Leading animal rights groups say they have no problem with President Barack Obama commending the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles for hiring Michael Vick, the once-disgraced football player who went to prison for running an illegal dogfighting ring.
In a move that caught many by surprise, Obama reached out to Eagles team owner Jeffrey Lurie recently to praise him for, among other things, hiring Vick and recently making him the team’s starting quarterback.
“He said, ‘So many people who serve time never get a fair second chance,’” Lurie told Sports Illustrated of his call with the president. “He said, ‘It’s never a level playing field for prisoners when they get out of jail.’ And he was happy that we did something on such a national stage that showed our faith in giving someone a second chance after such a major downfall.”
Lurie told Sports Illustrated that he and Obama, an avid sports fan and ESPN watcher, talked about the Eagles’ successful season. “He’s a real football fan,” Lurie said. “He loves his Bears. He really follows it. He knew how Michael was doing. It was really interesting to hear.” Vick is a contender for the NFL’s most valuable player award this season.
Vick caused an uproar in 2007 when he pleaded guilty to running an interstate dogfighting ring that trained pit bulls for death matches in which spectators bet on the outcome. Documents released at the time showed that dogs that lost matches were put to death by various methods, including by shooting, drowning, hanging and electrocution. The indictment said Vick personally participated in killing eight dogs.
But the football star has since served 21 months in prison and two months in home confinement, and even animal rights advocates who have been among Vick’s biggest critics say Obama was right to support him getting another chance.
“Obama’s a sports guy, Vick’s a sports guy, and comebacks and redemption can happen,” said Ryan Huling of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “The president is all about moving forward, and PETA is right there with him in the hope that Michael Vick spends every second playing ball and never looks sideways at a dog or other animal as long as he draws breath.”
A spokeswoman for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said this group also “believe[s] in second chances” and that the conditions of Vick’s probation are sufficient: He is prohibited from owning, buying or selling dogs for three years from the date of his July 2009 release from federal prison.
“Mr. Vick’s performance on the gridiron may continue to attract attention and accolades, but we believe the final measure of his newly found compassion toward animals can only be borne out over time,” the ASPCA spokeswoman said.
White House spokesman Bill Burton sought to temper any anger over what might be perceived as Obama going easy on Vick for his crimes. He clarified that the main purpose of the call to Lurie was to discuss plans for the use of alternative energy at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. “He of course condemns the crimes that Michael Vick was convicted of, but, as he’s said previously, he does think that individuals who have paid for their crimes should have an opportunity to contribute to society again,” Burton said.
Huling denied that PETA is backing off on Vick now that the president has weighed in and said the group is watching Vick “like a hawk” to make sure he doesn’t get involved in future abuses. He added that PETA staffers recently picked up a pit bull tied to a pole in Newport News, Va., where Vick ran his dogfighting ring. It turned out the dog was on its way to Vick’s cousin, who still breeds and sells pit bulls in the area.
“One would think you’d want to distance yourself because of the national outrage,” the PETA spokesman said. “It certainly raises some eyebrows.”