Nearly two weeks ago, watching the Philadelphia Eagles play the New England Patriots in a pre-season game, I heard TV commentators talking about the newest addition to the Eagles roster: dog-murderer Michael Vick.
The news soon became official. The Philadelphia Eagles signed Michael Vick, the former star quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons who just completed a 23-month sentence for running a dog fighting ring. Vick spent 18 months in prison, then served the rest of his sentence in home confinement.
Thousands of Eagles fans were outraged. “As a lifetime Philadelphia sports fan, I’m reeling from the Eagles’ signing of Michael Vick, justifiably the most hated man in sports,” wrote Dan Brown on the Huffington Post.
“I mean, the guy electrocuted, hung and drowned dogs. He only confessed to doing it after all of his buddies blew the whistle on him. He operated his Bad Newz Kennels dog fighting ring for six years.”
So who is this guy? And does he deserve a second chance?
Michael Vick is a certified football star. As a freshman quarterback for Virginia Tech in 1999, he led his team to an 11-0 season and an opportunity to play for the national title in the Sugar Bowl. After only two seasons of college football, he became a pro player, and was the first overall draft pick of the 2001 NFL draft, signing with the Atlanta Falcons.
According to Wikipedia, “Vick owns several NFL records, including the most rushing yards by a quarterback in a single season (1,039 in 2006), highest average per carry in a single season (8.45 in 2006), 100-yard career rushing games by a quarterback (eight), best two-game rushing total (225 in 2004) and rushing yards in a single game (173 in 2002).”
In December 2004, Vick became the highest paid player in NFL history when he signed a 10-year, $130 million contract extension with the Atlanta Falcons. The deal included $37 million in signing bonuses.
Almost three years later, the Falcons demanded that $20 million of the signing bonus be returned, contending that when he signed the deal, Vick knew he was engaged in illegal activity—dog fighting and gambling—which violated his contract.
In 2007, officials found an illegal dog fighting operation on a property owned by Michael Vick in rural Virginia. Apparently, he’d been running an interstate dog fighting ring for six years. Vick was accused of financing the operation, handling thousands of dollars in gambling on the dogs and directly participating in the dog fights.
He was also accused of personally executing dogs that did not perform. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that Vick and his associates hanged, electrocuted and drowned dogs by holding their head in five-gallon buckets of water. In fact, Vick had to drown one dog when it wouldn’t die by hanging.
According to the report, posted on TheSmokingGun.com, Vick and an asssociate slammed a red pit bull into the ground several times, breaking the dog’s back or neck, until it died.
When Vick was arrested, he denied that he actually killed any dogs. But after failing a polygraph test, he admitted that he did.
How could any human being slam a dog into the ground until it died? He would have to have no empathy, like a psychopath.
Is Michael Vick a psychopath? Not wanting to voice an opinion on the basis of one behavior, I went looking for other signs of trouble, and found them in a nice, organized list in the Wikipedia article about Michael Vick.
- In 2004, two men were arrested in Virginia for distributing marijuana. They were driving a truck registered to Michael Vick.
- In 2005, a woman filed a civil suit against Vick, alleging that he gave her genital herpes.
- In 2006, after a Falcons loss to the New Orleans Saints, Vick reacted to fan booing with an obscene gesture.
- In 2007, while free on bail for the dog fighting allegations, Vick failed a drug test.
- Although he was earning $25.4 million per year through his football salary and endorsements, Vick’s finances were in a shambles, and in 2008 he declared bankruptcy.
But then there’s another question—is Michael Vick really a psychopath? Or is he a guy who grew up in the ‘hood, then got too rich, too fast?
I wasn’t the first to wonder about this. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals—PETA—sent a letter to Roger Goodell, Commissioner of the National Football League, expressing exactly the same concern.
The last USDA report also shows that Michael wanted losing dogs killed rather than given away and that he put family pets into the pit with the fighting dogs. Rather than showing remorse for any of the suffering or death that he caused, Michael laughed when he saw dogs torn apart. He also killed dogs by slamming them to the ground, which broke their backs and necks and caused them to suffer a particularly painful, slow death.
As we told his counsel, this behavior seems to fit the established profile of antisocial personality disorder, as set out by criteria established by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and it could change our willingness to support Michael further. In common parlance, people with this disorder are referred to as “psychopaths.”
Psychopaths lack the ability to put themselves in their victims’ place (i.e., to feel empathy), fail to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behavior, are frequently manipulative and charming, lie easily, take pleasure in the suffering of others, and have difficulty controlling their impulses. Cruelty to animals is a well-established predictor of psychopathic behavior.
As you know, Michael has broken the law multiple times, and his acts show aggression and a failure to recognize suffering in others. In addition, not only did he tell blatant lies to the NFL, he also lied on his polygraph, only confessing when confronted with the polygraph’s findings, which showed that he was lying. The USDA report shows his blatant lack of remorse before his involvement was exposed. That Michael claimed to be remorseful after being arrested does not change this fact.
The question arises about whether Michael can change. Unfortunately, the prognosis for antisocial personality disorder is abysmal. With behavior as aberrant as Michael’s, we worry that, despite our wish that it were otherwise, there is scant reason for optimism.
Should any doubt remain in this regard, a psychiatric evaluation should be arranged. It could include a structured, standardized test (e.g, the Psychopathy Checklist, developed by Robert Hare) and new brain-scanning techniques (e.g, those developed by Kent Kiehl) that demonstrate brain dysfunction. If Michael emerges from these examinations without evidence of psychopathy, that may help him demonstrate a capacity to change what has so far been the life of a man who takes pleasure in hurting and killing living beings who are incapable of defending themselves.
However, the repeated cruelty and aggression demonstrated by Michael strongly suggests that he is not the kind of person who should be offered as a role model. Severe and repeated acts of cruelty to animals are, of course, not what football fans, particularly children, need to think about when they see a football star, or buy a jersey or an autographed picture. Michael’s appalling acts of cruelty to animals will always be a part of his image. That will not go away. We look to the NFL for something very different.
Michael Vick appeared on 60 Minutes on August 16, 2009. During the interview, he repeatedly said what he did was wrong. He claimed that while in prison, he cried about letting so many people down. He said he was disgusted with himself and deserved to lose his $135 million contract.
He said all these things like an automaton. I saw no real emotion.
In my opinion, the guy is a psychopath. I don’t think he felt any qualms about killing those dogs. But how much of his personality is genetic, and how much could be attributed to growing up in a public housing project in a crime-ridden neighborhood called “Bad Newz”? Are there any tiny seeds of empathy inside him that could be nourished?
As part of his “rehabilitation,” Vick is supposed to become actively involved in teaching urban youth that dog fighting is wrong. PETA may have reservations about working with him, but, according the 60 Minutes interview, the Humane Society is pressing forward. Maybe some of his message will get through—to himself.
Dr. Leedom has suggested that by doing good works, and consciously trying to behave empathetically, psychopaths may be able change some of the wiring in their brains that enables them to be so callous. Even if they don’t develop warm, fuzzy feelings for creatures great and small, they may be able to change their behavior.
Dr. Robert Hare has suggested the same thing. Psychopaths may never change through introspection or visualizing the pain their actions cause others. But if they have enough of an incentive, they may be able to control their behavior.
Michael Vick certainly has an incentive—football stardom and millions of dollars. So this is a fascinating case study—can he toe the line?
The whole world is watching him.