By Michael Wilbon
Wednesday, August 8, 2007; Page E07
Even on days when there are no screaming headlines about Michael Vick in mainstream media, even when there are no video clips or sound bites from lawyers on the courtroom steps following a hearing, the battle over Michael Vick continues.
In Atlanta particularly, most any conversation will meander to Vick, the city's biggest cultural star -- ever. And depending on who's doing the talking, Vick can be the devil incarnate or the persecuted victim of a racially motivated attack that has ignored the basic tenet of due process. Anybody paying attention to the divide over this issue, much of it racial, has to understand we're looking at one very divisive story that will play out for months. Already, it has swept up passions everywhere, from the nation's most powerful animal rights advocates to its most visible civil rights groups.
The biggest headline on the home page of PETA's Web site urges the NFL to suspend Vick without pay, and in a subheadline proclaims "Victory: Nike Suspends Vick Contract."
Meantime, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference planned to honor Vick as part of its 50th anniversary celebration -- until several longtime members, a Georgia state representative among them, helped put the brakes on such an event.
And all across Atlanta, probably the nation's second-most popular destination for African Americans (after Washington, D.C.), the debate is as passionate as it is inescapable. Even those who are tired of Vick's repeated bad judgment (including flashing a middle finger to fans after a game last year) are circling Vick protectively, at least publicly. Atlanta is painted by some as the capital of the New South but there are still two Atlantas, one white and one black. More than 40 years removed from Jim Crow segregation, they still see the Vick story as differently as they viewed sitting on the back of a bus 70 years ago.
The Atlanta NAACP president, R.L. White, cut to the heart of the matter for a great many black folks in an ESPN.com piece when he said, "For a lot of African Americans, who have in the past either been accused themselves or seen people they admired not be given due process, they are skeptical about proceedings against well-known African Americans."
It's in this context that the SCLC, whose most prominent member was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., sought to honor a man indicted on felony charges of running a dogfighting ring. More heinous than that, the federal government is seeking to prove that Vick is connected with dogs being slammed to their deaths or electrocuted.
PETA, short on African Americans, to say the least, began calling immediately for the NFL to suspend Vick, if not boot him out of the league altogether. The notion that Vick has only been accused, but not convicted, seems to be mere nitpicking to PETA.
And black folks, even ones that see Vick as a fool on some level, began to ask what happened to due process. Last Friday, the SCLC's president, Charles Steele, said the organization would find some way to honor Vick, which was every bit as foolish as presuming Vick guilty, as PETA and others have done. Fortunately, Georgia state representative Tyrone Brooks (D-Atlanta) counseled against it. He told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "I said, 'Stay on point. The convention is bigger than a particular man. There are a lot of young people who need our help. Michael Vick is not one of them. . . . What has he ever done except throw a football, run a football? I don't think he has done anything to deserve any special recognition."
Presumption of innocence until proven guilty is one thing, but the SCLC has no more idea than PETA what Vick has or hasn't done.
The NAACP's White told Newsweek his office received so many calls the organization simply had to take a stand, and added: "We're not taking a position on whether or not he did it, nor are we condoning dogfighting. We're merely saying that people shouldn't rush to judge Michael Vick. . . . When Ray Lewis was accused of murder [in 2000] he was still afforded the right to work. When Kobe Bryant was accused of rape [in 2004] he was still afforded the right to work." But White also admitted he had no idea "that our position was going to be so controversial."
Of course, everything to do with Vick's case will be controversial. Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, who has been friends with Vick since McNabb hosted Vick on a recruiting visit to Syracuse, made a rather bland comment to The Washington Post last week, saying essentially he wanted to see Vick come out of this with his career intact.
But after being ripped for supporting Vick, McNabb felt the need to cite due process and added in a statement, "I've had a couple of dogs in the past and now we're going to have some bulldog puppies running around the house."
Brooks saved the SCLC from absurd and embarrassing overreaction to the equally offensive position staked out by those who have Vick already guilty.
Then again, reasoned and measured comments simply aren't going to rule the day in regard to this mess. We're going to be subjected to more rhetoric, more posturing, more proselytizing and more pandering than we'll see in the 2008 presidential election.
Not even a 95 percent conviction rate in federal prosecutions means Vick will be found guilty in this case, though every bit of reasoned analysis points out he's facing a serious battle and as a result a very uncertain future.
In the meantime, the conversation outside the courtroom has already been framed, and the picture inside is quite ugly.
Show me a good loser, and I'll show you a loser.
"None are so old as those who have outlived enthusiasm".
Henry David Thoreau
Fail to prepare and you prepare to fail.
"Luck is the residue of design." - Branch Rickey