The First Shall Be Last


Read today's Works even if you have a problem with certain other FanHouse material. It's about LeBron and race and sure to get some real howlers in the comments section. Okay, now that we've settled that ... time for some football!

I got back into basketball pretty organically. It just sort of happened one summer. Once it took over my life, it wasn't long before I wanted -- or saw that it made sense to be -- a generalist. Year-round sports, more material to mine, and the ability to hold my own in any basketball convo that, you know, veered off into another pastime. Comparisons are the devil, but if it weren't for parallels, life would have no movement to it. If I'm being totally honest, and tired, I'll have you know that the rush of fantasy sports had something to do with it, too. But I was lazy, uninspired, and it didn't stick. I don't think I got that every sport was special in its own way -- perhaps too special.

My brother, bless his soul, gives me shit for saying that I miss the NFL of eight years ago. He's a Steelers fan, which might be part of the problem, but really, I'm saying that I hate platoons and love dominant players with staying power. Even if the league is less that way than it used to be, still, that inclination shows that I never really got it to begin with.

That said, I've somehow started watching football again. I don't even know what I think about, or look for, on Sunday this season. I guess that's called learning, or humility. Who knows, maybe I will eventually form a coherent FD doctrine for the NFL -- if that's not an oxymoron. The reason this matters, though, is that it's more than a fraught narrative than Michael Vick is now the starter in Philly. Let's get this out of the way: Vick did a terrible, indefensible thing, even if you point out that he's hardly the Great Man of organized dog fighting. Talk about the banality of evil; I think that Vick's maturation as a football player is far more revealing than his so-called dark side. That's dull agency, further proof that people are at their worst when they work together mindlessly in groups, pressuring each other and softened up enough to be influenced by the world around them.

I am not sure what the implications of that theory are for sport in general, and any particular sport, so I'll leave it to someone else to go there.

Anyway, Vick was pure 2002. I used to base my travel schedule around nationally-televised games of his. His return last season, as wildcat wild card (is that redundant?), was totally 2002, at least as I remembered that time. That it was with the Eagles made the flashback personal to me, since I lived in Philly at that time. And, as such, I couldn't help but see a faint parallel with Allen Iverson -- who, coincidentally, was making his own abortive comeback with the Sixers as Vick's post-jail career began.


Allen Iverson never killed any dogs, spent time locked up that he actually deserved, or otherwise violated the public trust like Michael Vick has. AI probably would have enjoyed a far more quiet reputation if he had developed a taste for online roulette games or an online blackjack game. There's the crucial difference between the two. But at the dawn of the 21st century, these two products of VA's Tidewater area were the baddest thing going in their respective sports. Iverson's revolution was more cultural than basketballular, and Vick's dynamism on the field wasn't so explicitly linked to some sort of "hip-hop moment" in football. That's also probably why Vick had an easier time getting endorsements. Still, the two players were both positively enthralling and utterly maddening, rare talents with tools out the wazoo who, depending on how you saw it, pointed toward the future or just refused to embrace The Right Way. Oh, and in case you're a total moron, both signified race so loud you could hear it a mile away. Vick was the quintessential "black quarterback", and Iverson was, well, Iverson.

And Philly was, well, Philly. Race in Philly was, well, race in Philly. If you need a primer on that city's complicated relationship with the Answer; prepare to spend a day combing through old Inky columns. Vick was only peripherally related to this discussion, in the sense that McNabb was in the process of trying to change his game -- away from multi-dimensional threat that Vick took to a ludicrous extreme. When the Eagles beat the Falcons in the 2003 playoffs (after Atlanta's upset of Green Bay at Lambeau), it felt like a vindication of McNabb's development. Insert race and style as necessary here.

That Lambeau win was Vick's high watermark as a pro, the rough equivalent of the Sixers' 2001 victory over the Lakers in the Finals. He did it his way, and however fleetingly, bore truly grandiose results. Actually, that MVP year for Iverson was a lot like Vick's 2002, the season when, if he didn't "put it all together", at least he made believers of us all. Even if we knew we would crash sooner rather than later.

Now Vick is back, a changed player and one would guess, a changed man. In Philly, the same city that bickered over Iverson for a decade. The cultural baggage of it all is enough to make your nose fall off. Not to mention the sentimental lure of seeing Vick back in action, felony or no felony. What seems key to me, though, and why I started with my own passive return to the NFL, is that Vick's no longer the kind of boom-and-bust player who keeps passions high. But that makes him -- dare I say -- an inspirational figure instead of a looming outlaw. For the sake of his professional future, and his aging body, he's a combination of wiser and diminished. Come to think of it, he's living out Donavon McNabb all over again. Except, of course, with higher stakes, far more tension in the air, and a better white back-up for talk radio to clamor over.


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At 9/22/2010 1:27 PM, Blogger tray said...

"My brother, bless his soul, gives me shit for saying that I miss the NFL of eight years ago. He's a Steelers fan, which might be part of the problem, but really, I'm saying that I hate platoons and love dominant players with staying power."

That's how I feel about the NBA. Of course, we have a number of dominant players, but few are interesting. Maybe they play interesting basketball, but they're all decidedly family-friendly, non-under-achieving, pretty unambiguous guys. There's no real debate to be had about Durant, Paul, Howard the way there was with McGrady, Garnett, Kobe, Iverson, Webber - even Shaq.

At 9/22/2010 9:25 PM, Blogger Sean said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 9/22/2010 9:25 PM, Blogger Sean said...

shouldn't the first sentence be "I got back into football organically"?

At 9/23/2010 4:04 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

@tray: Maybe that's why I have so little to say on this site lately.

@Sean: No, that contrasts with how I first got into football.

At 9/23/2010 7:03 AM, Blogger Benjamin said...

What's stuck about the Vick narrative is the acknowledgment across the media spectrum that his fall, though obviously self-created, was in part due to the perceived and actual cultural and racial touchstones pervading the shifting narrative. Protestations of "this is how he (or the gestalt Obama-esque other "they") grew up" aside, the sociocultural lens through which the Vick story was viewed pre-conviction belonged almost exclusively to white male pundits. This shaped the story in overt and subtle ways, much in the same way the redemption narrative is gaining traction and being "reported" now.

I suppose what's at issue a little is the overly simplistic black/white narrative, what with accusations of Andy Reid as race traitor floating in coded language through the ether and an appropriately humbled Vick now being lauded (or painted-by-numbers) as suffused with moral certitude, or at least with the recognition that all this could be taken away. As with most stories, despite the media's earnest attempts to shoehorn this into a cookie cutter piece, it's proven a bit more dynamic than that.

At 9/23/2010 4:31 PM, Blogger Kyle said...

I have found the Vick story to be a pleasant addition to the NFL season thus far. Ever since his realease from prison and subsequent signing with the Eagles, I, and I'm sure others, have been waiting for an around-the-clock Favre-ian circus to follow this story. While there has been quite a bit of press on the subject (see above article), I, and everyone I talk to, don't seem to get the feeling that any coverage is for the wrong reason. Right now he deserves to be playing in Philadelphia, and for the most part, everyone in the media agrees. The only major media member to disagree was John Clayton, whose reasoning had almost nothing to do with Vick, but rather how the organization handled the McNabb trade. I only say these things because it gives me a glimmer of hope that we can have a rational conversation without screaming at each other about something people feel passionately about in this country, even if it is just a guy playing football.

Of course, all of that may change the first time he turns the ball over 3 times in a game....

At 9/23/2010 6:09 PM, Blogger tray said...

"@tray: Maybe that's why I have so little to say on this site lately."

Yet you have so much to say on the other site! Much of it pretty interesting. Of course, one could blog about the LeBron fracas alone daily. But even LeBron - I don't quite know how to put this but, aside from his astounding play, I don't know that LeBron's really interesting in and of himself so much as he's this pretty bland, blank slate on which we impose interesting meanings. Or not so interesting meanings if you're Adrian Wojnarowski.

At 9/24/2010 2:27 AM, Blogger Mr. Six said...

Maybe this is just me trying too hard because I'm still so fascinated by his game, but I think what's interesting about LBJ is that he seems complex in ways that weren't necessarily predictable. He showed a surprising capacity for off-the-court ruthlessness this summer, as well as less polish than we'd come to expect.


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