Professional Athletes Are Under Fire (con’t)

But for every Sean Taylor, there are literally dozens of professional athletes who shot themselves in the foot by hanging around guns. In October 2006, then Indiana Pacers forward Stephen Jackson was charged with a felony count of criminal recklessness, battery, and disorderly conduct for unloading a gun in the air during an altercation outside an Indianapolis strip club. NFL cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones was arrested in February 2007 at NBA All-Star weekend in Las Vegas after a member of his entourage allegedly shot and paralyzed a night manager at Minxx Gentlemen’s Club & Lounge. Minnesota Timberwolves guard Sebastian Telfair was arrested in New York in April 2007 and charged with felony possession of a weapon—roughly six months after being robbed of a $50,000 chain outside an NYC restaurant. Jackson, Jones and Telfair all pleaded guilty and received probation. Most recently, New York Giants wide received Plaxico Burress was arrested in November 2008 after he accidentally fired an unlicensed handgun into his own thigh at a nightclub in New York City. He has since been charged with illegal weapons possession and missed the chance to help the Giants make another Super Bowl. As of press time, the case is still pending. (Ed. Note: Burress was sentenced to two years in prison after accepting a plea deal in August 2009.)

Critics have fired back. “What is going on with these players to make them think that walking into a club with a .40 caliber Glock pistol makes them either tough or makes them part of the rap world?” former NFL quarterback asked on his NYC-based WFAN (660 AM) radio show in December. “Some of these guys might not need a gun if they put themselves in better situations,” says Hill. “When you’re wealthy, you can’t go back to those clubs you used to be in when you were broke. I understand not wanting to make it seem like money has changed you. But the truth is, it does.”

It’s only natural for athletes to protect themselves, their families, and the things that belong to them. They hear stories involving teammates—stories that never make it beyond locker-room walls. Burress was likely aware that teammate Steve Smith was robbed at gunpoint outside his home—thee days before Burress sustained his self-inflicted gunshot wound on November 29. Smith’s robbery wasn’t reported by the New York Post until two days after the Burress shooting.

“I don’t condone carrying a gun that’s not registered,” says Harris, “but you can’t fault a guy for having a gun when one of his teammates just got robbed. People can say this or that, but yo, Steve Smith could have died. He could have been killed.”

The incidents have forced the professional sports leagues, namely the NFL and NBA, to breathe new life into discussions surrounding guns and players, specifically rookies. Harris was part of the inaugural NFL rookie symposium in 1997. Coincidentally, he attended with former Carolina Panthers wide receiver Rae Carruth, who is now in prison serving a 20-year sentence for the horrific murder of his pregnant girlfriend in 1999. But, he says, guns weren’t a priority back then.

“With all the stuff that’s happened, the NFL will respond as far as teaching younger players about gun safety,” Harris says. The NBA is taking a similar approach. While NBA Commissioner David Stern has publicly urged players to stay away from guns, the league has implemented workshops about firearms into its Rookie Transition Program, which every first-year player is required to attend.

“We definitely do not encourage our players to carry guns,” says Mike Bantom, who has served as the NBA’s senior vice president of player development for 10 years. “But we educate our players about gun safety and laws. We also continue to encourage players to think intelligently about security, and not think that owning a gun will make you more secure.”

“Buys today are definitely more aware about guns,” says Harris. “But they [also] realize it doesn’t have to be a gun. It can be a Taser, some Mace, whatever. Really, it’s just important to know that you need to protect yourself.”—Chris Yuscavage