Whenever racism rears its head in sports, the Reverend Al Sharpton has usually had something important to say. In the process, he has proudly earned the contempt of the sports radio blabbocracy. But today, Reverend Al is earning their praise. Al Sharpton embraced by sports radio? Have we entered the twilight zone? Hardly.
They are loving Sharpton because the good Reverend wants Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas severely punished for bringing unloaded guns into his team’s locker room. Currently facing criminal charges and league suspension, Arenas is likely facing probation or prison and will be suspended by the NBA. It’s a depressing story made worse by the fact that Arenas is perhaps the last player you would ever predict would do something so stupid. The son of a professional movie extra, and the NBA’s first blogger, he is an iconoclastic goofball, more likely to bring a water gun to work than the real thing.
Gilbert will take severe lumps for this: legally, financially, and professionally. But I never expected Sharpton to pile on and crudely play the reverse-racism card in the process. Sharpton announced to the New York Daily News that he has spoken personally with NBA Commissioner David Stern, urging him to show no mercy. He said that Stern must deal with "the culture of violence being perpetuated in professional sports." But the capper was Sharpton saying:
"If it had been a white player pointing a gun at a black player, there would have been much more of an uproar. It’s almost as if people are saying, ‘Well, we don’t expect anything better from our black athletes.’"
Where to begin unpacking this drivel? The idea that the media has ignored this story is ridiculous, with the "uproar" reaching deafening proportions. In addition, the notion that NBA players, or black athletes get a "pass" on handgun ownership is beyond idiotic. In gun-crazy America, black athletes are routinely pilloried for legal firearm ownership, as if their post-game hobbies are drive-by shootings and robbing banks. There has never been breathless coverage of NASCAR gun ownership and no one asks golfer Phil Mickelson whether he packs heat.
The fact is that there is a profound and historic double standard in this country on the question of gun ownership. White people are celebrated for exercising their 2nd amendment rights. Black people, to put it mildly, are not. Now I am not for a moment saying that gun culture in the NBA isn’t a real concern. Devin Harris of the Nets said that he estimated 75% of players have firearms. But when you talk to the players, they don’t carry weapons because they want to live some sort of thug life. They actually sound more like members of the NRA. Indiana Pacers guard T.J. Ford said, "As a society, I think a lot of people have protection within their home. But I don’t think it’s just an NBA thing. It’s just a lot of regular people have protection in their home." Knicks guard Larry Hughes also commented, "We’re grown men. We protect our families. We protect our homes. Whatever the case may be, whoever is bearing arms, I hope everything is done, you know, legally, but you have that right."
While the NRA probably won’t be approaching NBA players for their next round of public service announcements, the reasons for ownership are clearly more rooted in personal paranoia than mack-daddy machismo. There have been numerous high profile robberies, assaults, and home invasions of NBA players over the last decade. Players are scared for themselves and their families. Many have taken Stern’s advice and hired bodyguards. Others who refuse to do that, see gun ownership as a sensible and logical alternative. Their concerns are serious, and won’t be solved by dumping on Gilbert Arenas. Arenas is not the poster child of a "culture of violence." He is a frustrated athlete, playing through his worst season, who did something incredibly dumb. Al Sharpton turning him into Iceberg Slim doesn’t make it any easier.
If Sharpton was truly concerned about "the culture of violence in sports", he might start by saying something about the league’s open partnerships with the Pentagon, the military jet flyovers before football games, and the open armed forces recruitment that is a part of major sports contests. If he was concerned about violence, he could say something about the alarming levels of spousal abuse in sports. And lastly, Sharpton should know that it’s the apex of hypocrisy to speak of "the culture of violence in sports" in a nation currently involved in two wars. It’s unbelievable to see politicians and their cable news chatterers baying for military intervention in Yemen, willing to sacrifice any number of young men and women, and then taking timeout to pile on Arenas. But that’s to be expected. It is unexpected and disheartening to see Sharpton use his considerable platform to be one more voice in the chorus.
[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.]