The Velvet Floor

or Benefit of Clout

Michael Vick’s rehabilitation pops up in the moral/religious blogs a lot these days.  It raises a lot of issues.  Like, who deserves a second chance? A second chance at what?  Is a professional athlete a role model, and if so, what are his obligations?  What about “morals clauses” in actors’ contracts?  What is forgiveness, and who is entitled to it?

I’m trying to dodge most of those questions right now, and deal with the one that gripes me most—the velvet floor.  That is, when ordinary people like you and me mess up, generally speaking, that’s the end of us.  If we get busted for felonies, we will do our time, and we will next be seen greeting customers at Wal-Mart or waiting tables at Denny’s, if not panhandling on the street or living in seedy Section 8 apartments on our Social Security benefits.

But when somebody rich or important gets busted, for just about anything short of first-degree murder, in the first place s/he is likely to do only minimal time in a reasonably decent institution. And upon getting out—well, junk bond fraudster Michael Milkin served his 22 months, and was then released to a halfway house where he was required to pay $1,300.00 per week for his room and board.  This was in 1993, when nobody I knew personally even earned $1,300.00 per week, much less lived anyplace where that was the cost of room and board.  And then there was Martha Stewart, who did 5 months in, and redecorated, a relatively decent women’s federal joint in West Virginia, and then returned to her $16M estate on Long Island to complete her sentence with house arrest.  Now she has paid her debt to society and is back running her enterprises and living the gracious life.  And now, Michael Vick is back on the street, reinstated in the NFL, and signed to a multi-million dollar contract.

OTOH, O.J. Simpson is in prison. Reportedly the institution is one of the newest and smallest in the state of Nevada, but he is in there for between 9 and 33 years, and, unlike Milkin, he is not in a position where he can talk his sentence down by giving information to the government, which already knows everything it wants to know about the original crime.

But that’s where Benefit of Clout comes in.  It’s analogous to Benefit of Clergy in the Middle Ages.  Remember?  That’s what Henry II and Becket fought over.  Becket won, though at serious cost to himself.  As a result, if you were a cleric (a status which, at that time, could range from archbishop to a merely literate male) and got busted for a first-time offense, your penalty was to lose your clerical status.  Kind of like Simpson lost his Public Image after being busted for the murder of his wife.  After the SECOND offense, you would be treated like any other criminal.  Like Simpson, in fact, after his hare-brained extortion, robbery, and kidnapping scheme.

Closer to home, my former alderman, who got busted a while back for taking a bribe, is now out of prison and making good money in real estate (or as good as anybody in real estate makes these days.)  I liked him; I felt bad when he went to prison.  But if I had done the same thing, I would probably still be behind bars. And when I got out, I would have nothing but my Social Security.

I’m not saying that Michael Vick SHOULDN’T have been reinstated in the NFL and signed by the Eagles.  Presumably he’s still a good football player, capable of doing the job he has been hired for.  His conviction was not for anything that impacts on his athletic performance.  Apparently he kept in shape while behind bars.  I’m just pointing out that the benefits of wealth and influence survive all kinds of public bad behavior, at least the first time around.  And maybe we need to think about whether they should.

Red Emma

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