You knew it was coming, didn't you? You knew that the religion ghost in the Michael Vick story would wake up. I mean, last week I put it this way in a post responding to a Michael Wilbon column in The Washington Post that veered into faith language:
This is coming real, real close to stating the obvious. ... What is the secular version of being born again? What does that look like? How does he repent of these secular sins?
And one more thing. If Vick tried to sell a religious born-again experience at some point in his future, would Wilbon buy it? Would animal-rights people? Would I?
So, did you buy it?
What did you think when you heard the superstar's repentance speech? When he said, among other things, the following:
"I'm upset with myself, and, you know, through this situation I found Jesus and asked him for forgiveness and turned my life over to God. And I think that's the right thing to do as of right now.
"Like I said, for this -- for this entire situation I never pointed the finger at anybody else, I accepted responsibility for my actions of what I did and now I have to pay the consequences for it. But in a sense, I think it will help, you know, me as a person. I got a lot to think about in the next year or so. ...
"Once again, I offer my deepest apologies to everyone. And I will redeem myself. I have to."
We will leave it to the theologians to debate the question of whether Vick -- or anyone else, for that matter -- is strong enough to pull himself up by his spiritual bootstraps after saying, "I will redeem myself." Is anyone that strong?
The question now is this: If people are going to start singing hymns outside whenever Vick faces the law, what does that really mean? If there is religion in this story, what is the nature of that faith element? How are reporters going to cover it?
What are we to make of the kind of scene that Elizabeth Merrill described on Monday at ESPN.com? Here is how that story opened:
RICHMOND, Va. -- "You should pray," a woman in a Michael Vick T-shirt told Brigitte Picard.
Picard was holding up a sign that said, "YOUR GOOD NAME ... DOGKILLER." She'd gotten up early, driven four hours, just to let her two dogs know that "Mommy is here for them." She was in the middle of a sentence as hallelujahs and Bible music flowed about a block down.
She was outnumbered.
On a bizarre day that was a cross between sporting event and religious revival, Michael Vick did what was expected -- he pleaded guilty Monday to a federal dogfighting conspiracy charge. What wasn't expected, at least in the animal-rights circles, was that Vick's supporters would at least temporarily drown out four months of outrage.
And here is another crucial piece of info about the Vick supporters.
About 200 of them boarded a bus early Monday morning in Newport News, Va., which is Vick's hometown. Two of them were pastors from churches they say Vick attends. Domeka Kelley, the pastor of Psalms Ministry, says Vick donated $317,000 to build a new church. Kelley says Vick did it before the dogfighting charges.
"The Michael Vick we know is not the Michael Vick the media has portrayed," Kelley said. "He's a man who loves God."
So where do we go from here? There are questions that can be asked about this born-again turn in Vick's life. One way is to ask the following three questions: How does Vick spend his time? How does he spend his money? How does he make his decisions?
Vick has always pushed a kind of edgy public image and he has, to say the least, been in trouble before. So if that is how he has spent his Friday and Saturday nights, how has he spent his Sunday mornings? Does he give 10 percent of his income to a church or churches? And, most importantly, who is around him? The quarterback's infamous entourage has contained some wild people. Are there ministers close to him? For how long?
In other words, I am hoping that some journalists will consider covering this faith element of the story in a journalistic manner. I understand the cynicism that we are seeing in the press. Honest, I do.
But there is no way to run from this religion theme now. I mean, consider the following from Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Mark Bradley:
In sum, he said all the things we've waited to hear Michael Vick say, and he said them not as part of some legal bargain but as a plea to the rest of humankind. In his conspicuous devastation, he evinced the universal desire to be understood and, yes, forgiven.
He said he'd "found Jesus" and "turned my life over to God," and skeptics will note that a disproportionate number of religious conversions occur when the convert is about to become a convict. Somehow, though, nothing about Vick rang false this day. He kept saying, "Yes, sir" to Judge Henry Hudson, even as Hudson delineated all the rights a convicted felon forfeits -- to vote, to bear arms, to serve on a jury -- and then noted that, the plea bargain notwithstanding, he could serve the full five years if the judge so ordains. Did Vick understand?
Perhaps, noted Bradley, this could be a drama with three acts. And what would that mean?
We can only hope. Vick will go to jail and serve his NFL suspension, and then there'll be the rest of his life. It need not be a tale of woe. With the right amount of contrition (from him) and compassion (from us), it might even become a heartening story in three acts: The rise, the fall, the redemption.
Redemption. The secular kind or the religious kind?