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Foul Play: New Questions Arise on Violence Among Athletes

January 7, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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A day after star basketball player Gilbert Arenas was suspended by the NBA for bringing hand guns into a team locker room, Jeffrey Brown examines violence and professional athletics.
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JIM LEHRER: Next, a locker-room incident involving guns escalates into a suspension for National Basketball Association star Gilbert Arenas, and raises questions once again about violence and professional athletics.

Jeff has that story.

JEFFREY BROWN: The NBA acted 16 days after an incident at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.

Arenas has admitted to bringing handguns into the Washington Wizards team locker room, a violation of league policy and, possibly, of D.C. law.

But he and teammate Javaris Crittenton deny they actually pulled guns on each other in a disagreement over a gambling episode. The NBA and the Wizards initially refrained from taking any action, as they waited for criminal investigations to be completed.

But, on Tuesday, commissioner David Stern suspended Arenas indefinitely and without pay.

In a statement, he said, “Although it is clear that the actions of Mr. Arenas will ultimately result in a substantial suspension, and perhaps worse, his ongoing conduct has led me to conclude that he is not currently fit to take the court in an NBA game.”

JEFFREY BROWN: The ongoing conduct referred to a series of events. On New Year’s Day, Arenas wrote on his Twitter page: “I wake up this morning and seen I was the new John Wayne.”

Then, on Tuesday of this week, Arenas joked about commissioner Stern:

REPORTER: Who do you fear more, Stern or the actual authorities?

GILBERT ARENAS, Washington Wizards: I mean, Stern is mean. But…

JEFFREY BROWN: That same night, Arenas was photographed pointing his fingers as if they were guns at his teammates before a game in Philadelphia.

The Arenas story is just the latest example of athletes getting in trouble over guns. Cleveland Cavaliers guard Delonte West was arrested in Maryland last September, allegedly for speeding on a motorcycle and carrying loaded handguns and a loaded shotgun.

And former National Football League player Plaxico Burress is serving two years in jail after he accidentally shot himself with a handgun in a New York City nightclub. He had no permit for the weapon.

There are also examples of athletes bouncing back from criminal violations. Last fall, Michael Vick returned to pro football after serving 19 months in prison on a dogfighting conviction.

And, for more on all this, I’m joined by Harry Edwards, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley — he advises both the NBA And the NFL — and Mike Wise, sports reporter for The Washington Post.

Mike Wise, fill in the picture a little bit for us as to who Gilbert Arenas is. And I understand that this stems from a gambling incident. What do we know?

MIKE WISE, The Washington Post: Well, the fortunate thing about this, Jeff, is that, bottom line, Gilbert Arenas is, what I would say, the unique NBA athlete, whereas he rolls his windows down. He — people are his friends. And he’s not one of these elite guys that hides behind his tinted windows, so to speak.

So, that part of it, he has no malice, Gilbert Arenas. You still can’t bring loaded guns into the locker room. This disagreement started in a card game on a team flight back from Phoenix during a West Coast trip, where Javaris Crittenton and Gilbert Arenas got into it. Crittenton owed another player money, according to our sources.

And it escalated two days later into Gilbert Arenas wanting to play a practical joke on Javaris, he says, and he put loaded guns in front of Javaris’ locker, and with the note, “Pick one.”

Javaris, seeing this, not sure what was going on, according to two people in the room, we reported today in The Washington Post, found his own gun, put in a clip, cocked the weapon, and never pointed it at him, but scared the bejesus out of both of them and everybody that was in the locker room.

And, so, that is where we stand today.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

Now, Harry Edwards, does this strike you as an aberration when you look from a distance at this, or is it part of some…

HARRY EDWARDS, University of California, Berkeley: Oh, absolutely not.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. What do you see?

HARRY EDWARDS: Absolutely not.

I had spoken with commissioner Stern as early as three-and-a-half years ago concerning the evolution of this situation, the fact that both the NFL and the NBA and other sports were going to inherit the problems and issues that were emerging in the traditional African-American community in particular, but as a part of the gun culture in American society in general.

This situation has been exacerbated by the fact that you have 7 percent of the population of black males who are contributing to 43 percent of the people who are imprisoned in a society that imprisons a greater proportion of its population than any other one in the world.

These people, 98 percent of them, are eventually released back into the community, and they bring that prison culture back with them. And, at a certain point, violence, guns, this kind of thing comes to be defined as cool. You need the gun. You have to have the gun. And it transfers into athletics.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Mike Wise, you deal with a lot of these young — especially young athletes. These are highly paid, perhaps living in something of a bubble.

Do they live in a bubble? And how does that culture transfer? What do you see?

HARRY EDWARDS: Well, they don’t…

MIKE WISE: Well, Dr. — I think Dr. Edwards hit it on the head better than anyone.

There is this almost, I want to say, faux gangster that has come about in many of the elite sporting events. And what it is, is guys that aren’t even from the hood, guys like Gilbert — and Gilbert will tell you himself — I have been to the apartment complex where he grew up. His father showed it to me. This is a middle-class apartment complex. It is not down-and-out.

And, so, he wasn’t raised in Compton. He didn’t come from the hood. But there seems to be this connection, this need to remember that, and instead of just saying, well, it would be nice to live on the other side of the fence for once in a change — for once in a while.

And I don’t know where that comes from. And it needs to stop.

HARRY EDWARDS: Well, it comes…

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Professor Edwards … Yes. No, go ahead. You work with the leagues. What can they do, what kind of mentoring, or what do they do to prevent it?

HARRY EDWARDS: Well, first of all, there is a tremendous amount of effort put into programs to address this issue.

I know that both Billy Hunter and commissioner Stern…

MIKE WISE: Yes.

HARRY EDWARDS: … have focused on the whole issue of this gangster type of culture and imagery, the fact that guns and so forth will not be tolerated, cannot be tolerated in these very passionate kinds of sports activities.

We have been very, very lucky. Schools have been shot up. Fast-food places, even mortuaries, churches, courthouses, and so forth have all been subject to these shooting incidents. We have avoided that in sport, more by luck than by programmatic effort.

But both David Stern and Roger Goodell in the NFL have made an effort to try to educate about this situation and make it unequivocally clear that they are going to come down judiciously, but they are going to come down very, very hard on any gun issue. And I think that is what David Stern is going to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Mike Wise, is that — this particular suspension, in this particular case, was that a surprise, or is that what you see happening, commissioner Stern stepping down hard to make a point?

MIKE WISE: Well, the sad thing, is, is, I don’t think commissioner Stern would have acted if Gilbert Arenas had showed more contrition after the event.

I think that — I think that much of his behavior after the incident exacerbated how he felt about, well, public perception, for that matter. And when the Brady group, a gun control group obviously after the former chief of staff that was shot during the Reagan assassination attempt, comes out against Gilbert Arenas making mock pistols, when Al Sharpton comes out against him, at some point, David Stern is shutting Gilbert Arenas down to not further embarrass himself, the league or his organization.

HARRY EDWARDS: Well…

MIKE WISE: And I think he really would have waited for the law to make their determination, if not for his behavior afterward.

JEFFREY BROWN: Professor Edwards, go ahead.

HARRY EDWARDS: I don’t think that — yes, I don’t think there is any question that commissioner Stern was interested in finding out, first of all, what the judicial disposition would be toward it as far as the law was concerned.

But, again, in conversations and correspondence that I have had with commissioner Stern, he made it very, very clear that he was acutely aware of where this thing could lead. We have a situation in this country where, over the first five years of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, just under 5,000 Americans were killed through all kinds of methods, of all genders, races and so forth.

Over that same five years, close to 27,000 black males were killed in this society by gunfire alone. That meant that the average black male had a better chance of surviving in the streets of Kabul or Baghdad than in the streets of their urban community.

This culture has evolved a standard of violence that commissioner Stern was very much aware of. And despite the fact that he was waiting for the judicial disposition of this situation to work out, he was going to come down very hard. He made that clear early on.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we do have to leave it there.

Harry Edwards and Mike Wise, thank you both very much.

MIKE WISE: Thank you. Thanks.

HARRY EDWARDS: Thank you.