Experts say interest tends to cross lines of race, geography
By Kevin Van Valkenburg
July 29, 2007
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The details of the dogfighting indictment against Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick are as gruesome as they are shocking: starving pit bulls forced to tear one another apart for hours, and animals beaten to death, shot, hanged and electrocuted when they did not perform well.
But what's equally hard to comprehend is the motivation of anyone choosing to participate in an activity as lurid and as morally questionable as dogfighting. What is the attraction?
The answer, according to a number of experts interviewed by The Sun, is complicated. It touches myriad issues, ranging from cultural geography to society's attitude about the treatment of animals, and, for some, it even wades into hot-button topics such as race and rap music. Vick pleaded not guilty Thursday in Richmond, Va., to federal charges that he sponsored and participated in a dogfighting operation, but in the meantime the allegations have ignited a debate about animals fighting for sport, as well as a discussion of how prevalent it is.
John Goodwin, the Humane Society of the United States' top expert and investigator of animal fighting, said that Vick is hardly alone among professional athletes in his alleged affinity for the practice. Goodwin said he has traveled the country and spoken with a number of athletes about dogfighting, and frequently receives tips about athletes' alleged involvement. Some, Goodwin said, enjoy the gambling aspect of it, often wagering thousands of dollars on a single match. Others simply want to have the bragging rights of owning the "top dog" because they're competitive people.
"I think there is a pervasive subculture of dogfighting in the NFL and probably in the NBA as well," Goodwin said. "And it needs to be rooted out. [Vick's indictment] is just the tip of the iceberg."
Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Ronde Barber seems to agree, telling Sports Illustrated last week, "I would bet you that every player in the NFL knows someone who has been to a dogfight."
Vick not the first
Vick, one of the NFL's most recognizable and heavily marketed players, is the most prominent athlete to be charged in connection with dogfighting, but he's not the only one. Former NFL running back LeShon Johnson, who played for the Green Bay Packers, Arizona Cardinals and New York Giants during a six-year career, was arrested twice for his involvement in a dogfighting ring and in 2005 received a deferred sentence of five years.
Former Portland Trail Blazers forward Qyntel Woods was suspended by the team in 2004 after he was investigated by Oregon law enforcement on suspicion that he was hosting fights at his suburban Portland home. Woods, who is no longer in the NBA, eventually pleaded guilty to first-degree animal abuse.
"I made a lot of mistakes," Woods told reporters in 2005 after he was traded to the Knicks. "You can't change the past. You've just got to move forward."
Goodwin places some of the blame on entertainers, and has been a vocal critic of hip-hop artists such as Jay-Z and DMX for their inclusion of images in their albums and music videos that depict, or at least strongly suggest, dogfights.
Near the end of Jay-Z's "99 Problems," which MTV named Rap Video of the Year in 2004, there are several shots of two pit bulls snarling and lunging at one another as a raucous audience looks on, surrounding the kind of walled-off pit used for dogfights.
DMX, a self-professed dog lover, is featured on a song by female rapper Eve titled "Dog Match," which includes the lyrics "Place your bets/You can imagine what the bloodline is like" and "All my pups is crazy, 'cause off the leash/They can eat, stand a match for three hours at least."
"I definitely think images of dogfighting are glamorized in pop culture, and it fuels the problem," Goodwin said. "I bought a copy of one of DMX's albums recently, Grand Champion, and inside it came with an advertisement for a dog food called Game Dog Professional. The bootleg DVDs out there that feature raw footage of dog fights, and I've seen most of them, are all set to hardcore gangster rap. There's no question, it's part of the problem."
Rap mogul Russell Simmons, one of the music industry's most powerful and revered figures, condemned dogfighting in a letter to the NFL shortly after Vick was indicted. The letter, which was also signed by the Rev. Al Sharpton and the People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals, urged people not to convict Vick before he had his day in court but also not to tolerate animal abuse.
"Today, we sound a clarion call to all people: Stand up for what is right, and speak out against what is wrong," the letter read. "Dogfighting is unacceptable. Hurting animals for human pleasure or gain is despicable. Cruelty is just plain wrong."
But blaming hip-hop culture - or athletes for embracing it - for its contribution to the ills of society is hardly a new or particularly insightful bit of social commentary, said Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, an assistant professor of urban education and American studies at Temple University. And drawing a connection between hip-hop culture and dogfighting, something numerous media outlets have been doing during the past week, fails to recognize the larger truth, he said.
"The word 'culture' is secret-agent talk for race in this country," Hill said. "It allows people to mythologize poor people, black people, brown people without being labeled a racist. There's not a culture of animal abuse in black America or Latino America. Mike Vick's actions certainly don't have anything to do with hip-hop culture. And in reality, hip-hop doesn't show images of dogfighting that much. Even when DMX does, I still don't think young people walk away after listening to his music and think about dogfighting. ... But the reality of race relations in America is, one black person's bad acts are paid for by the whole community, at least within the realm of the media."
ESPN radio host Doug Gottlieb made exactly that connection the day after the indictment was released, saying on his national show, The Pulse, that if he were an African-American, he would be disgusted by Vick's actions, implying that Vick had embarrassed not just himself but his entire race.
"When Allen Iverson scores 50 points in the NBA Finals or Mike Vick runs for a 75-yard touchdown, no one says it's a credit to black people," said Hill, who has written and lectured extensively about hip-hop music and culture. "It's only when something negative happens that it gets linked back to us or to hip-hop."
Tied to masculinity
Geography and masculinity - perhaps more than anything - play a role in the practice's allure, said Rhonda Evans, a professor of criminology at University of Louisiana, Lafayette. Evans helped lead a study of dogfighting culture in the rural South between 1995 and 1997 and attended numerous pre-fight meetings and fights. She co-authored a study on the connections between dogfighting and notions of masculinity.
She said dogfighting has a long history in rural sections of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, a custom handed down from father to son.
"People are born into it," Evans said. "Their parents did it. It's tradition."
In her research, she found the dogfighting subculture that was dedicated to the "continued survival of the sport" was predominantly Southern, white, working-class men. She said that within such cultures, veteran "dogmen" are revered figures. Young trainers and breeders crowd around them at pre-fight gatherings the way young boxers might crowd around Joe Frazier or Roberto Duran.
"It's a sense of belonging, not just being a member but wanting to become an old-timer," Evans said. "This is really important in their lives. Even though it might just be a hobby, it's a part of who they are."
The fact that Vick - who was raised in Newport News, Va. - has Southern roots has been repeatedly noted since details of the case began to emerge, including by Washington Redskins running back Clinton Portis, who told a television station in Virginia: "I'm from Laurel, Miss. I know a lot of back roads where there is dogfights if you want to go see it. ... I think people should mind their own business."
But Goodwin said it would be a mistake to associate dogfighting solely with the South or with rural areas. Media reports have shown it is extremely popular in Afghanistan, Russia and Latin America, where animal cruelty laws are rarely enforced. In the United States, it's prevalent in most major cities.
"It's started to shift to the urban environment within the past 10 years," Goodwin said. "It actually started in Boston and New York in the 1920s and 1930s because of Irish and English immigrants, and then it went away for a while, but it's become huge again in cites like Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and even Baltimore.
"Baltimore has a lot of dogfighting, because anywhere you have gang activities, you've got dogfighting."
Even though anecdotal evidence suggests dogfighting exists in Baltimore, catching those responsible and prosecuting them is a difficult task.
"It's a very secret society," said Baltimore State's Attorney's Office spokesman Joseph Sviatko. "And in order to charge someone, you need good, solid, credible evidence, and that usually means undercover work. With the Michael Vick story being in the news, we've received a lot of e-mails and calls from people asking us to take the crime seriously. It's not a matter of us not taking it seriously, it's a matter of those cases making it to prosecution."
City task force
As The Sun reported Friday, City Health Commissioner Dr. Joshua Sharfstein and acting Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III announced the creation of a multiagency dogfighting task force to address the issue. Despite evidence that dogfighting exists in the city, Sviatko said it has been "several years" since the state's attorney's office prosecuted a dogfighting case in Baltimore.
In 2000, nine men in Baltimore County were convicted for their involvement in a dogfighting ring, including one man who was sentenced to three years in prison for hosting fights at his home on Buckingham Road.
"For the defendants, their mentality was that dogfighting was like racing cars to them," said Adam Lippe, the assistant state's attorney who prosecuted the case. "They wanted to see which dog was the biggest and the toughest. And the people watching the fights were there for organized gambling. These dogs don't fight except for money. ... It's an issue that really crosses racial and economic boundaries."
Most dogmen, Evans said, don't even consider their sport cruel.
"They believe the dog's sole purpose is to be a fighter," Evans said. "They believe the dog was born to fight, this is what he lives to do, and if he can't be free to do it, he wouldn't want to continue living."
The dogs, Evans said, often become symbols of their owners.
"The reason they value them so much, and you'll hear this over and over, is that the dog is tenacious, he's the ultimate warrior. To them, these dogs are the ultimate fighters," Evans said.
Conversely, dogs that fight poorly or jump out of the pit are labeled "curs" and considered embarrassments to their owners.
"You'll often hear that the dog is only as good as the man who brings him to the pit," Evans said. "The dog really does symbolize the man. ... They kill the curs. They'll rationalize it as something they're doing to save the breed from weakness. But, really, it's a way to save face. The dog has humiliated them."
All about betting
Ronald Menaker, chairman of the American Kennel Club, said that kind of disregard for an animal's life disgusts him.
"I don't believe they love dogs at all," Menaker said. "Anyone who loves dogs couldn't possibly rub crushed glass on them or sharpen their teeth to make them lethal. They're doing it for the money. They want to bet on the animals. It's that simple."
Menaker said he worries that all the attention given to the Vick case is going to result in legislation aiming to prevent people from being able to own American Staffordshire terriers, the dogs most commonly bred for fighting and often referred to as pit bulls. That, in Menaker's opinion, would be misguided.
"We have a saying: 'It's the deed, not the breed,'" Menaker said. "If you took any of the 165 breeds, from Chihuahuas to the Great Danes, and you knew what you were doing, you could turn any of them into a vicious animal. But I guarantee in the next two months, we'll see some state or local government try to ban this breed or make criminal to own one. In the wrong hands, yes, they can be lethal, but only when people make them that way - by starving them and beating them and rewarding them for aggressive behavior and training them to fight."
Sun reporter Childs Walker contributed to this article.