Should we forgive Michael Vick?

Science says we'll be healthier if we do, but some argue there's room in a healthy life for a good grudge

Published August 17, 2009 10:15AM (EDT)

Let's be clear: Michael Vick's involvement in the blood sport of dogfighting was beyond wrong. It was horrifying, senseless and inhumane. The Virginia-based Bad Newz Kennels, which Vick funded, was reported to have executed pit bulls deemed unfit to compete. This was as brutal as it gets.

Still, it's time to consider forgiveness for Michael Vick.

Last month, Vick completed a 23-month prison sentence. He has admitted to his mistakes, apologized to the National Football League, his fans and his former coaches and teammates with the Atlanta Falcons. He has pledged to reform his ways, including working with the Humane Society of the United States on anti-dogfighting campaigns.

Last month, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell reinstated Vick on a conditional basis, saying the 29-year-old quarterback, who last week signed a two-year deal with the Philadelphia Eagles, is free to take part in preseason practices, workouts and meetings, as well as to participate in two preseason games. News of Vick's acquisition by the Eagles prompted a harsh reaction from many, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who condemned the signing and questioned what message it sends to young fans. Undoubtedly, the team will face a public-relations nightmare.

Even so, Goodell is justified in lifting the suspension issued in August 2007, after Vick pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges. It's the way of our justice system, the way of civilized societies. Someone commits a crime. He's sentenced. He completes the sentence. Then he's welcomed back. If we can't see fit to toss goodwill Vick's way for these reasons, consider this one: Forgiveness is good for our health.

Forgiving is defined in a recent Mayo Clinic consumer publication as "acknowledging hurt and then letting it go, along with the burden of anger and resentment." Once achieved, forgiveness results in a decrease of negative thoughts and feelings toward an offender and an increase in positive thoughts and feelings. Studies on forgiveness have proliferated over the past decade, with researchers linking the process to better responses in terms of cardiovascular performance, nervous-system health, and immune function, to name a few.

A central message is that harboring a grudge appears to be detrimental to both psychological and physical well-being. "People who have been able to forgive show clear health benefits," says Kathleen Lawler-Row, who chairs the psychology department at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., and has published her findings in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine and the Journal of Psychophysiological Research. "Whether we're looking at heart rate and blood pressure or whether we're looking at the number of medicines someone is on, their quality of sleep or the number of physical symptoms they report. Almost every way I've thought to measure it, people who have been able to think forgivingly show health benefits."

Similarly, Charlotte van Oyen Witvliet, a professor of psychology at Hope College in Holland, Mich., monitored physiological responses of 71 college students for a 2001 study in psychological science, first as they mentally rehashed an offense and nursed a grudge, and later as they attempted to focus on the humanity of an offender and extend forgiveness. When focused on unforgiving responses, the participants' blood pressure surged, heart rates increased, brow muscles tensed and negative feelings escalated. By contrast, forgiving responses generated calmer feelings and milder physical responses.

Given such reports, deriding Vick the next time he steps out in public might be something you do at your own risk, says Frederic Luskin, a health psychologist and director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project. "If every time you see Michael Vick take the field you boo and say nasty things at the top of your lungs, you are flooding your system with stress hormones," he says. "And just think, you caused all that stress yourself when you could have gone out and enjoyed the game."

Luskin, author of "Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness," says it's important to remember that forgiving doesn't involve condoning, forgetting or excusing a wrong; nor does it require reconciling with the offender. "What Michael Vick did was a violation against humans' and other species' desire to protect the helpless," he says. "Maybe he should never be allowed to own a dog or participate in any business that has a dog. But there has got to be a chance for people to return because some people do learn from their mistakes and their punishment. If he had done what he did three times and clearly was not redeemable, that's a different thing."

Should Goodell continue to receive positive reports from Vick's probation officer and other professionals assigned to work with the athlete, full reinstatement could occur by Week 6 of the regular season. Former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy has been mentoring Vick throughout the summer and has agreed to continue in that role. "I think Michael deserves the chance to show people that he has changed and learned from past mistakes," Dungy wrote in his diary on "I know the public will be skeptical but, I think, over time, people will find there's a different side to him than what they've seen so far."

Said Eagles coach Andy Reid: "I'm a believer that, as long as people go through the right process, they deserve a second chance. Michael has done that."

Refusing to forgive or to encourage rehabilitation is, in Luskin's view, a reflection of those doing the refusing. "Part of this is about our character," he says, "including the way we talk about the wrongdoer. Michael Vick has paid his dues. Now, do I keep telling my son he's a bum? That's about character."

By most accounts, forgiveness demands considerable time and effort. There is no single method, although for many the process is intra-psychic rather than interpersonal, meaning it can be accomplished without engaging the offender.

Forgiveness can occur as the result of talking with a friend, a therapist or an advisor, according to the Mayo Clinic. On his Web site,, Luskin lists nine steps, including: experiencing feelings of anger and hurt then committing to doing what is necessary to feel better, adopting a stress-management technique such as deep breathing to deal with recurring tension, learning not to expect more than others are prepared to give, and finding alternative ways to meet goals rather than replaying an experience that triggers hurt.

But not everyone believes forgiveness is the only healthy solution. "We don't have a word in the language for healthy nonforgiveness," says Jeanne Safer, a New York psychotherapist and author of "Forgiving and Not Forgiving: Why Sometimes It's Better NOT to Forgive." Yet Safer contends there is such a concept.

Rather than flat-out forgiving, which may trigger guilt and anxiety in someone who is unable or unwilling to release resentment, Safer recommends revisiting the wrong. "To help yourself feel better you should not have an agenda other than wanting to understand," Safer says. "That way, you can't fail."

Forgiveness may prove to be an intensely personal choice. Safer, for instance, deems it her "ethical duty" not to forgive the 911 terrorists. "My blood pressure is not disturbed and I'm not giving myself cancer by saying there are certain things I must not forgive. What hurts your health is to forgive superficially and really still feel angry deep down."

Someone who attempted understanding is Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, who visited Vick at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas. There, Pacelle learned that Vick's involvement in dogfighting began in childhood, which, Pacelle says, "explains it more as a cultural phenomenon than an entirely aberrational act of cruelty."

The Humane Society expects Vick to participate in two anti-dogfighting events per month with the first to occur "imminently." Pacelle declined to provide specifics for security reasons but says he believes it's "in [Vick's] professional interest to help us."

As to the motivation for Vick's offer to participate, Pacelle says he doesn't know and doesn't care. "I'm really after outcomes," he says. "If he can help steer kids away from dogfighting then that's an acceptable outcome." Referring to himself as a "participating skeptic," Pacelle says he believes in forgiveness but hasn't forgiven Vick. "I'm holding out hope that he'll change and become a better person. If he does change and contribute then I'll be the first person to applaud because I embrace change. I want him to change."

Like Pacelle, Safer favors second chances but stops short of advocating forgiveness. She doubts that any dog lover will completely forgive Vick and wonders whether the best response might be along the lines of what she terms, "forgiveness lite," a more nuanced and neutral reaction.

"It's, 'Play football, but I don't really want you as my friend,'" she says. "There's a spectrum of responses that are humane. And if I don't end up forgiving him, why is that so bad?" She questions those who rush to forgive and maintains that much of the press coverage spouting forgiveness amounts to Christianity disguised as psychology. "While I say the only way to get out of being a victim is to understand, Christians say the only way to get out of being a victim is to forgive."

Despite endorsing a philosophy of "hating the sin and loving the sinner," Luskin says he doesn't approach forgiveness from a religious standpoint. "There's a deep human quality about it that, when practiced, makes people happier and healthier," he says. "When you're actively harsh you're part of a human race that keeps harshness going and makes it harder for everyone to heal and move forward."

By Dana Scarton

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