Commentary

Guns and the Gilbert Arenas case

Arenas, Plaxico Burress and others give us a chance to make a difference about guns

Originally Published: February 3, 2010
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

handgunsAP Photo/Chris CarlsonThe gun "cool" issue is a serious problem in professional sports and society in general.

Gilbert Arenas has joined Plaxico Burress as the latest high-profile athletes to be suspended from their sports for tapping into their inner Doc Holliday, providing yet another opportunity to develop something beyond the superficial conversations about race and guns and culture. If the Burress precedent serves as an example of what is to come, however, the Arenas situation surely will devolve along familiar lines.

[+] EnlargeGilbert Arenas
AP Photo/Evan VucciGilbert Arenas didn't argue his suspension, but he still faces legal issues.

In fact, it's happening already. Arenas attempted to get ahead of the issue by writing an op-ed column in The Washington Post that read like the athlete's 12-step image-laundering program, crafted apparently with the knowledge that the proper note of sorrow can be as valuable as a running bank shot. He wrote that he was embarrassed. He did not challenge his suspension from NBA commissioner David Stern, accepting his punishment without a messy union fight.

He repudiated his former flippancy, and now, at 28, he says he suddenly has realized that carrying guns is not a good idea. He mentioned the children he let down and the message his irresponsible gunplay sent them. He asked for forgiveness with the contrite understanding that it is something he might not receive. Above all, he wrote that he is willing to pay the price for his actions.

Stern displayed the requisite toughness in dealing with the infraction by suspending Arenas for the rest of the season, thus satisfying fans, sponsors and players who might have been soured on his game and leadership by the appearance that another gifted athlete had been allowed to escape responsibility because of his ability.

And the pundits, well practiced after having seen this play out so many times, delivered the perfect pitch of uncomprehending self-righteousness: Another athlete had it all and threw it away. Michael Vick was stupid. Plaxico Burress was stupid. And now Gilbert Arenas is stupid.

So Arenas and Javaris Crittenton, Arenas' sidekick in this mess, have been suspended without pay. But now what happens? The suspensions were appropriate and justified, but they were the easy part. Even Arenas' likely incarceration, as well as the subsequent public narrative -- which undoubtedly will focus on isolating the individual, removing him from the profession and, for the time being, the public eye, while leaving the system and culture intact -- won't provide much in the way of resolution.

[+] EnlargePlaxico Burress
AP Photo/Kathy WillensThe Plaxico Burress lesson apparently didn't sink in for Arenas.

The larger task is overcoming the cultural elements that make players believe guns are necessary to their daily survival, and it is a formidable one. The hard question is this: Is it too late to correct a culture that combines guns with "cool," with runaway materialism, with youth, with pressure and -- from a personal wealth standpoint -- with virtually unlimited resources? Professional athletes, of course, have more to lose and further to fall than most of us because of their enormous salaries.

"Once, when I was coaching the Colts, we were in a team meeting," former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy told me a few weeks ago. "It was around the time the league was having a rash of gun-related incidents. I asked the team how many guys had guns. The whole team raised their hands."

The question goes far beyond whether Arenas will be allowed to drive the lane for the Washington Wizards or anybody else again. Or whether Burress will be allowed to catch passes again, as he insisted he will in an interview with Bill Cowher this week that will air during CBS's Super Bowl coverage on Sunday. The NBA, the NFL, Major League Baseball -- corporate entities whose first responsibility is to protect their brands -- are the least important components of the problem.

If a much broader context is not addressed, Arenas simply will be replaced in the conversation by the next guy who feels like bringing a gun into the locker room.

A key moment for this dialogue came during the 2008 Republican presidential primary races, underscoring both the difficulty of the gun issue and -- from an American perspective, because of the size and diversity of the country -- the nature of its intractability.

During one of the early debates, Rudy Giuliani, who as mayor of New York was strict in his enforcement of the city's gun control laws, was asked by a potential voter from a rural area in the West what, as president, his position on guns would be.

[+] EnlargeTony Dungy
AP Photo/Michael ConroyTony Dungy tries to teach athletes to stay away from places where guns might become factors.

Giuliani danced and darted, bobbed and weaved, without ever clearly answering the question. He was trapped. Republicans do not win with gun control on their platform. And Giuliani apparently did not have the political courage to use the opportunity to open up a real discussion about guns or address the reality that having a shotgun on 50 acres of rural property in Wyoming is one thing, while carrying a handgun on 49th Street and 10th Avenue in Manhattan is quite another. He lost much of his credibility because he was unwilling at that moment to stand up for a completely logical and defensible position.

Giuliani is hardly the exception among leaders who have the opportunity to make an impact on the gun issue. In fact, he's the norm. This country has a fascination with guns as a blanket antidote. Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, an initial reflex was to arm airline pilots. In the wake of the horrific Columbine high school massacre and problems with inner-city schools, an argument was raised in support of arming teachers.

Dungy subscribes to the position that if a player believes he needs to carry a gun into a nightclub, he probably shouldn't be going into that particular establishment in the first place.

"Why," Dungy asked rhetorically that day several weeks back, "would you go to places where you feared for your safety?"

But the culture of materialism makes it difficult to find places where players don't fear for their safety, for players believe -- often rightfully -- that they are targets for criminals. A few years back, I spoke with a baseball player at his locker during spring training. It was about 8:30 in the morning, and as he changed into his uniform, I asked him how much jewelry he was wearing at that moment.

The final count -- after a quick inventory of the value of his diamond earrings, the diamond watch, the necklaces, the bracelets and a ring -- was roughly $80,000.

So one of the very real issues beneath the surface is finding ways to confront the elements of a money culture in which players measure their standing not only by dollars, but by ostentatious shows of their fabulous wealth. Years ago, former NBA star Antoine Walker was robbed of jewelry at gunpoint. The response of many athletes was an inclination to carry their own guns.

[+] EnlargeGilbert Arenas
AP Photo/Miguel VillagranArenas faces a likely prison sentence, but will that address the real problem?

Harry Edwards, the legendary sociologist and activist, has been speaking out about this problem for years. A professor emeritus at Berkeley, he's been a staff consultant for both the San Francisco 49ers and the Golden State Warriors. He spoke out about it when Mike Tyson went to prison. He talked about it when Rae Carruth ordered the murder of his girlfriend and began serving an 18-to-24-year sentence. But the response from society is always the same: Isolate the bad behavior without addressing the cultural impulses.

Edwards isn't the only one and does not want to take credit for his prescience. It would be the ultimate Pyrrhic victory, like predicting the end of the world and being happy that you were right. But he especially foresaw the dangers facing black male athletes whose valuable talents attract money that comes without accountability. Edwards long has believed that these days of prison time for young men who were supposed to have it made were coming, because of the lack of attention paid to the consequences of money. Money without a fundamental change in attitudes only leads to greater problems, Edwards says.

For weeks now, Edwards has been consulting with Stern about Arenas, reminding the commissioner that the easy impulse is to banish Arenas and let the airwaves devour him for jeopardizing his $111 million contract. Edwards wants more; he wants to deal with the larger question of rehabilitation and the harder discussion of the culture. At some point -- in a real way, at the parent, coach and business levels -- those questions and issues must be addressed to prevent an annual repeat of Arenas or Burress or Delonte West, who is scheduled to stand trial on a weapons charge later this year.

"To me, the challenge is to create a ladder that allows [Arenas] to have some form of re-entry, to allow him to use the experiences of prison to begin to attack these larger issues," Edwards says. "This is what I'm telling David: Let him use what he's going to learn firsthand to tell others in the hopes they will make different choices while at the same time making him actually do something to begin anew. The old Gilbert Arenas is gone. He's never coming back. But let him climb the rungs of the ladder. If he burns those rungs, then that's on him."

The pathology at work in these cases is so deep, though, that even the prospect of going to prison carries a certain valuable currency in a culture in which street cred is measured in such terms. It could make Arenas, in his mind, believe he is more authentic. But it is, Edwards says, a hollow authenticity.

Like Dungy does, Edwards spends much of his time straddling the world of prison inmates and millionaire super-athletes. It is a thin line that at first glance might appear to more closely resemble a gulf.

Harry Edwards
Michael Zagaris/Getty ImagesHarry Edwards was in touch with NBA commissioner David Stern throughout the Arenas case.

"With the 49ers, we used to take the rookies to San Quentin, and we used to tell them that the distance between you and them isn't as great as you might think it is," Edwards says. "They knew that, because they knew many guys from their neighborhoods who had talent but were in prison. … We used to tell these rookies that in many ways, the inmate looking at you is you. You're both in uniform. You both have wardens. Yours is just called the coach. You both have numbers. You both belong to gangs. They're the Crips and the Bloods; your gang is called the 49ers. You're both the same age, and in some cases you're the same guy. You're both looking for respect.

"Think about it: What's the first thing an athlete does? He talks about respect."

As much as Arenas might be enveloped in the misguided idea of gun "cool," he also is part of the larger pathology, the one Edwards has feared for the past 30 years. The narrative of the talented kid from the bad situation who uses sport to find a way out has always been spurious, at best. The real narrative is this: Talent and money without education, maturity, desire and the recognition of negative cultural forces make a professional athlete no different than the kid whose path is heading toward prison. The only thing that changes is he now has millions of dollars in his pocket. There's still no compass to deal with what's coming.

And the lucky ones are not the kids with the ability to make the millions, as we all once thought. Instead, the lucky ones are the kids who have that combination of luck, confidence and guidance to reject the negative impulses that surround them every day.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, one in eight black men between the ages of 25 and 29 is in prison; and now Arenas -- who sponsored kids, gave to schools, and owned and bragged about illegal handguns while unaware of or uninterested in the contradiction -- is in danger of contributing to the statistics in a way he probably never imagined.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," to be published in May. He can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42 or reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.

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