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Wednesday, April 27, 2011
Michael Vick? Peyton Hillis? Chill, folks!

By Patrick Hruby
Special to ESPN.com

OK, pop quiz. The conclusion of online fan voting to select the cover athlete for the latest installment of the Madden football video game franchise will produce:

A. A bright, shining endorsement of cruelty to animals, not to mention felonious criminal behavior;

B. Fame, fortune and glory for an athlete who is benefiting from his skin pigmentation and arguably isn't even the best NFL player at his position within his own team's division;

C. A totally undeserving winner;

D. All of the above, plus a single, salty tear, running down the Statue of Liberty's copper cheek.

Vick
Michael Vick is one of the most exciting players in the game. But he has baggage.

The correct answer? For anyone following the Madden NFL 12 cover vote, it's a pick 'em. After a month of digital ballot casting, a 32-player field has been narrowed to two finalists, each vying for top billing on the Facebook generation's version of the Wheaties box.

" Philadelphia quarterback Michael Vick.

" Cleveland running back Peyton Hillis.

A pairing that has touched off a heated, spirited debate over race, morality, corporate responsibility and other thorny issues that largely miss the crucial point.

Namely, there shouldn't be a debate in the first place. Both players are perfectly reasonable choices. The republic will persevere regardless.

Also, we're talking about a game box.

First things first: ESPN and EA Sports have a business relationship. The Madden vote results will be announced Wednesday on ESPN2's "SportsNation." And in the interest of full disclosure, be aware that yours truly previously has written extensively about the Madden franchise.

Still, before you dismiss me as a water-carrying corporate shill, hear me out. And then write me off.

Fair enough?

Let's start with Vick. He's a spectacular football talent, runner-up for league MVP honors and the Comeback Player of the Year. He's also a convicted felon who was deeply involved in a dogfighting ring and missed two seasons while serving a federal prison sentence.

As such, animal rights activists reportedly have asked EA Sports to remove him from the cover contest. Meanwhile, some gamers claim they won't buy the game if Vick is featured on the packaging.

This sentiment is misguided. Sincere, probably. Honest, maybe. But misguided nonetheless.

Peyton Hillis
He's good, sure. But Peyton Hillis probably isn't the league's best running back.

Look, Vick isn't a nominee for benediction. Nor is he being considered for Dogcatcher General. He's simply a contender for the box art of a video game that focuses on professional football -- in essence, an entertainment product that simulates another entertainment product in entertaining fashion. Nothing more. A vote for Vick isn't a vote for torturing and killing animals. It's simply a measure of his popularity as a throwing, scrambling NFL player.

Something that shouldn't be confused with his merit as a member of society. No matter how tempting.

Fans and journalists alike -- myself included -- often make the unthinking mistake of conflating entertainment value with social utility, athletic ability with moral character. We want to believe that good players make for good people. Better people, even.

To their eternal moneymaking credit, advertisers and sponsors do little to disabuse this notion.

Of course, life teaches otherwise. A beautiful golf swing doesn't make you a family man. Clever dribbling doesn't make you too smart to drink and drive. Most of us older than, say, age 12 are able to integrate this dissonance into our rooting. We can enjoy an athlete's gutsy performance on the field without condoning his after-hours cell phone usage; thrill to a rerun of "Lethal Weapon" without endorsing Mel Gibson's -- ahem -- unorthodox religious viewpoints.

Another case in point? Vick himself. Last season, he received 1.5 million fan votes for the Pro Bowl. Was the NFL being an irresponsible corporate citizen by placing Vick on the ballot for what amounts to a colorful flag football game?

Are all of those 1.5 million voters anti-puppy?

No. And no. Context counts. Personally, I adore dogs as much as anyone. But emotion aside, protesting Vick on the Madden cover isn't saying no to harming animals; it's basically taking a stand against exciting football. Anyone who loves dogs would be better off donating a few bucks to a local shelter.

(Still, if Vick ends up winning and you're a gamer who really can't get around it, a few suggestions: A. print an alternative cover; B. use custom scheduling to remove the Eagles; C. trade him to Detroit.)

On to Hillis. The argument against the bruising Browns runner is bipartite. One, he isn't statistically good enough to grace the game's cover, traditionally reserved for stat-sheet-stuffers such as Daunte Culpepper (circa 2000) and Drew Brees. Two, the only reason the largely unknown Hillis has made it this far in the voting is that he's pro football's answer to both Sasquatch and/or an underexposed Kardashian sister.

In other words, a white starting running back.

VIck
Is this what's keeping some people from voting for Vick?

The fantasy football contingent has a point: Hillis wasn't statistically dominant. On one hand, he became the first Browns rusher to crack the 1,000-yard mark since 2008 by tallying 1,117 yards and 11 touchdowns last season; on the other hand, he was the 11th-ranked runner in the league, and his eight fumbles were the most by anyone in the top 40. Within the AFC North, Pittsburgh's Rashard Mendenhall and Baltimore's Ray Rice both finished with more rushing yards than Hillis.

Nevertheless, Hillis defeated Matt Ryan (3,705 passing yards), Jamaal Charles (6.4 yards per carry) and Aaron Rodgers (Super Bowl MVP) in the cover contest's tournament-style fan voting, which only highlights the obvious: It's an election. A popularity contest. Stats don't matter. Votes do.

To borrow from Clint Eastwood in "Unforgiven": Deserving's got nothin' to do with it.

As for the source of Hillis' popularity? Maybe the fact that he's a light-skinned positional anomaly has something to do with it. Then again, maybe not. As is the case with many race-based arguments, it's nigh impossible to spin superficial correlation (most of the faces on a "Vote Hillis" Facebook page are white) into demonstrable causation (white voters favor white candidates on the racist basis of skin color). Indeed, short of injecting each and every Hillis supporter with truth serum, who knows why they clicked on his name?

Could be they're rabid Browns fans.

Could be they dig Hillis' perceived status as an underdog candidate.

Could be they like his smashmouth running style.

Perhaps it's all of the above, channeled and amplified by social media get-out-the-vote campaigns.

Heck, it's just as likely that Hillis' ballot box success is the result of fans' voting against their favorite players, the better to spare them from the much-hyped Madden cover curse.

Whatever the case, neither Hillis nor Vick is unworthy of appearing on the game's box. In fact, it's worth remembering that all of the hubbub is over just that: a game box. Years ago, EA Sports director of player relations Sandy Sandoval came up with the idea of putting NFL players on the game's cover. He thought it would be a smart marketing move, a way to connect with customers unmoved by images of a retired football coach.

He never imagined it would become something so much more involved.

"Without a doubt it's a cultural phenomenon, and everyone wants to give two cents for good and bad reasons," Sandoval says. "It gives them something to debate about. And we're sensitive to these issues. We're not blind. But at the end of the day, it's a video game, a football game. We're not trying to make any political statements."

In other words: Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes the vote for the cover of a popular video game is just a promotional tool used to raise awareness of an upcoming consumer product.

A tool, by the way, that seems to be working rather nicely.

Patrick Hruby is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. Read his blog, follow him on Twitter and contact him at PatrickHruby.net.

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