I have been a lifelong fan of sports. It started as a kid when I played with my friends after school everyday. In those days, kids played out in the streets for hours without any adult supervision or worries. Video games were just catching on and my family could not afford one for years. The TV only had four channels and we had to use a coat hanger as an antenna. Simply put, playing sports was the most fun available.
During baseball season, other kids and I would play wiffle ball or play baseball using regular bats and tennis balls. When I did not have anyone to play with, I would go to a brick wall and bounce a tennis ball off it and catch the ball at different angles. Come football season, the neighborhood boys played tackle football in empty fields or played the neighborhood favorite ”kill the man with the ball.” On TV, we all had our heroes from each sport.
As we got older, we would play in organized leagues. Our coaches taught us the value of leadership and following the leader. Through our play, we learned the value of hard work, discipline and healthy competition. The rigor of practice also helped us stay in shape and develop physically and gave us confidence as young men. While we were learning all this, we were able to make lifetime friends.
Sports also served as the only thing that was able to bring together kids from all different races due to a common, shared interest. People with nothing in common were able to share the love of a team together. Fathers and sons who cannot speak of anything else together could talk about their beloved team and stay in contact through this shared interest. There are countless of young men I know who would not have graduated from high school if it would have not been for sports. I have always seen the value of sports.
We are able to learn about many important issues in our society through sports, Many Americans learned about the drug epidemic in America’s cities after college basketball star Len Bias died of a drug overdose in 1986. Muhammad Ali for many was the first Muslim-American they had ever heard of. If it was not for baseball, I even propose that many Americans would have never even have heard of the Dominican Republic.
When the Atlanta Falcons’ ultra-talented and elusive quarterback Michael Vick was arrested for his role in a dog-fighting ring a few years ago, many Americans had never heard of dog fighting. The general public was not aware that many Americans trained pit-bills and other dogs for fighting and that there was a large industry of betting surrounding the competitions.
For me and many others who have known about dog fighting our whole lives, this was no surprise, and although I do not condone dog fighting, I was not particularly horrified or offended when I found out. It is not that I believe in cruelty to animals, because it is clearly un-Islamic, or that I love dog fighting. The reality is that I just do not like dogs and am put off by people who equal the lives of dogs with humans and the fact that many dogs are getting better food and health-care in America than humans are.
The Vick ordeal did not make me love dogs and their smell, or want to kiss them on the mouth like some are known to do; but it did educate me on some very cruel practices done by those who train fighting dogs. Learning about such practices amongst our society has,made me fully understand how cruel and illegal this type of behavior really is.
When Vick went to prison, he entered the world of over two million Americans who are presently behind bars (and the millions more who have previously served time). The vast majority of people in prison do not have money and jobs to come home to and lack education. Statistics show that most return to prison.
Vick did his time in the Leavenworth federal prison complex. As he was serving his time, my brother was doing time on drug-trafficking and weapons charges in the same complex. When my brother got out and wanted to do the right thing, he landed a job working in a factory for a temporary employment agency for $8 an hour. With the God-given talent Vick had, and the forgiveness of the NFL, he landed a job as a backup to Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb.
Philly is a unique city with an interesting sports culture. It produced the Hollywood boxing champion Rocky Balboa, played by hometown hero Sylvester Stallone, as well as real life hard-nosed boxing champions like Joe Frazier and Bernard Hopkins. When you perform, the Phiily fans love you, and if you do not perform Philly will boo their own players, hence the saying ”in Philly they boo kids at Halloween.” Many professional athletes have clauses in their contracts saying they cannot be traded to Philly because of this.
This was the most difficult stage for Vick to make a comeback on. In his first year playing, he got very little time on the field. At the beginning of the second season, Vick was penciled in as a backup quarterback even after McNabb had went to the Washington Redskins. When Vick finally got his chance to start, he made the most of it and was able to put on one of the greatest seasons in NFL history with some of the most memorable performances ever seen. Not only has Vick performed as well as he did in Atlanta before he was locked up, but he is playing better than he ever has.
Just a couple of weeks before playoff time, most believe that Vick will be named the Most Valuable Player in the NFL this year and is electrifying crowds with his elusiveness, running ability, and passing prowess. Few would have thought this possible when he was doing time in Leavenworth.
However, the story of Vick is not unique. One need look no further than the city of Philadelphia. Just a couple weeks ago, 45-year-old Germantown Philly native Bernard Hopkins defied the rules of age by out boxing 27 year old Quebecer Jean Pascal in Quebec. The fight was ruled a draw; but few who watched it thought Hopkins did not deserve the decision.
Hopkins served five years in the Grateford Prison in Pennsylvania; while in prison, he converted to Islam and rediscovered his passion for boxing. After being released, he was trained by Bouie Fischer and went on to become one of the greatest middleweight champions of all time. Later, the bearded kufi-wearing Brother Nazim Richardson trained Hopkins. Richardson, who also had been in trouble with the law as a young man, gave one of the most positive examples of a Muslim ever seen on the HBO 24-7 Countdown to Mayweather-Mosley series as he made wudhu (ablution), performed salah, (prayer) and explained his beliefs as a Muslim in front of a national television audience.
Vick is not a Muslim; but he is in the right city. Philly has an enormous African-American Muslim population and it is my prayer that one of the brothers can give Vick dawah (call to Islam). Because, as remarkable as his story is now, it would be that much more special if he discovered the Qur’an and the guidance of the Messenger of Allah ﷺ.
We can gain two important lessons from this. Firstly, after salat al-jummah (Friday congressional prayer) at the masjid (mosque) look around and you will see plenty like Michael Vick and Bernard Hopkins. They were once behind bars and were blessed to be guided to a better path. Their lives were turned around and now they are positively contributing to society. Some are no longer are tempted by the street while others wrestle with their demons everyday, sometimes winning and sometimes loosing. It is our job to help them through this.
Secondly, as a society we are reluctant towards forgiving those who have broken the law in the past. After serving time in prison, many are unable to find employment due to the felony conviction. Nowadays it is even common for apartment complexes to check people’s backgrounds beforehand. This limits one from many opportunities and privileges due to a mistake made in the past. However, in order to make sure that these men and women don’t once again end up in prison, we hold the responsibility towards giving these individuals the tools and opportunities to reintegrate into society. Many hold the perspective that spending money and resources on such people is a waste. Yet, the truth of the matter is that it is still cheaper to spend money before and after people go to prison to prevent problems than to feed and house them later.
Hopefully, the lives of Michael Vick and Bernard Hopkins can be an eye opener and inspiration for those who have had similar experiences in the past. This story can also prove to people that giving others a second chance when they have made a mistake can often bring about great positive results.