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Barack Obama and Michael Vick

President Obama has an unfortunate habit of weighing in on controversies that are basically none of his business, most notoriously when he blasted the Cambridge police for arresting Henry Gates. This morning he did it again, telephoning Jeffrey Lurie, the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, to express appreciation for the Eagles’ giving quarterback Michael Vick a second chance.
At the Washington Post, Ezra Klein terms this the “weirdest story of the morning,” noting that the White House now seems to have backed off on Obama’s comment about Vick, and instead characterizes the phone call as one relating to “plans for the use of alternative energy at Lincoln Financial Field.” Klein thinks Obama was right the first time, and for once I agree.
Anyone who follows professional sports knows that there are many low-lifes in the ranks of professional athletes. Vick may well be one of them; certainly his running of a dog fighting ring was repellent. But the difference between Vick and pretty much everyone else is that Vick was actually punished for his misdeeds. He served two years in prison. In contrast, Ray Lewis’ experience was more typical: he was involved in a double murder, and his defense was that he only supplied the getaway car. Lewis got one year of probation and not long thereafter was the MVP of the Super Bowl.
In my view, Vick, having served his prison sentence, is even. He deserves the same employment opportunities as everyone else. The remarkable fact is that, after two years out of football, he is a better player now than he was before. If fans don’t want to cheer for him, that’s their business. But this time, I agree with Obama–on Vick, not “the use of alternative energy at Lincoln Financial Field.”
PAUL demurs: My view of Obama’s comments on Vick is less favorable. It’s fine that Obama sees Vick’s story as a heartwarming tale of redemption, though I don’t. But his attempt to translate that tale into a larger lesson for society is problematic.
According to the owner of the Eagles, Obama told him that “so many of the people who serve time never get a second chance; it’s never a level playing field for prisoners when they get out of jail.” Obama reportedly added that he was happy the Eagles did something on such a national stage to show faith in giving someone a second chance after such a major downfall.
Actually it is not uncommon for athletes to get the opportunity to play for sports teams after being incarcerated. Sports teams will take just about anyone they think can help them win, regardless of past problems. For example, baseball fans of a certain age will recall that Gates Brown and Ron LeFlore went from prison to the Detroit Tigers farm system and then to the major leagues. The major difference between them and Vick is that Vick was already an established pro, meaning that his team probably had more reason to believe he would help it than the Tigers did with Brown and LeFlore.
Talented relief pitcher Steve Howe received something like seven chances to pitch in the Major Leagues following drug suspensions and/or positive test results (I don’t recall that he was ever incarcerated, but the “redemption” issue is comparable). I always reckoned that five of those chances were down to his fastball and, given the scarcity of quality lefty relievers, the other two were because he pitched left-handed.
But Obama wasn’t just off-base in suggesting that there was something exceptional about a very talented and successful athlete getting a second chance. His deeper fallacy was to suppose that the Eagles’ positive experience with Vick should serve as a model for employers generally.
I don’t know what the recidivism rate is for high-earning athletes who have been convicted of, in essence, murdering dogs. I suspect, however, that the Eagles were taking little risk that Vick would return to a life of crime.
But the recidivism rate for the average 20-something male who have been convicted of a felony is extremely high during the first few years after release from prison. This means that employers take an appreciable risk in hiring recently released felons, especially for certain types of jobs. And the likelihood of special reward, such as what Vick has delivered to the Eagles, typically is slight.
Accordingly, in my view there should not, in most cases, be “a level playing field for prisoners when they get out of jail.” Employers should feel free to take into account the risks of employing such individuals. The Eagles experience with Vick is a special case that should, and I’m pretty certain will, have little resonance for most employers considering whether to hire most ex-prisoners.
Obama’s suggestion to the contrary is a knee-jerk reaction. It betrays the same lack of seriousness that has plagued some of his other efforts to weigh in on issues that are none of his business.

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