Animal rights advocates and other activists were outraged last week when the Philadelphia Eagles signed a contract with Michael Vick for the 2009 season.
Their anger is well-placed: Vick served 18 months in federal prison for his involvement in a brutal dog-fighting ring, tested positive for marijuana while free on bail and seemed to show no remorse during the protracted legal proceedings leading to his imprisonment.
No sane person would condone Vick's crimes. His name will forever be associated with animal cruelty, not exciting football. He has paid a heavy price, financially and emotionally, for his actions.
As one who loves animals, I can empathize with those who said Vick should permanently be barred from pro sports. But there is another factor that, to me, outweighs everything and that's the basic concept of fairness.
Redemption, forgiveness and second chances are not just American concepts; they have their roots in biblical principles. Vick has earned a chance to rehabilitate his name and it would be unfair to deny him that chance.
Just as we know there is none among us who has not committed some sort of wrongdoing, almost all of us have been given second chances to atone for what we've done. Why should Vick be any different?
At his best, Vick was one of the most exciting players in the history of the National Football League. The game had never before had a quarterback who was as good a runner as he was a thrower. He could electrify a crowd like few players before him.
But that's not why he should be given another shot at football. To single Vick out for a lifetime ban would ignore the fact that many, many players before him have been involved in crimes, up to and including murder.
More than 35 NFL players were arrested in 2006 alone, for crimes ranging from disorderly conduct to felony burglary charges. Just last week, Donte Stallworth of the Cleveland Browns pleaded guilty to killing a pedestrian while driving drunk. His punishment from the league was a one-year suspension.
Make no mistake: Vick's crimes were horrific and grisly. The thought of the cruelty he inflicted on helpless animals is sickening.
But he has paid his debt to society. He served his time in prison. Fairness dictates that he be allowed another chance to pursue his livelihood. Further punishment from the league would serve no purpose other than to make him a martyr.
There are millions of other people who have committed crimes in America and who are struggling to survive life outside the jail doors. Many of these people will never be given the second chance that Vick is receiving. But if Vick is successful on his comeback, he will serve as a positive example for them.
Ex-felons face a difficult road to rehabilitation. They're barred from many jobs and, in many cases, have even forfeited their right to vote. It is way past time to re-examine the policies that seem to ensure a swift return to prison for them.
We need to open the doors of opportunities for those who've served prison time and are sincere about returning to society as productive, hardworking citizens. The justice system is geared much more towards punishment than it is rehabilitation. This needs to change, especially given the historic inequity that has sent a disproportionate number of black criminals to jail and white criminals to rehab or probation.
No one can easily forgive the terrible crimes Vick committed. And if he backslides into criminal behavior again, his punishment will rightfully be much more harsh than before. He likely will not receive a third chance to redeem himself.
It would be a tragedy and a waste of talent if that happens. But the upside of Vick's return to pro sports is immense. If he is able to help lead his team to a championship, his example of hard work and dedication will serve to inspire all of those who are struggling to redeem themselves after bad decisions in their lives.
So while it is easy to understand why it is that so many people are angry at Vick's return, they're missing an even more fundamental point. In America, we believe in the possibility of a brighter day ahead. We believe in fairness. We believe in giving people another opportunity.
It is in that spirit that all fair-minded citizens should welcome Vick back to the league and wish him success in his uphill climb from defeat to eventual glory. It's simply the right thing to do.