Sports

Football and the Limits of Forgiveness

Joshunda Sanders
Aug 8, 2017

Generally, I only care about sports as they relate to popular culture. I’ve lived a lot of places without feeling strongly for any of their teams: San Francisco, Oakland, Houston, Austin, Seattle and D.C. The only sports team I have any real loyalty to is the Yankees — I grew up in the Bronx, what can I say?

I could peek right into the old Yankees Stadium from the window of the 4 train, so baseball should have been more accessible, but it bored me to tears. I was tall, so people assumed I naturally loved basketball, and I tried, but the Knicks broke my heart one time too many in the ’90s and I never recovered. Football wasn’t even on my radar.

I never picked a team. Jets, Giants — they all seemed fine. It was the grace and agility of individual players like Michael Vick and Ricky Williams that I found compelling. I was enthralled with their narratives and personal trajectories.

I generally watch football games, including the Super Bowl, closely only in the fourth quarter, when the determining action will be decided, and swiftly. This only changed years ago when I lived in Texas for several years. One of the most memorable nights of my reporting career in Austin was when Vince Young took the Longhorns to the Rose Bowl. College kids dressed up as Bevos danced in the street. The tower at the center of the University of Texas at Austin campus was lit up in its iconic, celebratory burnt orange. It was electrifying and it felt like a unifying force beyond anything I’d ever experienced.

That’s how I began to understand (along with Friday Night Lights, to be honest) the draw of football fandom. So it’s been compelling to see petitions on our platform at the intersection of football and injustice crop up.

Michael Vick (Photo: Sports Illustrated)

There are petitions to keep Michael Vick out of the Virginia Tech Sports Hall of Fame that have more than 180,000 signatures combined. While arguments against his induction, which is still scheduled to go forward on September 22nd, are unsurprising, it’s unclear how much longer Michael Vick is expected to pay for his egregious behavior.

Obviously, in the minds of some, he’ll never be worthy of another accolade in his life. I reviewed his memoir, Finally Free, five years ago and found him to be genuinely contrite, with Tony Dungy vouching for the authenticity of his road to redemption. In the words of Gregory Castle, who had firsthand experience with the 22 dogs who were victimized by Vick, it understandable that people hate Vick for what he did.“ I believe, however, that we need to free ourselves of the Michael Vick obsession. Hatred poisons the hater,” Castle wrote for the Roanoke Times.

Hatred poisons the hater. Perhaps forgiveness sets the forgiver free.

There are times when it is hard to imagine any of this to be enough. Sexual assault is one such instance. Ma’lik Richmond was convicted of raping a 16-year-old girl in Steubenville, Ohio in 2013. He served about ten months of his sentence.

But Katelyn Davis raises the point that while Richmond is deserving of another chance at his education, he should not be granted the privilege of being an athlete on Youngstown State University’s football team. As of Monday, a Change.org petition started by Katelyn Davis had more than 8,000 signatures. “I’m not saying that Richmond should be expelled. He does deserve a second chance at his education,” Davis told WKYC. “I do hope that he is successful in life, but he should not be representing YSU as a football player.”

Richmond’s coach Bo Pelini, continues to defend his decision.

The question of representation matters not only in college football, as we know, but also in the National Football League.

Despite estimates that black players make up 70 percent of the NFL, issues centered on racial disparities — like the disproportionate number of black people killed by police, for example — are generally not addressed by the NFL. This has made Colin Kaepernick, who has become infamous for taking a knee during the National Anthem — incredibly controversial as a result. He has now found himself shut out of the National Football League and without a team. As of Monday night, there were nearly 80,000 signatures on a petition to boycott the NFL if Kaepernick does not find work.

Football season for the NFL, at least, begins on September 7th. As these petitions garner attention, it’s worth asking whether or not the rules of forgiveness apply equally to all players, or if there is a different standard for black football players. Only a couple of petitions on our site, for instance, bring up the fact that Ben Roethlisberger has also been accused of rape, with far less attention or repercussions than those faced by other players. What do you make of the petitions targeting Vick and Richmond? Do you think Kaepernick stands a chance of playing for a team by the time the NFL season begins?