Almost two weeks ago Michael Vick signed with the Philadelphia Eagles, resulting in a P.R. battle that is only just beginning to die down, at least until he takes his first snap in a regular season game. On Wednesday the Philadelphia School Reform Commission gave approval, with Mayor Michael Nutter's blessing, for "Who's the Boss?" actor Tony Danza to bring a reality show to Northeast High School to film him teaching English to 10th graders for an A&E show tentatively called "Teach." As a Philadelphian who loves the Eagles and has a history of working with inner-city teens, I am deeply uncomfortable with one of these events -- and it's probably not the one you would guess.
Michael Vick can scramble and pass (sort of) but he has committed despicable gruesome acts of violence toward animals. On the other hand, Tony Danza is a triple threat: He can sing, he can dance, and he can act (sort of), and as far as I know he has done nothing that compares with the crimes committed by Vick. What Danza can't do, as far as I know, is teach.
What Vick can also do is speak to at-risk young people about the dangers of a world that he was intimately involved with. Vick can tell those kids how his involvement with dog-fighting cost him two years in a federal prison and how it may still, ultimately, cost him his dream life, the kind of dream life that so many kids want. In order to regain and maintain some semblance of that dream life, Vick will need to become the public face of the Humane Society, he will have to do tireless outreach with at-risk teens, he will need to live not simply as a player staying out of trouble in the NFL but as a player whose second chance life in the NFL is beyond reproach and an example to others. It is not simply his background but also his desperation that will give him his credibility -- that is, if he is strong enough to make actual changes in his life. And even then, even if he is able to do all that, and regain something of his past life it will not be enough, because he will always be the villain to some. Perhaps to most.
As far as I know, no one considers Tony Danza a villain.
What Danza can do, according to IMDb, is watch almost every episode of "24" with Liza Minnelli, which is great, but I'm not sure what kind of credibility that provides him with when it comes time to stand in front of a classroom of kids trying to learn how to write a decent essay. What Danza's show can do is make Danza look great. It can make him wealthier than a Philadelphia public school teacher could ever imagine. It can make his students into reality TV celebrities (and we all know how well that turns out). It can blur lines for his viewers about what urban education is really like. Danza can take the often harsh reality of what it's like to work in a world where the graduation rate hovers around 50 percent and turn it into the romantic clichés of "Dangerous Minds," "Freedom Writers" and "Coach Carter."
This is, of course, all speculation. Vick may not last more than a month before lapsing into some sort of bad behavior that isn't simply limited to canine torture and murder. Danza may be vigilant in his efforts to depict an accurate portrayal of what life must be like on the front lines of urban education without reverting to the sentimental, the sensational or the trite. But when you ask yourself which scenario seems more likely -- Vick failing to escape his past or Danza making a thoughtful project about education in American cities -- it becomes painfully obvious whose need is greater, and whose lesson is more honest.
Tony Danza can take the sensational lens of reality TV and make the difficult truths of urban education in America into the stuff of fantasy. Michael Vick has taken his fantasy life and turned it into a terrible lens through which we are forced to view some of the difficult realities still faced by urban America. There is no doubt in my mind which lesson is more important.