Barry Saunders

January 27, 2014

Saunders: Michael Vick might be worth hearing at Raleigh speech

Despite a petition against Michael Vick's upcoming speech in Raleigh, the Chamber of Commerce stands by its decision to invite him.

Editor's note: This story incorrectly said that Michael Vick became a spokesman for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He was a spokesman for the Humane Society of the United States.

Malinda Stallings believes in second chances. Really, she does.

She has provided second chances for animals that might otherwise have been killed.

“I have three rescue dogs and my daughter has five,” she told me Monday.

She believes in second chances for people, too – even, and this has to be hard for an animal lover, for Michael Vick.

That doesn’t mean she thinks the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce should’ve invited Vick to be the keynote speaker at the Chamber’s “Evening of Champions” event next month.

“I believe in second chances, but my question is, ‘Would he still be doing it if he hadn’t gotten caught?’ ” Stallings asked.

As we talked, I heard one of the dogs she’d rescued barking – agreement? – in the background.

Fame and infamy

Vick gained fame as a professional football player and at one time was the highest-paid player in the NFL. He earned infamy, though, when it came to light that, for fun, he hosted and bet on dogfights at his Virginia property.

Some fun.

Eyewitnesses said they saw him kill dogs that didn’t perform the way he wanted them to.

A horrible human being? Indisputably – at least at that time.

Which is why the Chamber of Commerce thought he’d be a good choice for its event. Chamber President Harvey Schmitt said he was aware of an online petition which, last time I looked, had about 25,000 signatures urging the chamber to rescind its invitation.

‘Not celebrating’

That’s not going to happen, Schmitt said.

“The sports council team that chose Mr. Vick knew that not everybody would agree with that choice. He has made his mistakes,” Schmitt said, but Vick’s work with the Humane Society and before Congress “shows that he has worked to rectify those mistakes.”

“We’re not celebrating Mr. Vick. He’s here to tell a story, an interesting story, about the excesses of sports and celebrity and what it takes to become a better person,” Schmitt said. “Sometimes, it’s good to hear from the dark side of celebrity.”

Right on. The dude paid his debt to society, or at least the debt society demanded of him. He spent 21 months in prison, lost millions in salary and endorsements and must live with the knowledge that his name and reputation will forever be tarnished by his association with that barbaric endeavor.

Neither Vick’s good deeds, nor the fact that he became a spokesman for the Humane Society of the United States and by most public accounts has become a good person untainted by further scandal, is enough for Stallings and the thousands of other petition-signers, though.

Stallings wrote me a blistering letter protesting not just Vick’s appearance but also the sponsors of the event, of which The News & Observer is one.

“When I saw that he was the scheduled speaker, I said ‘This is crazy,’ ” Stallings recalled. “There are so many more tremendous athletes from this area they could have chosen – Tommy Burleson, the Holt brothers, Russell Wilson. ... I am so ashamed and saddened by the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce and the list of sponsors hosting this event. It honestly hurts my heart.”

What Vick and his canine-clubbling cronies did hurt my heart, too.

Check this out, though: Either we as a nation believe in rehabilitation or we don’t, believe in second chances or we don’t, believe – finally – in forgiveness or we don’t.

Martina Dunsford believes in all of those things. When I asked her Monday what she was doing, she replied, “Trying to help some children get through life without getting killed or killing somebody.”

That was not hyperbole.

As director of New Horizons Academy of Excellence, Dunsford – known to her “kids” as Coach D – has devoted her life to providing second, sometimes third and fourth, chances to young people who need them.

Four years ago, she allowed Vick, then in the midst of his mea culpa tour, to speak to the young people at New Horizons and possibly impart some words that might help them.

Because so many of the children have been neglected, Dunsford said at the time, she was happy to have a star athlete – even a convicted felon – speak to them.

“It went extremely well,” she said Monday, “although he was just doing what he had to do to get back in the NFL. Some of his court-ordered public service requirements required him to speak to kids.”

Did anything he said, I asked, resonate with her kids?

“Of course,” she said. “He’s an NFL player. If they didn’t hear anything else, they heard that. He told them to listen to their parents and to adults, which is something he admitted he didn’t do. He told them that his mom tried to talk to him about messing up (before his arrest), but he denied he was doing anything wrong.

“All in all, he came and delivered a message and left,” she said.

That’s what he’ll do next month, too – if people are willing to listen.

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