I don’t like to comment on moral matters too much, especially in this blog. So let’s put aside for the moment that I continue to think Michael Vick is a deplorable human being regardless of how many touchdowns he throws. My opinion is irrelevant, of course. The amount of touchdowns, though, that he throws is NOT irrelevant; each one shifts a section of public opinion toward ‘forgiveness’, or whatever you prefer to call it, because each one is a highly public act and is charged with all sorts of positive meanings. How can a touchdown be bad? How can a superior athletic performance be bad? The implicit connection between virtue and athletic prowess is one of the most ironclad American (and not just American, mind you) values in existence. Even knowing about it and thinking about it doesn’t diminish its power that much. Even now, the world waits with bated breath for Tiger Woods to redeem himself with a major.
This failure to diminish worries me. One of the central assumptions of rhetorical study is that awareness of rhetoric constitutes a defense to it; that is to say, if we are aware that rhetoric is being employed, it will not affect us as strongly as it will affect someone who is not aware a series of strategies and tactics are acting upon them. And yet even as I am more aware of the pull, the pull is just as strong. I can feel a little tug on the value of redemption and the redeeming characteristics of the sublime in sports. It is a persistent little tug, that one.
My working explanation for this centers on narrative. I like stories that end in a certain way. Vick’s story has several appropriate endings for me, usually involving a cold, dank cell. Woods’ story also has several preferred endings, most of which involve him winning 30 majors. This is probably directly linked to my view of Woods’ sexual shenanigans as sexual shenanigans rather than moral outrages, and Vick’s dog-torturing as an heinous and unforgivable crime rather than the cost of doing business. My values demand certain narrative outcomes and if those values are strong enough, they can cut through any rhetoric. When they are malleable or uncertain, rhetoric can get a foot in the door.
So this is a crossroads of values: in regards to Vick, my intolerance for any cruelty toward dogs, which I consider a morally superior form of life to humanity (I should write an essay one day on that) agrees with my minor hostility toward the cultist behavior of sports fandom. In regards to Woods, however, my disinterest in the sexual escapades of public figures somehow overshadows that minor hostility and negates it. This may be because I never saw Woods as a role model – I think I’ve said before that I was convinced for several years that he was some kind of experimental golf-playing robot that had escaped a secret government facility and gone on to win the Masters. I don’t admire the guy… but at the same time I have to admit I’d like for him to win, and this feeling – this emotion – is remarkably similar to my desire to see Vick in jail for life. Strange.