Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Between Helmsley and Vick, the News Is Going to the Dogs

Let's get one thing straight: The law does not allow you to leave money to a dog. And, thankfully, it does not allow you to make dogs fight or torture them, either.

It seems like you can't walk five feet today without someone talking about Leona Helmsley leaving $12 million to Trouble, her pet Maltese, in her will (while leaving only $5 million each to two of her grandchildren and stiffing the other two completely).

Only, Helmsley did not leave money to Trouble. Dogs are not recognized as people under the law. They can't own property, they can't vote and they can't walk around unsupervised (oddly, the same views I'm guessing Larry Craig holds about homosexuals, publicly anyway). Give credit for correctly identifying in its headline that Helmsley funded a $12 million trust in her will to care for Trouble. I know a trust is not as glamorous to think about as a lawyer in a suit putting a $12 million check into Trouble's mouth, but hey, I don't make the laws.

It seems like dogs have taken over the news the last few days. While Trouble is rolling in it (which usually means something entirely different when applied to dogs), even without the money, he is decidedly better off than the pit bulls under Michael Vick's care. Actually, Trouble is a double winner, because not only did he not have to fight to the death, he also no longer has to contend with Helmsley, something that some people might have argued was quite similar.

Vick is acting contrite now after pleading guilty to running a dogfighting operation and torturing dogs to death who didn't perform up to his expectations. Lucky for Vick, his Falcons coaches didn't have the same standard for him, or he would have met the same fate as the pit bulls he dispatched.

Vick and the rest of America can rest easy now, because Ron Artest is here to make things better. That's right, Artest said he approved of Vick's apology and has offered to help him. After all, who wouldn't want the counsel of a man who started the worst athlete-fan brawl in American history, was arrested for beating his girlfriend (the mother of one of his children), and has spent more time in David Stern's office than the FBI agents investigating Tim Donaghy. I have a feeling that when Falcons owner Arthur Blank and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told Vick he needed to find a better class of people to surround himself with, Ron Artest was not who they meant.

The Vick and Helmsley stories both show how low people are capable of going. As a vegetarian and supporter of animal rights, I completely understand how pets become members of a family. I do not in any way mean to question or make fun of the level of love that Helmsley obviously had for Trouble. But, I also understand that dogs, victims of their own DNA, do not have the mental and physical capacity to own possessions. The real story here is that Helmsley had millions of dollars, but clearly lived a bitter, lonely life. Her husband and son were dead, and even though she had four grandchildren, she left more money to her Maltese than she did to all of her grandkids combined. She even tossed $100,000 to her chauffeur, while stiffing two of her grandchildren (getting in her last licks in saying that they know why they were ignored). I guess it's true that money can't buy you happiness. Sadly for two of the grandkids, they will never get a chance to find out.

As for Vick, there was a lot of talk about how his apology seemed heartfelt. But really, when he is awaiting sentencing and facing a lengthy jail sentence, the loss of his livelihood, and the prospect of having to return a big chunk of his earnings from the last few years, what do you expect the man to do? You would have to be one colossally stupid individual to rile the judge, the league, and the public by saying anything other than, "I royally screwed up and I'm sorry." Then again, you'd have to be colossally stupid to risk your livelihood all for the joy of torturing dogs to death and betting on which of them will kill the others. So, at this point, anything is possible.

How sorry can Vick really be? When someone acts out in the heat of the moment, you can believe they may regret their actions. When Artest went into the stands to attack a fan in Detroit and Jose Offerman swung his bat at a pitcher in Bridgeport, while their actions were indefensible, they made split-second decisions (albeit horrifically poor ones). Similarly, when athletes slip into the abyss of drug and alcohol abuse (like the sad story of 25-year-old basketball player Eddie Griffin, who died when his car plowed into a train in Houston earlier this month after years of battling alcoholism), as frustrating as it is to watch these addicts throw away opportunity after opportunity, you understand that they are ill and may not have the capacity to get well.

The Vick story is quite different. He consciously, actively and purposefully directed a dogfighting operation, including torturing dogs to death for not performing, over a period of years. Not seconds or minutes, or even days or months, but years. He didn't have an addiction to gambling, alcohol, food or drugs. No, he chose to actively participate in a barbaric practice and to commit cruel and heinous acts on innocent creatures simply for kicks and giggles. They say that serial killers in their youth often torture animals. This is the conduct Vick was engaging in. His behavior was amoral, repulsive and far outside the boundaries of any civilized society.

It's hard to believe he can go from barbarian to truly sorry in a matter of weeks. It is far more believable that he is sorry he got caught; that he recognizes that he was an idiot to risk his freedom, lucrative career and way of life for what he viewed as a hobby. I don't believe for a second he thinks he did anything really wrong, or that he recognizes how far out of line his behavior and actions were.

I think the statement of Vick's mother, Brenda Vick, to the New York Post just three days ago reveals the true lack of Vick's remorse. She was quoted as saying, "They are trying to put my baby in jail, and for what? Everybody makes mistakes. ... He is not a criminal ... He's a good person. He has a big heart, and it just hurts."

"For what?" As if he merely scalped a Super Bowl ticket or drove fast on the highway. No, he tortured animals. For money. Over a period of years. And, he ran a gambling operation. If there is one thing professional athletes know from day one that they are to avoid like the plague, it is gambling. "He's a good person." Good people do not electrocute and drown dogs to punish them for not fighting well enough. Good people don't own anything called a "rape stand." And good people don't lie to the face of their employers, causing them great embarrassment later, weeks before getting busted. "He is not a criminal." Um, actually, he violated several federal felony laws. That pretty much is the definition of a criminal. Brenda Vick doesn't get it, and I doubt Michael Vick does either.

Speaking of dogs, President Bush went to New Orleans today to commemorate the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Which, by the way, is more than he did in the days after the storm, when he had his crony "Brownie" uselessly presiding over the situation while people suffered and died. CNN reported this morning that it was Bush's 15th trip to New Orleans since the storm hit, not bothering to mention the epic mismanagement and indifference he showed at the time. As Evan Thomas wrote in a Newsweek article dated September 19, 2005 (found on, "[H]ow the president of the United States could have even less 'situational awareness,' as they say in the military, than the average American about the worst natural disaster in a century—is one of the more perplexing and troubling chapters in a story that, despite moments of heroism and acts of great generosity, ranks as a national disgrace."

A fitting end to a week that went to the dogs. If only the ending was as happy for everyone as it seems to be for Trouble.