Former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick sports a team hat as he returns to the Georgia Dome before the Falcons played the New Orleans Saints in an NFL football game Sunday, Jan. 1, 2017, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
Photo: Curtis Compton/AP
Photo: Curtis Compton/AP

ESPN unveils unflinching look at Michael Vick’s rise, fall and resurrection with two-part “30 for 30” documentary

Originally posted Monday, January 27, 2020 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

ESPN digs deep into former Atlanta Falcon quarterback Michael Vick’s complicated career and life in an unflinching “30 for 30” documentary that will air over two nights: Thursday, January 30 and the following February 6. 

Encompassing more than three hours minus commercials, the documentary highlights what made Vick special as an athlete while pointing out his flaws and decisions that led to that fateful day in April, 2007 when cops entered his Surry, Va. home. In the backyard, they found 70 dogs  suffering from the effects of dogfighting.

The now 39-year-old Fox Sports football analyst went from being the Falcons’ franchise player to a divisive public figure. He ended up going to Leavenworth prison for 21 months for his misdeeds after pleading guilty.

He has since worked with animal rights groups as an advocate for stronger animal cruelty laws and against dogfighting. And many times over, he has expressed regret over his earlier choices. 

Over a span of two and a half years, the documentarians interviewed virtually every key person in Vick’s life as well as Vick himself for more than 10 hours. “To his credit, he answered every question,” said filmmaker Stanley Nelson. They sat down with his mom, his girlfriend, his closest aunt, his childhood friends, his football mentors and colleagues, even his cellmate.

They queried government officials  involved in the investigation into Bad Newz Kennels, the name of Vick’s operation. 

And since the documentary uses no narrator, historians and journalists provide context about his legacy, race and the disparate and often extreme reaction to the dogfighting revelations.

Most of the anti-Vick protesters at the time were white. A white musician Rob Thomas, when asked about the sentence, said, only semi-facetiously, “Did he get the chair?” Tucker Carlson wasn’t joking when he said Vick should have been executed.

Many of Vick’s supporters - who were black -  felt the nasty reaction was in part because of his race.

“In their minds, he didn’t kill a person,” said historian Maurice Hobson, associate professor of African-American studies at Georgia State University, in the film. “So what is this about? Dogfighting is illegal but if you listen to a lot of the sentiment within black Atlanta, they were like, ‘It’s just a dog.’”

There was an acceptance of dogfighting in parts of rural America and Vick absorbed it as simply a hobby, not comprehending how cruel it was to the dogs. “Was it right or wrong never really existed,” Vick told ESPN. “I’d seen it so much. I had never seen anyone condemned for it.” 

It’s easy to forget how big a story the dogfighting scandal was in 2007. It was everywhere. Everyone had an opinion. Billy Martin, Vick’s attorney, said it was possibly a bigger media circus than when he worked on the Bill Clinton impeachment case a decade earlier. 

Even 13 years later, many people - football fans and dog lovers alike - will never forgive him. Just a few weeks ago when Vick was named as  Pro Bowl captain, his critics attacked yet again. More than 700,000 signed a petition against the move but the NFL stuck with him. 

"We, over the last nine years or so, have supported Michael in his recognition of the mistake he made," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said, according to television station WSFA. "He's paid a heavy price for that. He has been accountable for it."

After his imprisonment, Vick lost all his money and filed for bankruptcy. He missed his grandmother’s funeral. He watched Matt Ryan become the new franchise quarterback starting in 2008 while he was still in prison. 

The final hour is devoted to his efforts to rebuild his career and redeem his tattered reputation. 

After he left prison, he hired Judy Smith, the famed crisis manager who became the inspiration for Olivia Pope on ABC’s show “Scandal.” 

Smith placed him on “60 Minutes” as a way to reintroduce him to the public. “There was nothing to hide,” he said a decade later. 

She reached out to the Humane Society and asked them to talk to him and give him a chance. Wayne Pacelle, at the time president of the Humane Society, told Vick words weren’t enough. He’d have to show remorse through public advocacy against animal cruetly. Pacelle said Vick followed through and continues to do so years later. 

“He paid his debt to society,” Hobson said, “and now he’s trying to move forward.”

On the football side, Goodell in 2009 felt Vick took responsibility for his actions and allowed him to compete again. The Philadelphia Eagles signed him despite the backlash. “We represented giving people a second chance,” said the owner Jeffrey Lurie. “It was real. This wasn’t the resurrection of a football career. This was the resurrection of a person.” 

Vick was comeback player of the year in 2010 and made it to the Pro Bowl. That led to a $100 million long-term deal that lifted him out of financial straits and allowed him to pay off creditors. 

But Vick - given his style of play - was a perpetual target and he took hit after hit. It wore him down and he retired in 2015. “They hit him like a running back,” filmmaker Nelson said. “The film vividly shows that.” Vick said had no regrets, saying it was just the way he played. 

Lurie of the Eagles said Vick was neither Superman nor Satan: “It’s always going to be a mixed legacy. You can’t renounce the history. You have to always look at the whole picture.”

Or as Vick himself said: “You look at my career, you just can almost say, man, what coulda, what shoulda, what woulda.” 
Nelson, the filmmaker, expects some folks who hate Vick going into viewing “30 for 30” will still hate him afterwards. But some may pick up a more nuanced feel for the man. “If you see him in a different way,” Nelson said, “that’s important. Different people from different cultures view things through a different lens. Many white folks see this as animal cruelty. Many blacks see it as criminal justice.”

TV PREVIEW

“30 for 30: Michael Vick,” 9 p.m. Thursday, January 30 and 9 p.m. Thursday February 6, ESPN

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About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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