“It just goes to show you, if you have money, connections, and fame, the law doesn’t apply to you here in Washington DC.” So said a distraught caller into the popular Washington DC talk radio station, WJFK. They weren’t lamenting Dick Cheney’s ability to avoid prosecution for war crimes or the Tea Party leaders who spit on members of congress and called Rep. John Lewis a n***er inside the US Capitol without arrest. The tragedy was that Washington Wizards All-Star guard Gilbert Arenas was sentenced to 30 days in a halfway house and 400 hours of community service, instead of the three months in prison requested by the US Attorney’s office. After all the smoke had cleared, Arenas’s crime of bringing four unloaded handguns into the District (licensed in the state of Virginia) to “play a prank” on teammate Javaris Crittenton did not merit, in the eyes of Judge Robert E. Morin, being placed behind bars.
The difference between the US Attorney’s wish for a three month sentence and the judgment for a halfway house and probation seems paper-thin, yet people in DC – at least those with the time and energy to call into sports radio – are acting like Arenas got off with killing Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. This is no exaggeration. More than one caller made the OJ comparison saying, “This is the oldest story in America: if you have the money, if you can hire the best lawyers, if your name is OJ and not Joe Schmoe, then the law somehow doesn’t apply to you. Power and privilege win.” This of course has a strong element of truth. Yet there is something bizarre about the fact that some people rail against the utter hypocrisy of our legal system only when it’s athletes – particularly athletes of color – who benefit. No one is decrying the fact that Dodgers owners Frank and Jamie McCourt have made 108 million dollars over the last five years without paying one dime of taxes. No one demands to know why Afghanistan overseer, General Stanley McChrystal, who by any objective view falsified the death report of former NFL player turned Army Ranger Pat Tillman, was promoted – and not prosecuted - by the Obama administration. Yet athletes become the exemplar of everything that’s wrong with a system stacked in favor of those with power and privilege.
Yes, by all accounts Gilbert Arenas’s lawyer Kenneth Wainstein did a masterful job destroying the prosecution’s case. And yes, I would venture Gilbert didn’t find Kenneth Wainstein in the back of a yellow pages. But fame is a double-edged sword in a court of law. For every example of an athlete “getting off”, one could point out that former New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress received a two year bid for shooting himself in the thigh at a nightclub, getting no leniency after an impassioned plea for a tough sentence by Mayor Michael Bloomberg himself. Or Michael Vick, who was in Leavenworth for two years after pleading guilty to being part of a dog fighting ring, a sentence that even the most hardened prosecutors found extraordinarily tough.
In this case, the US Attorneys used Arenas’s fame as a lever to pressure the judge for hard jail time writing, "If any other individual -- without the fame, power, and the wealth of this defendant -- brought four firearms into Washington, D.C., for the purpose of a similar confrontation, fabricated a story to conceal that confrontation, provided convenient explanations in an attempt to mitigate his conduct that were proved false, joked about the incident to large groups, and stated that he did nothing wrong and felt no remorse, the government would seek their incarceration, and the Court would almost certainly give it.”
Yet Arenas’s idiotic antics and comments when the charges went public, as impolitic as that may have been, are not crimes. The only thing left once the hype and headlines abated, was an incredibly immature act involving unloaded guns and the common sense of an adolescent. That’s why there was no jail time.
But it is also wrong for the law and order crowd to say that Arenas “got off”. He lost an estimated $7.4 million in salary. He lost twice that amount in endorsements. As a convicted felon, he will never be able to vote in his state of residence, Virginia. His reputation as well has been utterly wrecked. Gilbert was the first NBA blogger, an iconoclastic folk hero to NBA fans across the country, particularly those of us who nestle on the interwebs. Now he is just another athletic cautionary tale, lumped in with those who have committed far more grievous offenses. But the lesson of this story is not about yet another athletic felon. It’s not even about the way wealth and privilege can tip the scales of justice. It’s about how our culture obsesses over catching minnows while the sharks keep on circling around us, enraptured by our inattention.
[Dave Zirin is the author of the forthcoming “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) Receive his column every week by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com.]