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The moral dilemma of Michael Vick and the myth of the model franchise

by Vince Darcangelo

For the first time in my life, I’m ashamed to be a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers. This storied franchise has played in the most Super Bowls and won more Lombardi trophies than any other team. The organization has been a model of stability, greatness and class.

Tonight, they’ll tarnish this reputation by taking the field with Michael Vick in tow. The new backup quarterback is a gifted athlete with a unique skill set that, unfortunately, includes the ability to force dogs to fight to the death and still, somehow, sleep at night.

Vick and his cohorts at the Virginia-based Bad Newz Kennels ran a dog-fighting operation for entertainment and profit. They routinely hanged and electrocuted pit bulls who underperformed in the ring. In at least one instance, a dog was killed by being repeatedly slammed to the ground.

When Vick’s home was raided, around 50 dogs were found on the property, many bearing the scars of combat.

Now, the man behind these crimes is donning the Black and Gold, and I’m sick to my stomach. I’ve scraped the Steelers’ logo off the back windshield of my car — and that is a really big deal. I’ve signed petitions. I’ve commiserated with friends. This is not how the Rooney’s are supposed to conduct business. This doesn’t happen with our franchise, right?

Well, first off, let’s dispense with the Pittsburgh mythologizing. Although I’m guilty of it a bit myself, the mystique of the model franchise has been overblown. The Rooney’s are in the business of making money. The Steelers are in the business of winning football games.

Neither are moralists, nor should they be.

Pittsburgh’s 1970s dynasty was allegedly assisted by performance-enhancing drugs. Three Rivers and Heinz Field have housed as many unsavory characters as any other stadium. Plaxico Burress worked there both before and after his prison term. Ernie Holmes once shot at a police helicopter during the offseason, but was back in uniform on opening day.

And then there are the curious cases of James Harrison and Ben Roethlisberger, whose presence on the current roster reeks of hypocrisy.

In March 2008, both Harrison and backup wide receiver Cedrick Wilson were arrested for assaulting women in separate incidents. Wilson was cut immediately while Harrison became the hero of Super Bowl XLIII. Sure, teams at every level hold star players to a different standard. It’s something we all learned as early as pee-wee league. The Steelers aren’t worse than other franchises for keeping Harrison, but they certainly can’t claim to be better.

And then there’s Ben, whose situation has always been complicated. I’ve been asked how I still root for the team with him on it. I’ve never defended Ben or his involvement in two separate rape investigations (there is no defense for that), but I haven’t been morally conflicted about cheering for the Steelers, even if that means indirectly supporting a player I do not like or respect. Intellectually, this is not difficult: I probably wouldn’t like most professional athletes. I was neither popular nor athletic, and probably wouldn’t have enjoyed sharing a locker room with many NFL players. I will be a KISS fan until I die, though Gene Simmons disgusts me. You can support a group without liking all of its members.

But now I must answer the question that has been posed: Why am I morally outraged over the Vick signing but ambivalent about Ben, who was twice accused of rape?

That’s a fair question, and a very difficult one to address. Not because I don’t have an answer — I do — but because the answer raises troubling new questions.

My answer is that I consider animal abuse the most cowardly and deplorable of crimes. Yes, I’m also against any form of abuse against humans, but I draw a distinction between the two: agency. People have it and animals don’t. Humans can voice their suffering. Humans can leave an abusive situation. Humans can call for help.

Vick’s dogs couldn’t.

But this is where the moral scaffolding begins to quake beneath me.

Humans can voice their suffering? The second woman to accuse Roethlisberger of rape went to the police to voice her suffering, but was directed to a police sergeant who had posed for a photo with the quarterback just hours before. He called her derogatory names, was confrontational, dismissive of her statement and discouraged her from pressing charges.

Oh, and he wrote up the police report that would have been the primary document cited in a criminal trial.

She never recanted her statement, but declined to pursue charges to avoid media attention. If the accusations are true, then this woman clearly did not have the agency to voice her suffering.

A few months later, Roethlisberger was a starting quarterback in Super Bowl XLV.

What about leaving an abusive situation? The first of Big Ben’s accusers says he called her to his room to fix a faulty TV. Once there, he allegedly blocked the door so she couldn’t leave. If true, she was certainly unable to walk away from the abuse.

And calling for help? That’s exactly what James Harrison’s girlfriend was doing — calling 911 — when the linebacker (known for intimidating other oversized men) broke down a locked door, ripped the phone from her hand, destroyed it and then slapped her in the face.

A year later he was immortalized in a Super Bowl highlight video.

So where does this leave me? For years, I’ve felt righteous in my hatred for Vick and, at the same time, justified in my continued support of a team that employs Roethlisberger. But now that these men are 1-2 on the quarterback depth chart, the cognitive dissonance cannot be explained away so easy. Will I soften my stance on Vick? Start booing Roethlisberger? Disown my team?

I honestly have no idea. This is my first stab at understanding how I feel about it. I am less certain of my prior value judgements, but what will that mean going forward? That has nothing to do with Vick, really. He was the catalyst, but this is bigger than one player. Even if head coach Mike Tomlin cuts him tomorrow (which I hope he does), the moral quandary remains.

This dovetails with a cultural push-back questioning football itself: League of Denial and the CTE controversy; Chris Borland’s abrupt retirement and description of the sport as “kind of dehumanizing”; an NFL commish who thought a two-game suspension was an appropriate punishment for knocking a woman unconscious on video but a four-game suspension was befitting the likely though unproven infraction of underinflating footballs.

While the NFL is not doing itself any favors, the Steelers are actively tarnishing their brand. The franchise will never be viewed the same after signing Vick. Yes, I believe in redemption. I believe in second chances. I support rehabilitation over retribution.

But when a guy who was part of an operation that electrocuted dogs — dogs whose only offense was not being good at viciously killing other dogs for “sport” — comes into your office asking for a job, take a look at his handiwork.

You have to ask yourself if this is the image you want associated with your brand.

I have always bled Black and Gold, but can I continue to root for an organization that’s dipped its hands in the blood of Bad Newz Kennels?

That’s not a rhetorical question. I really want to know.