Playoff Time in the League of the Anti-Hero

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    Illustration by Kristian Talley.

    Last Sunday, the former head of a dogfighting ring threw a late interception that sealed his team’s defeat. Next Sunday, a twice-alleged rapist will face off with an ex-convict who once stood accused of murder.

    So it goes in the NFL, which probably should stand for the Notoriously Felonious League.

    Every Sunday, millions of Americans watch football without a second thought about the morality of the masked brutes. Football is a violent game, and fans have come to accept that not all the violence will remain on the field.

    But as the drama surrounding Michael Vick has proven, America expects more from our quarterbacks.

    Because of his position, Vick’s involvement in dogfighting offended football fans who casually ignore the scores of linemen, receivers and linebackers who have been charged with battery charges and drug offenses.

    People could not believe a quarterback would commit such a heinous crime. It didn’t fit the classic storyline of the quarterback as a wise leader of men.

    The quarterback is the field general and the face of every franchise. He touches the ball on every play and he, more than any other football player, is recognizable and relatable to the average fan. He is not 6-foot-6 or 300 pounds and he usually can speak coherently and read at at least a high school level.

    But what if Vick played linebacker rather than quarterback? Would the public even care that he’d killed a few dogs?

    Vick missed two years during the prime of his career, spending 182 nights in a federal prison cell. Still, many fans do not feel the punishment was harsh enough, calling for a lifetime ban from the league.

    Jeff Benedict and Don Yaeger’s 1998 book “Pros and Cons: The Criminals who Play in the NFL” found that one in five NFL players at the time had been charged with a serious crime. Twelve years later, players continue to be arrested at an astounding rate. In November, a month when teams practice five times a week and play games on Sundays, three players found time to get arrested for DUIs and one for a brutal domestic abuse charge.

    Ray Lewis, middle linebacker and team captain of the Baltimore Ravens, was accused of murder and charged with misleading police in 2000 and did not even receive a suspension from the NFL. He was awarded the Superbowl MVP the following season and Defensive Player of the Year in 2003.

    If anything, the murder allegations added to Lewis’s mystique. Linebackers are big, bad bullies meant to be feared. They are behemoths who run like gazelles, crushing quarterbacks and running backs with violent force.

    But Vick isn’t a linebacker and because of the public’s desire to frame quarterbacks as heroes, he continues to be admonished for his actions.

    However noble, it should be irrelevant that New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees gives money to cancer research. However pious, it should be immaterial that former Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner publicly thanked God for his success.

    The perception that a quarterback, or really that any athlete, is a man to be looked up to and followed is a foolish mistake that our country continues to make.

    Charles Barkley famously said, “I’m not a role model. Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.”

    As long as we continue to expect poorly educated men blessed with superhuman strength to show us how to be good people, we will continue to be let down.

    Last Sunday I rooted for Vick, the convict, Lewis, the alleged murderer, and Brees, the philanthropist. I cheered for Vick’s knee-buckling jukes, for Lewis’ bone-rattling hits, and for Brees’ perfectly placed passes. Morality had nothing to do with it.

    Football players are entertainers. They are gladiators born out of time. But they are not heroes.

    Vick treated pit bulls in an unforgivable way. Lewis may have had a hand in the death of another man. But on Sundays, they’re just two more face-masked monsters, no different from any other NFL player.

    Check your moral compass at the door. It’s playoff time.