Sports Column, 31 August 2007

March 25, 2008

The dog bites man

AND YOU thought dog eat dog was an expression.

In the last few days it’s emerged that Michael Vick, a top quarterback with the Atlanta Falcons, is facing jail time because of his involvement with an illegal dog-fighting ring in the United States.

Vick may have to go to prison for five years due to his involvement with the illegal fights, which are alleged to have taken place on property owned by him, though some witnesses have suggested he’s far more proactive than simply hosting the fights.

Illegal dog-fighting is a big problem in America, where the Humane Society of the United States estimates that as many as 40,000 people participate in dog fighting either as spectators, organisers or breeders of dogs, and tens of thousands of dogs are bred for the ring.

Magazines and Internet sites openly sell training gear and display the
“Cajun Rules,” an intricate, 19-point system which is used to adjudicate dog fights. Videos depicting such fights are available for sale online,
including recently at, according to a suit filed against the website by the Humane Society.

The tacit endorsement by rappers and hip-hop artists of the practice – some videos and album covers have featured pit bull terriers in obvious reference to illegal fighting – has flushed out amoral marketers.

Four years ago sportswear company Nike — which has endorsement deals with numerous top athletes including, significantly enough, Michael Vick — released a television advertisement dubbed “The Battle” which featured a brief glimpse of a growling pit bull and Rottweiler about to face off.

A company representative denied that the ad encouraged dog fighting but added: “People have to understand the youth culture we cater to. Our market is the urban, edgy, hip-hop culture.”

Just when you were about to stamp that story with ‘Only in America’, news came out of Northern Ireland. The Dungannon area in Tyrone, to be exact, where All-Ireland medal-winner Gerard Cavlan has been named this week as a senior figure in another dog-fighting ring, with links to countries such as Finland.

Earlier in the year Cavlan was fined for involvement – he was convicted of possessing a dangerous dog and fined £650, when the court was told he’d simply collected the dog in question and wasn’t involved in any other illegal activities. However, he later admitted to the BBC that he had “a dozen or 15 dogs” and has since been named as a senior figure in the Northern Ireland dog-fighting scene.

Cavlan was taped by the BBC investigative journalist talking at length about how good one dog was in a fight: “Sure he had him in the chest, and he shook him and he shook him for 25 minutes… if he hadn’t got you killed in half an hour… he was in trouble, you know. A real hard mouthed dog.”

Suggesting any possible contact
between Vick and Cavlan isn’t so
outlandish as all that. After all, both groups used pit bull terriers, and both are fond of odd, childish nicknames. One of the gangs of animal torturers in Belfast were known as the Farmers Boys; Vick’s crew were known as Bad Newz Kennels.
AT least the Northern Ireland group had better spelling.

Professional American football has had a bad reputation for some time: at one stage last season 35 players had been arrested. Vick’s troubles confirm many people’s suspicion that a hyper-aggressive game requires hyper-aggressive players who find it difficult to switch off off the field.

Cavlan presents a more difficult case in that it jars with the image of the GAA more than somewhat. Fans of any sport tend to resemble groovy bishops’ views on ecumenism: tolerant of other faiths according to the modesty of their claims, but holding that their own is the one truth path behind it all, and requiring little encouragement to display their true colours. GAA fans are no different to rugby and soccer fans in that.

Supporters like to think of their GAA idols as hard-as-nails on the field but honest members of the community off it, rather than someone who enjoys torturing animals.

Granted, there are more than enough positive examples to outnumber Cavlan’s — by 100 to one. But that one is enough. It proves that no matter what your chosen sport, you can’t sniff at followers of other codes because there’s always something to upset your moral superiority. It shows that you’ve a right to expect sporting excellence from your heroes, and that’s it. Anything else is a bonus. Not a given.



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