Good Guys and Very, Very Bad Guys in the Penny Press!

Despite the fact that the latest issue of GQ hypes itself as a “football issue,” there’s quite a bit of good stuff in it – and one piece of such appallingly bad stuff that it sets the senses reeling.

The good stuff centers, as always, on pretty much the last thing you’d think about when thinking about a ‘lad mag’ – even one of such long-standing as GQ: the strength of the writing. The always-entertaining J. R. Moehringer, for instance, is back pounding his customary beat, profiling pretty-boy football players. In this case it’s New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez, who’s buff, beautiful, and, according to Moehringer’s rather modest check-list (showtunes? check! Glee? check!), bi-curious (it’s odd that Moehringer would attempt to make such a mystery of things, actually – one picture accompanying the article clearly shows Sanchez wearing ‘skinny’ jeans, and since all adult males who wear ‘skinny’ jeans are gay, the picture settles the question). Moehringer writes snappy prose about the ability of this athlete he calls the “consummate little brother” to simply not see what he doesn’t want to see:

Selectively not noticing might be Sanchez’s gift, his secret for surviving the pressure and scrutiny of New York. When it comes to his fame, for instance, Sanchez is often oblivious – which has kept the craziness from changing him. After two years of adulation and jeers, he still calls older men “sir,” still opens doors for women, still sends thank-you notes, still poses with fans and spends long afternoons with sick children – and still won’t say a bad word about Tom Brady, no matter how much you egg him on.

We’re given to believe that Sanchez is a genuinely nice guy, and elsewhere in this same issue, nice guys finish last: Alan Richman, the best food critic writing today, has always been that singular anomaly: a genuinely nice restaurant writer. No prima donna antics, no bellowed “Do you know who I am?” threats – opinionated, yes, but fair. Which makes his latest piece, “Diner for Schmucks,” all the more startling: it’s a full-length torch-job of the trendy Queens restaurant M. Wells, generated more by the boorish behavior of the place’s owners than the place itself. The piece winds up with a refreshingly candid admission that food critics – and by extension, all dining patrons – have allowed trendy restaurants to get away with crappy service in exchange for the dubious honor of being allowed to eat there. “All we care about is accessibility,” Richman writes, “getting through the door. Such restaurants are rarely held accountable, no matter how

note: this is not Alan Richman

uncaring they might be. I doubt that the people who operate these sought-after spots ask themselves if they are treating their customers properly. They are not obliged to do so.”

I couldn’t help but sympathize, of course, although it was something of a stretch. I only regularly patronize one restaurant – once a week like clockwork, I go to my little hole-in-the-wall Chinese food place in order to hunker down over a gigantic plate of fried rice and read the week’s stack of periodicals (yes, it’s right at that back-wall table that I actually encounter The Penny Press!). I get that same heaped-high plate every single week, and I’m on my second generation of staff there. There’s never anybody else there, and I’m accorded the highest display of courtesy: I’m served and then ignored. I doubt the place would rate even a moment of Richman’s expensive attention, but at least its owners wouldn’t show him the suicidal rudeness that M. Wells’ owners did.

Once you venture past dreamy Mark Sanchez and affronted Alan Richman, however, this issue of GQ becomes solely the province not of nice guys but of one very, very bad guy: Philadelphia Eagles quarterback and convicted dog-torturer Michael Vick. I couldn’t believe it when I first turned the page and encountered this article, couldn’t believe the very talented writer Will Leitch could suppress his nausea long enough to write it – and to write it morally neutral, as he studiously does throughout despite the rather obvious fact that he didn’t actually like his interview subject.

And there’s nothing, absolutely nothing, to like. The gist of the piece is that Vick was convicted of dog-fighting, served time in jail for it, and emerged a changed man – a changed man with a large and never-idle PR team whose job is to promote the living brand that is this new, changed Michael Vick. We’re dutifully told how golden he is on the playing field; we’re informed of all the community service he does, the speeches to underprivileged youth, the PSA’s for animal rights groups, etc.

The one thing we’re not told is that he’s personally repentant, because he’s obviously not. Leitch plays it as straight as he can and gets back responses that turn the stomach. At the time of his arrest back in 2007, Vick said:

“I’m never at the house … I left the house with my family members and my cousin … They just haven’t been doing the right thing … It’s unfortunate I have to take the heat behind it. If I’m not there, I don’t know what’s going on.”

He tells Leitch during the interview four years later:

“I was walking away, just totally refocussed on something else … I just happened to get caught out in the yard trying to help out.”

He also tells Leitch:

“For a while, it was all ‘Scold Mike Vick, scold Mike Vick, just talk bad about him, like he’s not a person. It’s almost as if everyone wanted to hate me. But what have I done to anybody? It was something that happened, and it was people trying to make some money.”

Leitch goes on:

It benefits Vick to be just like every other athlete again, full of braggadocio and bromides and advertisements for lime sports beverages. This is all Vick could ever have hoped for: to reclaim the normal, pampered, stupidly happy life of a professional athlete. And why shouldn’t he? He served his time. We can be repulsed by his past, we can choose not to root for him, but we can’t drown out the cheers from Eagles fans. In the $9 billion juggernaut of the NFL, Michael Vick’s transgressions just don’t matter anymore, and maybe they never did.

Freelance writers (Leitch is more than that, of course – he’s the brain behind Deadspin, the consistently most-enjoyable sports-site on the Internet, but in this case he’s cashing a check), I’ve come to learn, are obliged to spin a certain ration of bullshit in order to make a living. It can be a fairly good living, so you accustom yourself to the bullshit – and if you’re clever, like Leitch, perhaps you seed your neutral-seeming paid work with subtle, subversive hints. But we should all be absolutely clear: Vick’s ‘transgressions’ did matter, and they do matter. He didn’t just happen to get caught out in the yard, and the hateful cynicism of such a line is all the more reason to condemn this conniving little lying coward. He didn’t just get caught out in the yard on the wrong day – he helped to drown head-clubbed fighting dogs who hadn’t performed viciously enough for him. He stood alongside the jerking, pivoting bodies of dogs hanging by their necks and punched at them like they were a boxing-bag at the gym, laughing with his employees the whole time. And the criterion by which he judged a dog’s viciousness was simple: he clocked how long it took that dog to tear apart the bewildered, old, helpless, friendly suburban house-pets his employees had plucked out of their yards earlier that day. There aren’t words to describe how vile, personally, those employees are, and Vick is worse than all of them, because despite his conniving little cowardly lies, they took their orders from him.

I don’t condemn Leitch for whatever bullshit he felt he needed to spin. But I condemn the NFL, and I condemn all those animal rights groups, and I sure as hell condemn GQ for doing its part to aid in the public rehabilitation of Michael Vick. He should be in the void, alone, forever.

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