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Joan Vennochi

A felon’s forward pass

More ex-cons deserve the second chance that QB Michael Vick got

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / December 26, 2010

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IF ONLY every ex-felon could get a second chance, like Michael Vick did.

Vick did the crime, served the time, and now he’s riding high in the NFL. With two weeks left in the season, the league’s MVP award could come down to two contenders, Vick of the Philadelphia Eagles and Tom Brady of the New England Patriots.

The contrasts between them, on the field and off, could not be starker.

Brady, a three-time Super Bowl winner, is a classic field general who oozes confidence, whether in cleats or in Uggs. Despite his jet-setter lifestyle, he still boasts an image of down-home family man, who sometimes walks the pampered pooch favored by his supermodel wife. Endorsements and praise flow as lavishly as his locks.

Vick grew up poor, made it big in football, then lost everything after involvement in a dog fighting ring that featured animal torture and grisly death. The NFL suspended him for conduct that was “not only illegal, but also cruel and reprehensible.’’ The player whose NFL jersey was once a best-seller became an object of ridicule and loathing. Endorsers dropped him. He served 19 months in prison, and he filed for bankruptcy.

Many believed Vick’s football career was — and should be — over. But after his release, the Eagles signed him. At first, he mostly sat on the bench. Then, after the Eagles traded their quarterback and the new starter got injured, it was Vick’s moment. He seized it and staged a tremendous comeback.

This season, the Eagles are 10-4, and Vick’s gritty, scrambling style of play could take his team to the Super Bowl. His potential to win the coveted honor of MVP (chosen by sportswriters) got a boost last week when the Eagles made a 21-point comeback in the final eight minutes of a thrilling win against the Giants.

Vick saw the playing field for what it is, a great equalizer.

If the MVP contest only measures statistics and performance — not morals and ethics — Vick and Brady are equally worthy of the prize. That’s the beauty and ugliness of professional sports: Throw a ball deeper and more accurately than anyone else, and the past can be forgiven if not forgotten, even if it includes the electrocution of dogs.

The world is less kind to other ex-cons. The stigma of serving time for a felony slams most doors shut, especially doors that lead to employment.

“You pay your debt to society, but for most people, this debt continues throughout the course of your lifetime,’’ said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a national organization that promotes reforms in sentencing law and practice.

Job-seekers, generally, must disclose felony convictions, and, in a majority of states, employers can even ask applicants to disclose arrests that did not lead to conviction. Each state has a broad range of restrictions on occupational licensing for people with felony convictions. While it makes sense to keep convicted pedophiles from employment in daycare centers, in some states a felony conviction means a person can’t be a barber or cosmetologist. (To its credit, Massachusetts overhauled its own criminal-records laws this year to help give ex-felons a better shot at employment.)

Still, a drug conviction can stop an individual from receiving welfare or food stamps. There are also restrictions on access to public housing. In some states — including Virginia, where Vick was born — an ex-felon can never vote again without a pardon from the governor.

Life is so difficult after prison, with so little encouragement offered by society, that a return to crime and ultimately prison can feel inevitable. But, after his release from prison, Vick was mentored by former Baltimore Colts coach Tony Dungy, who still cheers him on as an analyst for NBC. “He’s playing lights-out,’’ Dungy said of Vick after the Eagles beat the Giants.

Everyone wants to help Vick. When the former dog abuser recently mused about wanting a puppy, the head of the Humane Society said Vick should not be denied dog ownership for the rest of his life, just because of his previous record.

What’s wrong with the world is not that Vick is back in the NFL, and in the running for MVP.

It’s that others deserve a second chance, but will never get it.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.