The Bone of Contention

Two years of prison and millions of dollars after quarterback Michael Vick was convicted for illegal dog fighting operations, the controversy surrounding him is more pronounced than ever. The clash stems from confusion about the roles of the legal system and of civil society.

As our culture increasingly disparages social norms as oppressive, some people attempt to put that moral burden onto the courts, and others expect those pressures to go away entirely. In this case, some people consider Vick's debt fully paid, while others are appalled the National Football League would accept him back into the sport. Yesterday, the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback played his first NFL game since Dec. 31, 2006.

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Informal, or non-legal, enforcement of cultural norms is key to a society's functioning. Through refusing to hire or associate with individuals whose behavior we despise, we maintain a social order and hold people to certain standards. To many, this concept seems unprogressive; indeed, many societies have enforced norms we now consider backward. Yet there is clearly a balance to be struck: In the absence of cultural norms, uncertainty and lack of trust hinder our social and economic interactions. The way to improve society is to change its norms, not undermine the importance of those standards.

In conditionally reinstating Vick, the NFL applied just such social pressure. Not everyone believes this was necessary, useful, or even fair. ESPN's Jim Caple argued: "It isn't a matter of whether Vick broke the law or did something reprehensible. He did, and he paid the price for that act with a prison term and the loss of millions of dollars." This statement evinces either disregard for social norms or a misconception of the role of the legal system — Vick's sentence addressed just the illegality, not the reprehensibility, of his actions.

The legal system is necessarily a utilitarian institution concerned with restitution, deterrence and punishment. While, as in Vick's case, repentance may occur while in prison, a criminal sentence does not and cannot operate to reform those convicted — that is instead the role of civil society. The court sentenced Vick because he broke the law, not because his behavior was repulsive. And this is just how it should be. The public needs a different outlet to express disgust and demand repentance.

This is what the NFL accomplished through Vick's suspension and conditional reinstatement. ESPN's Howard Bryant commented, "There is something childish and vindictive and personal about this...." Well, yes, in a way it is personal: As people, we require individuals to be contrite in order for us to accept them back into decent society. We also are reluctant to grant reprehensible people high-profile positions that command admiration.

That said, though informal norms were exerted in Vick's case, the concept of holding people, especially celebrities, to any standard not enshrined in a legal code is slipping. For example, Los Angeles Lakers fans are largely unfazed by Kobe Bryant's adultery. This reluctance to hold individuals to a moral standard will continue to confuse controversies like that surrounding Vick. Those who want wrongdoers to acknowledge their mistakes will push for harsher legal sentences than the crimes warrant, and others will hold that criminals who have served their sentences have fully exonerated themselves.

Those who were horrified by Vick's actions expected their disapprobation to be expressed through his legal sentence. Instead, they have found it did not satisfy them. What they truly wanted was remorse and acknowledgement from the man himself. That they are now getting, but not because of his prison sentence and hefty fine. The NFL is using its influence to pressure an individual to toe the socially accepted line.

This is because the NFL, in attentiveness to the league's image, is demanding full repentance from Vick. In order to pursue the sport, Vick must re-establish his legitimacy to fans and media alike. A fruitless inquiry into Vick's sincerity is fortunately irrelevant to this discussion. Through extralegal pressures, the league is drawing from Vick what many people want in order to satisfy their sense of what is right. In cases like Vick's, social norms perform a crucial role that no other mechanism can fill.


Hannah K. Mead is assistant editor at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.