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Book Review: Finally Free

Finally Free: An Autobiography

by Michael Vick, Brett Honeycutt, and Stephen Copeland

Worthy Publishing, 2012

Michael Vick is a liar. The football star takes pains to say this himself, often, in his vile memoir Finally Free (co-written by Brett Honeycutt and Stephen Copeland, both of whom should be heartily ashamed of themselves), always with the hopeful implication that although he spent years getting very good at “lying with a straight face,” the story he’s telling in his new book is all true. On the book’s cover, he’s showing a very straight face.

Vick rose to fame in the early 2000s as the record-breaking quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons, and he rose to infamy in 2007, when he was convicted of running an interstate gambling and dog-fighting operation and sentenced to 23 months in prison at Leavenworth. His dogfighting operation was known as Bad Newz Kennels, located on Moonlight Road in Surrey County, Virginia. Bad Newz Kennels – organized and bankrolled by Vick – ran dogfights in, as Vick puts it, “the Carolinas, Virginia, Maryland, and elsewhere.”

The wording is typical: Vick knows the exact full list of where his crimes took place – he planned them and executed them with care and attention. “And elsewhere” is there for only one reason: to lie. It’s a lawyer-dictated dodge, to avoid naming places that weren’t named on Vick’s original indictment and thereby also avoid perhaps accidentally triggering new investigations.

The entire book is like that. It goes without saying that the thing doesn’t read like Vick – it’s a sanitized sports autobiography, after all, written by freelancers on behalf of a semi-illiterate with a fifth grade education – but it also doesn’t read like anybody else, no person anyway. Paragraph after paragraph rolls forward in the emasculated cautious prose of legal boilerplate. There are “transactions” instead of deals, “altercations” instead of fights, and worst of all, repeatedly, “mistakes” instead of brutal cruelties. Throughout, Vick takes elaborate, cowardly care to sound like a spectator rather than a participant. “I was implicated not only in dogfighting, but also in helping to kill dogs and bankrolling the gambling part of the operation,” he tells us “… the evidence was so thorough, so convincing, that I decided to forgo a trial.” He was implicated in these things – not that he did them – and the evidence was so convincing – not that it was true – and he decided to forego a trial, implying he wanted to save everybody a lot of trouble (because the evidence was so thorough, you see), not that he wanted to avoid at all costs the 20-year sentence a jury would have given him.

The book’s opening chapters deal with Vick’s public housing childhood and early success at football, and his playing stats are appended at the back. But as much as it might occasionally hope to distract readers, this book is perforce about the crime that came so close to ending Vick’s professional career (all his previous crimes and implications in crimes – from petty theft to drunken violence to steroid rumors – are given short shrift here, or not mentioned at all), the crime of organizing and funding a dogfighting ring and running it in half a dozen states throughout the South for over five years. Readers of Finally Free will learn virtually no specific details about that crime. Vick says he doesn’t want to ‘glorify’ dogfighting by writing about it in detail, but this is another lie. He avoids giving specifics for two reasons: to continue manipulating public opinion in his favor, and, again, to avoid the possibility of accidentally incriminating himself.

Readers will hear Vick call his crimes ‘barbaric,’ but they won’t learn the details – either of what was done to the dogs at Bad Newz Kennels in order to condition them for fighting, or what was done to the fights’ gamblers who couldn’t pay up. Readers won’t learn anything at all about the drug-trafficking connected with the operation. Readers won’t learn about dogs starved, beaten, and set on other dogs for ‘training,’ nor will they learn about unmarked vans cruising the suburbs of Southern towns scooping up outside house-dogs (sometimes very young, sometimes old and partially blind, always friendly and unsuspecting) in order to use them as warm-up fodder for the ‘professional’ dogs Vick had tortured into being killers. Since Vick can’t avoid the subject of dead dogs, he and his ghost-writers go into defendant mode again:

Just a few days before the raid [in 2007] … I was out at the property with Quanis [Phillips] and some other guys. What happened out there that day was bad, really bad … We had gone out and gotten rid of a lot of dogs. It’s a day I would like to forget. But I can’t. It will always haunt me. It was a day I wasn’t even supposed to be there. It was the day I said to myself, This is it. I’m not dealing with this anymore.

The craven evasiveness of all this is matched only by its continued deceitfulness. What happened that day was really bad, but not what Vick did. They ‘got rid’ of dogs – nothing more than that. And he wasn’t even supposed to be there that day – because, you see, he’d decided just then, at that exact moment, after half a decade, to have nothing more to do with it all. It’s disgustingly typical ex-con whining: it wasn’t me, man, I didn’t do it, my case is misunderstood, I wasn’t even supposed to be there that day, I was just a second away from stopping it all. There’s anger lingering still over the account, and there’s plenty of self-pity and equivocation, and there’s also regret – but only for bad timing.

Vick’s “associates” (more lawyer-speak, here doing duty for “minions”) had been told by their neighbors on Moonlight Road that state police had been looking around, asking if they could install surveillance cameras on adjacent property in order to watch the comings and goings at Bad Newz Kennels. “I was not told about the neighbor’s visit until it was too late,” Vick says. “If I had known that, I would have shut down the operation. It was too close to home.” This, too, is an obvious lie: he would have shut down that operation, if his flunkies had only done their jobs properly and warned him. At the very least, he himself could have fled the state, or the South, or the country, instead of getting caught red-handed. “This, I think, provides a clear picture of the situation I was in,” we’re incredibly told, “…how I failed to lead the people around me.” Lead, yes – in unmarked vans, at 80 m.p.h., out of the jurisdiction. It’s all so revoltingly self-serving, and of course it’s not the worst part of this wretched story.

The worst part is that ‘getting rid of dogs.’ Vick again deflects accountability while in the act of loudly claiming it, talking about peer pressure:

Everyone in dogfighting was doing the same thing: killing their dogs and getting rid of them when they lost. I had seen guys take the dogs right out of the fighting box and – bam – shoot them in the head.

So Vick had seen this – but had he ever done it himself? Here in his autobiography, we again get court records:

In January, 2010, new documents emerged from the dogfighting investigation that my codefendants and I – among other things – allegedly killed dogs with shovels, but that’s not true. Nonetheless, I understand that the killings were, and still are, sickening.

No shovels. Check. No matter what those new documents claim, he and his thugs never killed any of their dogs with shovels. Hanging nooses, standing around laughing while the dogs twisted and convulsed in mid-air, or hanging dogs and then moving in close to punch them and knife them, or shackling dogs and then drowning them, holding them down while they struggled for air … but not shovels. It’s sickening alright.

Michael Vick lied to the public before his indictment (not only about dogfighting but also about all the other crimes with which he’d been associated since high school); he lied to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell about his involvement in dogfighting; he lied to Falcons owner Arthur Blank; he lied to his coach Bobby Petrino. It was only once he was in prison and the doors were shut behind him that he started taking any public responsibility for any of the horrific things he did and ordered done, and even then, it was a faint, puling kind of responsibility – just enough to mollify the NFL but not enough to endanger the resumption of his endorsement contracts. In Finally Free he continuously attests to being a changed man, to having learned the saving power of honesty:

Telling the truth is freeing. I found that when I lied, I put pressure on myself. Maintaining the lie was hard work because I had to pile one new lie on top of another. The truth is the truth, and that’s it. In the long run, you will benefit from telling the truth even if it comes with consequences.

It takes a special kind effrontery to be this thorough a liar – to sing the praises of truth-telling in a book so crammed with qualifications, evasions, and half-truths. No conclusion is clearer from Finally Free than that Michael Vick feels not one ounce of real regret for the grotesque things he did to dogs from 2001 to 2007 when he was caught. There is no hint anywhere in the records of this pathetic story that Vick would have stopped if he hadn’t been caught. In his book he says he’s certain God has forgiven him for his “mistakes.” But the toweringly cynical hypocrisy of in these pages will make less divine persons hate him just a little bit more than they did before he opened his smug, God-bothering yap.

And in either case, the dogs he killed – because they hadn’t earned him enough money by tearing apart other dogs – will still be dead. Until Vick can fix that “mistake,” he can go choke on his tinny, mocked-up regret.