Criminology Profs Study Perceptions Via NFL Case
Opinions on Sentencing Divided Along Racial Lines in Michael Vick Incident

A study of how race affects perceptions of justice found that nonwhites believe NFL player Michael Vick was punished too harshly for his role in a high-profile dogfighting case and whites think his treatment was too lax, three UT Dallas criminologists recently reported.

The study, “Race, Punishment, and the Michael Vick Experience” by Dr. Alex Piquero, Dr. Nicole Leeper Piquero and Dr. J.C. Barnes, was published in the June 2011 issue of Social Science Quarterly.

The researchers, all criminology professors in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences, chose to examine racial perceptions about criminal punishment and subsequent re-entry into society because Vick’s situation sparked a highly publicized outcry. The study also evaluated Vick’s reinstatement into the NFL in 2009.

Alex Piquero

Dr. Alex Piquero

“Whites were less likely to support the reinstatement, and nonwhites were more likely to support the reinstatement,” Piquero said.

The NFL suspended Vick, then a starting quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons, in 2007 after he pleaded guilty to charges surrounding his involvement in a dog fighting ring. He served 21 months in a federal prison and returned to the NFL in 2009 as a third-string quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles.

“We had a high profile athlete who was punished by the criminal justice system, and then he was punished by his employer,” Piquero said. “Then, he was led back into the profession, and so we were curious to see how different people from different racial groups viewed his criminal justice punishment and then how they viewed his coming back into the game, especially since the game of football is not only watched by men and women at virtually equal percentages, but it transcends race and ethnicity.”

A phone survey of 400 adults was conducted across the United States. The survey focused on attitudes about different issues such as taxes and Vick’s punishment and re-instatement.

The findings also highlight the resistance people may face after they have served their prison terms and re-enter society.

Nicole Leeper Piquero

Dr. Nicole Leeper Piquero

“What does that mean for a common criminal who doesn’t have the accolades that Michael Vick had on the football field?” Leeper Piquero said. “If it’s hard for him and he’s facing this resistance of people not allowing him to re-enter society, what will the average criminal face when they go back into their community?… We want them to successfully re-enter society, but we need to help by starting to break down some of these perceptions and by understanding that re-entry might be harder because of public perceptions.” 

Research has shown that 66 percent of offenders will recidivate after three years, Piquero said. Based on this statistic, Barnes said, the re-entry process is important for offenders, yet there is a disparity in perceptions.

J.C. Barnes

Dr. J.C. Barnes

“We see things like this (study findings) which show that re-entry may not be what the public wants,” Barnes said.  “This helps illuminate the divide between good policy and what the public wants the policy to be.”

Barnes said the findings provide more evidence of the areas that are related to race and ethnicity.

“It’s not at all a clear conclusion that there is a racial divide in sentence and punishment,” Barnes said. “But there is a divide in punishment perceptions.  So it’s not clear that perceptions are linking up perfectly with reality.”

Other researchers who contributed to the study include Florida State University professor, Marc Getz, and Florida State University graduate students, Thomas Baker and Jason Batton.

Michael Vick is back playing pro football after his imprisonment and NFL suspension on charges related to his involvement in a dogfighting ring.


Vick recently signed a six-year, $100 million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].

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