There in my closet hangs my Michael Vick Atlanta Falcons jersey, likely never to be worn again. I think some of my other shirts have actually scooted down the rod to get away from it – I’ve moved my Brett Favre jersey to another closet altogether to remove the taint. One of my friends suggested I cut the Vick jersey up, tie the pieces up into knots, and donate it to the humane society as a dog toy. In a symbolic way, the dogs will then have their day.

As everyone knows by now, Vick has been indicted on federal charges that he ran a barbaric dog fighting operation at one of his homes in suburban Virginia. Included in the indictment are allegations that Vick was present when dogs were shot, electrocuted, and drowned when they were no longer useful to the dog fighting endeavor. The indictment provides detailed accounts of Vick and his conspirators hosting pit bull fights where dogs ripped each other to pieces, while tens of thousands of dollars were wagered.

Vick’s actions as detailed in the federal indictment have been universally condemned (except maybe by cats). But the hot question making the rounds now becomes – what do we do with him now? Does the National Football League suspend him to avoid the negative publicity and possible financial loss associated with Vick’s activities? Or do they respect the fact that he has only been indicted at this point and let him play pending his legal proceedings?

Reasonable people engaged in the debate around America are free to disagree about whether Vick should face suspension. What people in Wisconsin don’t realize, however, is that under Wisconsin employment law, there wouldn’t be any debate – the NFL wouldn’t be able to take any action against Vick, even if he were convicted of these vicious crimes.

The Wisconsin Fair Employment Act (FEA) states that employers may not discriminate against their employees based on factors such as age, race, creed, color, disability, marital status, sex, national origin, ancestry, arrest record, or conviction record. This goes for hiring, firing, or “barring from employment” employees in these categories. In fact, “arrest record” is further defined in the statutes to include indictments.[i] Thus, in the eyes of Wisconsin law, suspending an employee based on a non-work related indictment, as Vick has experienced, is the same as suspending them for being Hispanic or in a wheelchair.

This demonstrates the incongruity in the Wisconsin law. Ultimately, employers are the ones responsible for maintaining the safety and respectability of their workplace. Yet under the standard set by the Wisconsin law, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wouldn’t be able to suspend Adam “Pacman” Jones for “making it rain,” or Tank Johnson for the prison time he served due to various assault and weapons charges. The league could suspend Vick for wearing the wrong socks or missing scheduled public relations events – why shouldn’t they be able to suspend him for his heinous acts (some of which are undisputed)? That is why most people don’t question the NFL’s ability to suspend Vick – they know that the NFL could take a major hit in prestige and advertising revenue should Vick’s presence continue to fester like an open sore. Wisconsin’s businesses aren’t afforded this luxury.

Whether or not Vick has actually been found guilty of anything is irrelevant under the Wisconsin FEA. If he were “Michael Vick the elementary school bus driver” and had been convicted of drowning and electrocuting dogs (or even worse, forcing them to watch “The View,”) then congratulations – he’d be driving your kids to school tomorrow. Fire him, and your school district would first find itself in court, then likely paying Vick a tidy settlement (with your tax dollars) for his discriminatory firing.

The most troublesome aspect of the Wisconsin law is that it treats criminal activity as a “status” rather than a “behavior.” An individual’s status as an African American, female, or Muslim is one under which one has no control. Conversely, becoming a felon is a conscious decision one makes – a decision that demonstrates a substantial problem in judgment or an unwillingness to respect workplace rules. It is this behavior that will saddle an employer who has to make a decision about the type of workplace they want to run.

If the NFL wants to protect its product, it should have the ability to either suspend or fire Vick and other alleged criminals within its workforce. Accordingly, Wisconsin businesses should be given the same authority to protect their own product. In the interest of justice, dogs in Wisconsin should be thankful that their state’s law doesn’t apply.

-July 22, 2007

[i] An exception is made for criminal activities which are “substantially related” to the job at hand, but courts have been all over the map as to what this means. Plus, what job “substantially relates” do having dogs mutilate each other?