The Ongoing Rehabilitation of Michael Vick

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Former quarterback Michael Vick watches an NFL game in December 2019. Bob Levey/Getty Images

The NFL recently announced that Michael Vick will be one of the captains in the 2020 Pro Bowl in January.

During his 13-year career, the quarterback spent six seasons with the Atlanta Falcons and five with the Philadelphia Eagles before spending a year each with the New York Jets and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

But for many people, Vick will always be known more for his involvement in a dogfighting ring than for his football skills.

Vick and his supporters say that he has changed and has since worked to stop dogfighting and get the Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act passed in Congress. Others are not so sure.

Online petitions are demanding that Vick be removed as a Pro Bowl Legends captain. A petition has more than 145,000 signatures and another on has more than 229,000.

Both petitions argue that the NFL should not honor a known animal abuser and instead should give the position to someone more worthy.

The case against Vick

Protesters hold signs outside Surry County Circuit Court after Vick plead guilty on two felony counts on November 25, 2008 in Sussex, Virginia.
Protesters hold signs outside Surry County Circuit Court after Vick plead guilty on two felony counts in November 2008 in Sussex, Virginia. Geoff Burke/Getty Images

Vick’s name may be synonymous with animal cruelty, but the quarterback never actually served time for that crime. Charges of animal cruelty were dropped as part of a plea bargain, and he was convicted of bankrolling a dogfighting conspiracy. He was sentenced to 23 months in prison.

“Neither Michael Vick nor any of his Bad Newz Kennels cohorts were ever tried let alone convicted for animal cruelty. The federal case was all about racketeering,” said Francis Battista, co-founder and chairman of the board of directors for Best Friends Animal Society, a no-kill sanctuary that took in 22 of the 49 dogs found alive on Vick’s property.

Ten of the more adoptable canines from Vick’s dogfighting ring went to BAD RAP, an animal rescue group devoted to rehabilitating pit bulls, and in 2007, Donna Reynolds, co-founder of the organization, went to Virginia to evaluate those dogs. She later shared details of the dogs’ abuse on her blog, noting that she wears “some pretty thick skin” but “can’t shake” what she learned.

“The rescuer in me keeps trying to think of a way to go back in time and somehow stop this torture,” she wrote.

"What Michael Vick did was not just dogfighting," Marthina McClay, who adopted one of the Vick dogs, told The San Francisco Chronicle. "It went so far beyond that, and most people who defend him are uninformed."

After failing a polygraph, Vick admitted to killing dogs that wouldn’t fight or didn’t perform well, but he never faced animal cruelty charges and many of critics are angry about it. It’s part of the reason why Vick continues to encounter protesters and why people still raise the question of “If he hadn’t gotten caught, would he still be killing dogs?”

"It worked out nicely for Vick that he never faced his animal abuse charges in court,” Reynolds said. “That meant football fans were spared the most disturbing details of his tortures and could go back to their Sunday night ritual with barely a hiccup."

Has Vick really changed?

John Garcia of Best Friends Animal Society with a rehabilitated Michael Vick dog named Georgia.
John Garcia of Best Friends Animal Society sits with a rehabilitated Michael Vick dog named Georgia. Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Vick is well aware that while some people may have forgiven him, they certainly haven’t forgotten why he’s such a controversial figure.

“The best thing to do was make amends for what I did. I can’t take it back,” Vick told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in August 2016. “The only thing I can do is influence the masses of kids from going down the same road I went down. That’s why I work with the Humane Society and affecting a lot of kids’ lives and saving a lot of animals. We’ve had lot of a progress. We’ve been able to change some laws and do some great things that I’m very proud of.”

Since his release from prison, Vick worked to rebuild both his professional football career and his reputation. He since played on three NFL teams, finally retiring in February 2017. Vick has backed animal cruelty legislation and at one point was an active participant in the Humane Society’s anti-dogfighting campaign — the latter of which brought the animal-welfare organization so much negative attention that it addressed its affiliation with Vick in a series of frequently asked questions on its website. (The questions about Vick are no longer there but dogfighting questions remain.)

While Vick's critics argue that he hasn't properly apologized and hasn't expressed believable remorse, others say he's a changed man who's trying to redefine himself. When Vick issued an apology after signing with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2009, the New York Times had multiple writers weighed in on whether Vick was truly repentant.

Perhaps most surprisingly was the response from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which was somewhat supportive of Vick’s return to football.

“As long as he’s throwing a football and not electrocuting a dog, PETA is pleased he is focused on his game,” PETA Senior Vice President Lisa Lange said in a statement.

The 'Vicktory Dogs'

In its analysis of the Vick case, the Animal Legal Defense Fund outlined some of the unusual aspects of the case, one of which is that the dogs weren’t euthanized when the case concluded — a first for canines involved in dogfighting rings, which animal advocates hope sets a new standard.

“The longstanding policy had been a de facto declaration that any dogs freed from a dog-fighting ring were, by definition, dangerous and should be put down,” said Battista of Best Friends Animal Society. “[It’s] a sad irony: Save the dogs from a group of criminal abusers only to kill them.”

During Vick’s high-profile case, there was a lot of discussion about what should happen to the remaining dogs. Pit bulls are already controversial animals, and many people argued that these dogs in particular were damaged, dangerous and impossible to rehabilitate. Still, a group of animal welfare organizations fought to save the 49 dogs.

“We wanted all the dogs to be evaluated as individuals and given the chance to be rehabilitated and rehomed. So the first few months of the ‘rescue,’ if you want to call it that, was a public opinion campaign,” said Battista.

Best Friends, along with other animal advocacy organizations, filed an amicus brief for the dogs to be saved, and the court later appointed a guardian/special master to oversee the evaluation of the dogs.

Best Friends was given custody of 22 of the most traumatized dogs, and John Garcia — who co-managed the sanctuary’s dogs at the time — flew from Virginia to Utah with the dogs so they’d already be familiar with him when they arrived at the sanctuary.

“These dogs, which we called ‘The Vicktory Dogs,’ were different than what we expected,” he said. “Most of the time when dogs are rescued from a dogfighting operation ... they are easy to handle and comfortable with being approached by a person. But these dogs, their temperaments ran from one end of the spectrum to another. While there were some that were comfortable with people, we had many more that were completely terrified and shutdown.”

Garcia and his staff spent a great deal of time with the dogs and developed individual rehabilitation plans for each one.

“We tracked every dog every day. That helped us keep adjusting the plan. It was amazing to see how much change happened. We especially noticed that once they got to go home, they blossomed. Little Red, for instance, was scared to death of everything, and once she got into a home, she turned into a diva.”

Several of the adopted pit bulls, including Handsome Dan and Cherry Garcia, even have Facebook pages. Handsome Dan died in 2018, but his family started a rescue in his name.

“The Champions” is a documentary that follows five of Vick’s dogs from rescue to adoption as well as six pit bulls with Best Friends. It's an uplifting reminder of how our discussion of dogfighting — from the rescued dogs to the people who put them in danger — has evolved into a story about second chances. Check out the movie's trailer below: