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One Link in a Chain of Brutality

Recently I was talking with my wife, Jennifer, about Michael Vick's dogfighting scandal. Amid a barrage of unsavory accusations, the indefinitely sidelined Atlanta Falcons quarterback has pleaded guilty to helping kill at least six pit bull terriers and supplying money for gambling on dogfights. He now faces up to five years behind bars. I suspect my wife speaks for many people when she says, "I just don't understand how anyone could be entertained by watching two animals kill each other."

Disbelief and outrage marked many of the commentaries I've read or heard regarding Vick's journey into the dark world of dogfighting. Paul Duggan of the Washington Post labeled it a "disturbing narrative." Ann Killion of The San Jose Mercury News described his choices as a "shocking downfall … the result of Vick's horrible judgment and deep, disgusting involvement in the revolting world of dogfighting." Matt Lauer on the Today show called Vick's case "horrifying." And in a culture that rarely makes moral statements about anyone's character anymore, JT the Brick of MSNBC said simply, "Vick turned out to be a bad guy."

As someone immersed in the entertainment world, my response has been different. I'm not shocked at the details of this grisly case. We live in a culture steeped in blood. That Michael Vick should be party to killing animals this way is deeply saddening and disappointing, but hardly surprising when we step back and study the culture. How can we revile Michael Vick as a bad person even as we voyeuristically consume violence in so many other ways?

Many observers have been quick to identify an important link between Vick's choices and the hip-hop world, a place where life is cheap and the glorification of graphic violence is often the name of the game. In fact, dogfighting shows up in songs and videos by rappers including DMX, Jay-Z and Bow Wow.

Meanwhile, millions of viewers tune in to watch bare-knuckle Ultimate Fighting Championship bouts each week. These men may not battle to the death, but one of the goals seems to be to instill pain en route to victory. The more blood, the better. How is this really so different from dogfighting? In both cases, the driving desire of the audience—to see one combatant pummel the other into submission—is virtually the same.

So where's the outrage? Why aren't we equally appalled by malicious hip-hop music or the UFC?

And what about depictions of graphic torture and bloodletting on the big screen? Are the millions of fans who threw down good money to watch Saw III's gruesome, perverse imagery in the same league as Vick? Can we label them "bad guys," too? Or what about people munching popcorn at two other violent films currently in theaters, Death Sentence and The Brave One? Both revenge flicks invite us to get a cathartic rush from watching brutal payback. Why is there no chorus of voices or 24-hour news coverage condemning this kind of entertainment as shocking, horrifying, revolting, disturbing or disgusting?

Defenders of Hollywood's First Amendment right to depict such fictional cruelty might argue, "But that violence isn't real." I wonder, though, if one's appetite for barbarism doesn't fall somewhere along a continuum. I don't think Michael Vick woke up one morning and said out of the blue, "I think I want to watch dogs tear each other apart today." It's no stretch to conclude that other violent media may have preceded that fateful decision.

A culture of violence promotes further violence. And a dangerous few can only get their fix through increasingly extreme means, eventually crossing over from "acceptable" fiction into deadly, bloody reality.

Dogfighting in America. Astonishing? Unbelievable? No. In many ways, we're reliving Genesis 6:11: "Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight and was full of violence." We do ourselves a disservice when we segregate "fake" violence from the real thing, and fake blood from real blood. I'm not convinced the gap between them is nearly as wide as some people want us to believe.

Published August 2007

Plugged In Plus
In August 2007, Michael Vick was convicted of conspiracy and running a dogfighting operation. He was sentenced to 23 months in federal prison and suspended indefinitely by the NFL. In July 2009, after Vick had served his time, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell conditionally lifted his suspension, at which time Vick signed a two-year contract with the Philadelphia Eagles worth (with incentives) more than $9 million. "I'm a believer that as long as people go through the right process, they deserve a second chance," Eagles coach Andy Reid said.