Vick still source of pride, discomfort in Atlanta

ATLANTA – Seated toward the back of The Highlander bar, Nick Black embodies the bottom line for both sides in the lingering debate over quarterback Michael Vick(notes) in this city.

Black, a 28-year-old white graduate of Georgia Tech who is both highly intelligent and pretty much inebriated, watched as Vick breaks through the line against Minnesota in the second-to-last game of the regular season. Black yelled with delight, “Go Vick, wooohooo!”

As Vick, who failed that night to rescue Philadelphia from a bad start, finished the run with a fumble, Black yelled again.

“Vick, you were always a loser.”

Black’s reaction is a microcosm of what is expected to happen if the Eagles and Falcons collide in the NFC championship game. For weeks, sports radio has bubbled with talk of a possible showdown with the Super Bowl on the line. But to say this is just about football is ridiculously short-sighted.

The potential for Vick to play the Falcons could be the biggest sporting event to hit Atlanta since the nation cast its eyes on Hank Aaron taking Al Downing deep for No. 715 in 1974. The 1996 Olympics in Atlanta would be an afterthought in comparison.

It’s the kind of event that could split the town because Vick has the unbelievable ability to polarize people. As much as the Falcons had to part ways with him, many fans here have yet to let him go. One Falcons employee said recently that he expects more fans to show up wearing Vick jerseys than Matt Ryan(notes) jerseys if the teams play.

“It won’t even be close,” he said.

Or as 790-AM The Zone radio host Chris Dimino put it: “It’s almost like the Yankees, the Cowboys, Duke and Notre Dame. There is no fence-sitting. You definitely have an opinion one way or another. You either love Vick or you hate him and the feelings run really deep.”

In a city where more than 50 percent of the population is black and there is a great history of black leaders, including Aaron, Andrew Young and Martin Luther King Jr., discussing Vick isn’t just about sports. It’s about culture.

“There is so much more to this that you can’t imagine,” said Ryan Stewart, who is black and, along with brother Doug, hosts the syndicated radio show “2 Live Stews” out of Atlanta. “So many people talk about the way Vick dressed, how he talked, how he played … but the big elephant in the room is race. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.

“Talking about Michael Vick in this town is like what it was like when O.J. [Simpson] was on trial. Black people didn’t talk to white people and white people didn’t talk to black people about it. It was too uncomfortable and this is the same way. When I’m out with my white friends, I don’t bring it up because it’s just going to make things tense. When we’re doing the show, we bring it up and we’re not afraid to talk about it because it gets conversation going. But away from the show, no, I don’t bring it up. It’s not worth the aggravation.”

In Atlanta, where Vick was cast away in 2007 amid a repulsive scandal over dogfighting, he is still many things that start on a football field and go well beyond its boundaries. He is a symbol of pride to some and humiliation to others. He led the team to an NFC championship game and made the Pro Bowl three times. He was (and still is) such an electric football player that Atlanta games were a sporting version of a James Brown concert.

Vick signs autographs before last season’s game at the Georgia Dome.
(Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

To others, Vick was an uncoachable, undisciplined player who was little more than a coach killer, particularly after he failed to support former Falcons coach Jim Mora Jr.

To some, socially, Vick was young, powerful and hip while also remaining loyal to the people he grew up with in Virginia. In fact, Vick went bankrupt, despite being paid millions, because he couldn’t say no to friends and family.

To others, he was a thug with an out-of-control posse – a collection of nicknamed characters so evil that they could choke, drown and electrocute dogs that didn’t perform.

Even now, some four years after the fact, Vick can still cause a seemingly well-educated person like Tucker Carlson – a man who is employed by, of all places, a think tank – to get so emotional that Carlson said in late December that Vick should have been executed for his crimes. Carlson, whose bow-tie dress and preppy East Coast private school education make him the embodiment of a cliché affluent white man, has since backtracked.

“This is what happens when you get too emotional,” Carlson said on Fox News. “I’m a dog lover, I love them and … I know a lot about what Michael Vick did … I overspoke. I’m uncomfortable with the death penalty under any circumstances. Of course I don’t think he should be executed, but I do think that what he did is truly appalling.”

That’s a nice revisionist way to approach it, but other people can’t get over the initial shock of Carlson’s reaction. To them, being that emotional, that angry and that harsh toward a man who served almost two years in federal prison and lost tens of millions of dollars is telling of something deeper.

“I’d really like to have a discussion with Carlson, sit down and talk about it and get down to what is really going on there,” said Gil Tyree, a former sportscaster in Atlanta who is black. “There is something more and so many of us are afraid to talk about it. [Ryan Stewart] is right, race is the elephant in the room, but maybe the thing about Michael is that he provides us a chance to talk about it.”

Ryan Stewart and Dimino don’t see it that way. Neither sees any healing as possible. To them, talking isn’t going to change how people feel.

“That ESPN town hall meeting [in 2007] proved that,” Dimino said, derisively. “There’s no talking this out and people seeing eye-to-eye. There are a lot of people who understand the issues, but there’s a big fringe on each side that won’t change how they think.”

Perhaps, but maybe, all these years later, both sides might be able to better explain their positions. Sitting in The Highlander, Tiphanie Watson and Zakia Holland, two black women who are Falcons fans and used to watch the team when Vick played here, glance at the Vikings-Eagles game from time to time. They are slightly curious when Vick is on the field, but mostly impassive at this point.

Vick supporters made their presence felt during his return to Atlanta last season.
(John Bazemore/AP Photo)

“When you went to games, he gave you a show,” said Holland, who had season tickets before Vick got in trouble. “It was the Michael Vick Experience. It wasn’t just a football game. People loved it because they were on the edge of their seats waiting to see what he’d do.”

Said Watson: “And Vick was like somebody you knew from your neighborhood. He wasn’t dressed up in suits all the time trying to look corporate or polished. He was like one of the guys you’d see around town. I think that made people connect with him more. He was from the South, too, and came here like a lot of people in Atlanta.”

The conversation goes on for roughly 15 minutes. Holland and Watson also think that Vick appealed to a younger generation – the brash, fun-loving, hip-hop culture.

“If you’re under 40, you generally love Michael. If you’re over 40, you didn’t,” Holland said.

She pauses momentarily to consider the issues.

“I think there’s an element of race to it, yes,” she said.

Vick was a star in a town where a great number of people could identify with him and were willing to accept him unconditionally. Ryan Stewart goes on a long tirade about how fans who thought Vick wasn’t a great quarterback missed the point, blaming Vick rather than the players around him and the coaching he received from Mora and offensive coordinator Greg Knapp.

From there, the rant shifts gears.

“I don’t care what you say, I truly believe that he was punished much more severely than he should have been for what he did,” Stewart said. “Two years in Leavenworth, $20 or $30 million in lost income. Don’t get me wrong, what he did was wrong and it was disgusting, but the punishment he got was ridiculous.”

Maybe, but Vick also admitted to the crimes only after federal authorities caught him in lie after lie. He also angered the judge in the case by testing positive for marijuana while awaiting sentencing. Fact is, the circumstances of this case became so strong that authorities almost had to punish him that severely.

Still, there’s no unraveling all of that. To many people here, Vick is emblematic of the perception that black people get punished more than white people.

“Look at what happened to Vick and then look at what happened to Ben Roethlisberger(notes),” Watson said, referring to the investigation of an incident in 2010 against Roethlisberger, who was ultimately never charged with sexual assault. “You have Tiger Woods getting raked over the coals and what happens to Brett Favre(notes)?”

Fair points. While there are plenty of mitigating circumstances, the bottom line is that it’s all very hard to talk about. It’s the kind of stuff that makes people’s nerves fire.

In some ways, it’s very much what Vick used to do in this town. Only then, it was exciting.

Now, it’s very uncomfortable.

Jason Cole is a national NFL writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Jan 7, 2011