Vick and Forrest reflect different sides of black athletes

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

(AP Photo/John Froschauer, File)

by Roland Laird

Where African American athletes are concerned, Michael Vick and Vernon Forrest represent two sides of the same coin.

We all know Vick’s story: super-talented football player who refused to cut ties with his past and paid a severe price for it. The idea that the price was perhaps overly severe and darn near broke Vick has been discussed to exhaustion on street corners, blacktops and barbershops all over the country. Ultimately, Michael Vick became the poster boy for all that is wrong with the African American athlete.

No such commentary surrounded Vernon Forrest’s life, but in learning of the Wild West-esque details of his death, some will lump him in with the unfortunate narratives of Michael Vick, Adam “Pacman” Jones, Plaxico Burress and a host of other African American athletes that have exhibited self-destructive behavior and ask, “What’s going on with African American athletes these days?”

On one level, that certainly is a legitimate question to ask, because even in this Obama age, it seems like many of today’s African American athletes are a far cry from Arthur Ashe or Muhammad Ali. Yet if you look at the details of Forrest’s life instead of his death, you see a man with the soul of an Ashe or an Ali, and a different, deeper question comes to surface, “Why is there so much senseless violence in our communities, and why is it that even the good guys like Forrest can get caught in it?”

Forrest devoted himself to community service work that transcended his world as a boxer. His organization, Destiny’s Child Inc was acclaimed for its work with autistic people. In fact, it’s safe to say that Forrest was just as well known in the autistic community as he was in the boxing world.

Vernon Forrest’s death could have been reported as “Autism Activist Shot to Death.” The image from that headline would have been completely different and all the stereotypes surrounding African American males in general, and African American athletes in particular, would have been flipped on their head.

In the reporting of his death, Forrest received credit and kudos for his work in autism, but two months from now if his name is mentioned in passing conversation it will likely be in the context of a boxer being shot to death.

Which brings us back to Michael Vick. There are some in the mainstream media that feel Vick should never have been allowed back into professional sports. In that regard, Vick is lucky. Unlike Vernon Forrest, he is able to live and see another day. Given that both men were Atlanta-based athletes, it’s not unrealistic to think that their paths crossed on a few occasions.

My hope is that beneath the surface of the impending media circus that will surround Vick’s reinstatement, he will take Forrest’s death to heart and look for a way to honor his legacy. If he is able to do that, then perhaps Vick will be at the forefront of repairing not just his image, but also the image of the African American athlete in the media and the public consciousness.