NBA, NFL Go Anti-Gun

But are they protecting their athletes, or protecting an image?


Last year, Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor got out of bed upon hearing intruders entering his home. The house was situated in a wealthy, gated community on the outskirts of Miami. It was the middle of the night. To protect himself, his girlfriend, and their young child, Taylor grabbed a machete he kept nearby and crept to his bedroom door.

So Taylor, in fear, and concerned for the safety of his family, armed himself with a large knife used to hack away at jungle foliage. The intruder shot and killed him.

Many have asked why Taylor felt it necessary to have a machete nearby, but it's probably worth asking (as his friends and peers in professional sports certainly are), "What if it had been a gun?" Certainly, the outcome may have been different.

Unfortunately, officials in the NFL and the NBA increasingly take a paternalistic attitude toward their athletes. For years, the NFL and the NBA have attempted to distance players from firearms. Some would argue these policies are aimed at a culture that celebrates the criminal use of violent weapons, but the effect is pretty clear: The leagues would rather their players put themselves at risk than protect themselves with guns.

The NFL asks not just that players avoid guns in general, but that they avoid having them even at home. Paul Tagliabue instituted an official league gun policy back in 1994 that discouraged even legally obtained weapons. "Any weapon, particularly a firearm, is dangerous," the policy states, "especially so when it is in a vehicle or within reach of children and others not properly trained in its use."

Roger Goodell, who replaced Tagliabue in the NFL commissioner's office just last year, has already dished out gun-related penalties.When former Chicago Bears tackle Tank Johnson was cited for illegal firearm possession at his suburban Chicago home last year, Goodell didn't wait for the criminal justice system to determine Johnson's guilt. Goodell opted to ban Johnson from the league for half a season. The punishment was in line with an updated league conduct policy that states, "It is not enough to simply avoid being found guilty of a crime. Instead, as an employee of the NFL or a member club, you are held to a high standard and expected to conduct yourself in a way that is responsible, (and) promotes the values upon which the league is based…."

Johnson, by the standards of the law of the state of Illinois, served only 30 days in jail. This for his third gun-related offense. By NFL standards, he served the equivalent of a half a year.

The NBA takes a similarly hard line. Commissioner David Stern, the short, white, New York native who joined the league's legal department in the 70's and has been commissioner since 1984, told media in a pre-season conference call, "It's a pretty, I think, widely accepted statistic that if you carry a gun, your chances of being shot by one increase dramatically. We think this is an alarming subject. Although you'll read players saying how they feel safer with guns, in fact those guns actually make them less safe. . . ."

Stern is wrong, though well-versed in anti-gun rhetoric. Washington, D.C., home to Sean Taylor's Redskins, for example, is currently facing a legal challenge to its virtual ban on handguns. For decades the city has had one of the toughest gun-control policies in the country. It has also consistently had one of the highest murder rates.

Pro athletes are targets. They are young, wealthy, famous, and many opt not to abandon the communities where they grew up. They face a different threat and a different reality than halls traversed by the likes of Stern and Goodell. Last summer in Chicago, two high-profile NBA players were robbed at gunpoint in their own homes. Antoine Walker was confronted in his garage, bound with duct tape, and robbed of thousands of dollars in cash and jewelry, as well as his Mercedes. This was in his multi-million dollar Gold Coast home, located in a wealthy, downtown Chicago neighborhood. Weeks later, Eddy Curry was robbed in similar manner at his palatial estate in Burr Ridge, a suburb outside the city.

Police later determined both players had been targetted because of their status as professional athletes. Locally, the Chicago Bulls were forced to issue a statement, warning their own players to take new measures to insure their own security.

Why are they not already?

"Professional athletes, most of us came from the streets," Ben Wallace recently told ESPN.com, responding to the Walker and Curry incidents and Taylor's murder. "We feel like we know the streets and can pretty much protect ourselves. But now we're in a position where we're being targeted, and the stakes are just too high."

Two weeks ago Indiana point guard Jamal Tinsley had his car peppered with bullets at a local night club after a confrontation. Tinsley hasn't been an Eagle Scout, and he should probably be more aware of the kind of element his celebrity attracts. But he should also be allowed to defend himself. Also late last year, Atlanta forward Shelden Williams was carjacked at gunpoint.

Exacerbating the leagues' willingness to bite on gun control rhetoric is each league's desire to maintain an image. Those in control worry about the way those "streets" and the kill-or-be-killed gang culture can infect their players, some of whom are, literally, only a year or two removed from the streets. The leagues need to sell high-priced tickets to white America. But it's unwise to put the safety of several players at risk in order to protect the leagues' image from the misdeeds of a few. Some players now spend $100,000 a year or more on personal bodyguards, and still don't feel particularly safe.

The leagues also might take note of the uncomfortable history of race and gun control. In a 2005 article for reason, David Kopel looked at some of the ugly realities involved in the roots of gun control in American culture.

Since the aftermath of the Civil War, "gun control" has simply been a proxy argument for some as a method for keeping blacks unarmed. Arms roundups of freedmen were common in the South in the years following the liberation of slaves, and the result was more control for white landowners, and the lurking and pervasive Ku Klux Klan, who used their mobility to terrorize freed blacks. In many ways still today the gun is as much a measure of protection as it is a symbol of the ability to protect—to self govern, if need be.

In Chicago, the racial aspects of gun control have come up before. In February 1994, a black Democrat State Senator from Chicago, Rickey Hendon, had his home robbed. One of the items taken was an unregistered handgun. The Senator refused to apologize. "I have a right to protect myself," he told the Sun-Times. Because of historical economic disparities between blacks and whites in all parts of the country, gun control disproportinately affects blacks, who tend to live in higher crime areas; lack the resources for private security, alarm systems, and other measures; and aren't particularly trusting of or willing to rely upon the police to protect them. Going back to Chicago, when the city instituted a freeze on handgun registrations in 1983, some of the loudest objections came from black politicians, who said the ban discriminated against black Chicagoans in rough neighborhoods who lacked the resources to protect themselves in other ways.

Athletes are an especially ripe target—they travel with wealth, but many maintain ties to the old neighborhood. And while it's hard to call the myriad of recent robberies and hold-ups of prominent athletes a trend, the leagues should consider what they've created: a wealthy class of young stars, black and white, who are increasingly vulnerable.

Taylor's death will undoubtedly have repercussions across professional sports. Athletes just saw one of their contemporaries gunned down—with a machete in his hand. Stern, Goodell, and other well-intentioned league bosses can pass tougher anti-gun policies, and continue to mete out punishment. Or they can reassess their opposition to gun ownership, and focus on teaching young players how to own, maintain, and use a gun responsibly.

Chris Sprow is the editor-in-chief of Chicago Sports Weekly, and has contributed to a number of other publications, including the New York Times and ESPN the Magazine.