Sporting events are an ideal medium for the Cinderella narrative. This can be attributed to the way the plot speaks to the human spirit: it is a story of the underdog, of rags to riches, and at times, a tale of redemption. Sports would be a dull exercise if there were no personalities behind the uniforms, and television broadcasters use the personal backgrounds of the players to enhance the drama of the games. They puff up rivalries, introduce private conflicts, and bring a player’s life story into the assessment of an athlete’s performance. Inside the heart of every sports fan lives the will of transcendence, and the Cinderella story is the inspirational fuel that runs spectator sports.
Which brings us to the sports-world’s Cinderella of the year: Michael Vick. Vick has had a fantastic year. He has moved from a third string spot to become the starting quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles. He has thrown two of the longest touchdown passes of his career, been named NFC player of the month, NFC player of the week, and has been approached by the Pro Football Hall of Fame for the jersey he wore in a record breaking game. His teammates have voted to give him the Ed Block Courage Award for his “commitment to the principles of sportsmanship and courage,” and players, fans, and coaches have voted for him to start in the Pro-Bowl. He is a contender for MVP of the year.
Considering that as recently as May of 2009 Vick was still incarcerated in a federal prison for dog-fighting this really is an exceptional comeback story, and the sports related media is not one to miss an opportunity. The rag-to-riches-to-rags-to-triumphant deliverance narrative that the Vick story holds is too alluring to go unexploited. The buzz of redemption is in the air.
In the rush to see the redemptive narrative reach its dramatic conclusion, many in the media are talking of forgiveness as though Vick’s transgressions are as fictitious as the tale of Cinderella itself. As early as November of the 2010 football season, sportswriter Rick Reilly wrote a piece for ESPN.com titled: “Time to forgive Vick is here.” If ever there is needed an example to demonstrate that celebrities are given a lighter version of justice, Reilly’s article will suffice. In his view, Vick has not only realized redemption but also has achieved martyrdom:
“I love dogs, too, but how long does Vick have to star in “The Unforgiven”? He has faced it. Admitted it. Apologized deeply for it. Went to federal prison for it. Got cut for it. Suspended for it. And now campaigns against it. How long must he carry this cross?”
Notice how the perpetrator has become the victim. Notice how getting cut and suspended are considered so grievous to Reilly that he believes it is payment for Vick’s sins. Since Reilly’s life revolves around sports, he sees athletic achievement as the beginning and end of a person’s worth. In his opinion, Vick has revived his career, and therefore, redeemed himself:
“A man fresh from the clink is turning the NFL upside down. A man who was arguably the most reviled athlete in this country in 2007 is now the toast of American sports. Imagine that. Michael Vick, who was reduced to appearing in “Pros vs. Joes” this offseason — and made the Joes look good — is the favorite to win MVP this season.”
“This is the hottest athlete in America right now, a man who is surely going to sign for Fort Knox very soon, probably before the season is out, making his current $5.25 million deal look like cab fare. Yet he’ll be taking his off day next week to go up to New Haven, Conn., and talk to the kids at Hillhouse High School about how heinous dogfighting is. How can you not admire how this man has remade himself?”
Remade himself? Mr. Reilly seems to confuse talent with heroics. Remaking oneself and redeeming oneself are completely different achievements. The Cinderella narrative has cast such a spell on Reilly that under its illusion he has given Vick a clean bill of the soul.