A few weeks ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers met with and signed a one-year contract with quarterback Michael Vick, who until 2007 had run the dog fighting ring Bad Newz Kennels, where he and his associates forced countless animals into fatal situations and brutally tortured and killed others who were underperforming in the ring. After Vick was handpicked by Steelers coach Mike Tomlin to step in as a backup for Ben Roethlisberger, the latter athlete responded by saying, “It’s about football. That’s what matters to me most.” We don’t see it that way, and neither does Kentucky-based artist and Steelers fan Levity Tomkinson.
Tomkinson and her foster dog Ellie
The dogs who survived Bad Newz Kennels have gone on to be loving and gentle family dogs, and in some cases, therapy dogs. These dogs have become a beacon of fortitude and perseverance in the face of excruciating trauma. Through her artwork, Tomkinson has connected with the families of these sweet survivors; she knows their stories. The day after the Steelers made the decision to sign Vick, she drafted a letter that expresses everything so many of us are now feeling. In this case, the line between right and wrong isn’t blurred; it’s clear-cut and unambiguous. The team hasn’t yet crossed that moral 50-yard line; there’s still time for them to overturn the decision and become a voice for good.
“If you would also like to contact the Steelers regarding their decision, please respectfully email them at firstname.lastname@example.org or call them at (412) 432-7801,” adds the artist. Below is her emailed response to the Steelers regarding the situation.
“To The Pittsburgh Steelers:
“My name is Levity Tomkinson and I am the creator of The Re51lient Project: 51 Paintings of the Dogs Rescued From Michael Vick’s Bad Newz Kennels. Re51lient (for short and pronounced “resilient”) is an art advocacy project that combines my signature style pop-art painting and positive, emotionally driven writing and will culminate in the paintings and inspirational stories of all 51 Pit Bull type dogs rescued from Bad Newz Kennels. With The Re51lient Project, I aim to promote a highly positive image for Pit Bull and Pit Bull type dogs, dogs rescued from fighting rings and to show others that if these dogs can triumph, love, continue forward and just simply be happy, then we as humans have the ability to wake up every morning and do the same. It is with these dogs deeply embedded in my heart, and others everywhere who have ever been or will be a part of a fighting ring, that I write to you all concerning the 1-year signing of Michael Vick.
“I was raised to pledge allegiance to the Steelers, a team firmly planted in my family’s love of football. When I heard about the possibility of you all signing Vick, I immediately texted my dad (the guy who taught me how to wave the terrible towel) in an attempt to hopefully clear up what had to be a disgusting rumor. His reply was, ‘Maybe,’ but he helped to ease my mind some when he said, ‘I doubt they’ll sign him. They don’t go for trouble players.’
“And that’s what brings me to my next point. After it was confirmed that Vick was in fact signed, I began to read different media outlets’ articles. Coach Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethlisberger and other members of the Steelers all referred to his talent as a football player and seemed to view Vick’s past as something inconsequential, something that doesn’t matter because he is viewed as an asset as a football player. When does entertainment, greed, money, when do all of those things stop being what’s most important? Vick orchestrated a dog-fighting ring on his property. Vick bred dogs in rape stalls. Vick bet money on fights conducted on his own property. Vick watched dogs maul each other apart. Vick murdered dogs. In particular, Vick and another man took the front and back legs of a little red dog and repeatedly slammed this dog, back and forth, into the ground until death. How does such an unspeakably horrendous act such as this become acceptable for the value of entertainment, greed and money?
“I understand that this is football. I understand that what Vick did was not on the football field. But what I don’t understand is how your organization is able to segregate the horrors that Vick orchestrated and performed when making the decision to have him become a part of the Steelers. What he did was not stealing candy from a store. It wasn’t running a red light. It wasn’t jaywalking. It was a calculated, thoughtful, purposeful ring of breeding, gambling, fighting and murdering living beings. Some people hold the thought that because dogs are not humans, it doesn’t matter. How can it not matter when you imagine that dog being repeatedly body slammed to the ground by two men, one of whom is now a part of your team, the sounds the dog made, the incredible pain inflicted upon it, the aftermath of an abused, bloodied, broken, beaten dog?
“I hope that you all are flooded with emails and calls and petitions due to your decision. Perhaps you will even be so busy that you won’t have read my entire email. And if that is the case, that will be good because perhaps this will allow the Steelers to set a precedent in the NFL. To say, ‘We made a mistake and we are righting our wrong. We do not support players whose personal lives do not reflect what is right.’ To show to the millions of people, as well as children, who are devoted to the NFL as well as the Steelers that there is good in this industry. There are people who do the right thing because they listen to what their heart and mind are saying, not greenbacks in their pockets. To say, ‘These players are more than the TDs they can throw, the passes they can receive, the sacks they can make. Our organization believes in being more than only what you do on the field.’
“I implore you all to listen. To educate yourselves on what Vick did as a person, not as a football player. To own the mistake you all have made and remedy it. There are many issues within the NFL in regards to the conduct of players off the field. When I posted on social media that others can contact the Steelers to let them know how they feel regarding your decision, someone commented to me,’My concern is do we cause the same uproar or ruckus for other players and/or acts of disrespect, hurt, harm or danger? Where is the standard?’ And to that, as well as to you all, I say where we begin making our voices heard I don’t think matters as much as the fact that we ARE making our voices heard and we are beginning the momentum to continue forward to ensure that our voices are never lost.
“As I wrote above, there are many issues within the NFL and the conduct of their players. However, right now, in this moment, the Steelers have a golden opportunity to become an impetus for change. Imagine if you all acted according to what is right. What kind of change would that spur within the NFL? What shockwaves would that send through the community? Within your organization, you have the ability to do something so good and right and wonderful that it would be the beginning of forever changing the face of the NFL. I hope that you all understand the weight of your situation and I sincerely hope that you all are able to become a beacon of light, and not darkness, in the NFL.
Levity E. Tomkinson
Creator of The Re51lient Project”
If you suspect dog fighting, please contact the Humane Society of the United States hotline by phone at 1-877-TIP-HSUS. To help dogs in situations similar to those rescued from Vick’s ring, please consider donating to one of the rescues that took them in after the incident and provided them with safe and happy lives. Tomkinson recommends the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, UT, BAD RAP and Our Pack. Other amazing organizations have been founded in honor of the dogs who suffered at Bad Newz, including Handsome Dan’s Rescue, Gracie’s Guardians, and Jasmine’s House. Every bit helps.
Handsome Dan, the rescue behind Handsome Dan’s Rescue
Featured image of Levity Tomkinson and her best friend Rinlee via A. Clark Photography