial insights of Michael Vick’s experience, which lie in the polarizing reactions to his crime, punishment, and comeback. During my interviews in Philadelphia neighborhoods, many African-Americans were upset that dog owners rooting against Vick, the majority of whom were white, failed to realize that dogfighting has long been a part of black culture in certain areas. They didn’t consider that for many poor residents, dogfighting is a way to make a much-needed buck. And since Vick grew up in that culture, couldn’t they understand that, maybe, Vick didn’t realize he was committing such a monstrous act? Couldn’t they consider the context, and show some sympathy? In a recent GQ story, Vick was asked “if he feels that white people simply don’t understand that aspect of black culture.” Vick’s response: “I think that’s accurate.”

And by the way, several black Philadelphians asked, in the face of all this public outrage about the resumption of Vick’s football career– fueled by mostly white animal advocates –  where was the concern about the young black people being murdered in Philadelphia? All these white people were getting worked up about dogs, but they paid no attention to the human victims in their own backyard. For African-Americans, this part of the Vick drama causes palpable pain.

So thanks, ESPN The Magazine, for getting us talking. We just wish that, instead of asking “What If Michael Vick Were White?” and putting up that phony picture, you had just noted that “Michael Vick Is Real.”

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