Friday, August 21, 2009

No Lesson Learned: The NFL Gun Culture Won't End With Plaxico Burress

NFL players are rattled right now. They play a sport that celebrates the air of invincibility and the indiscriminate use of violence to accomplish one's goals.

Yet, outside the workplace, they have come face-to-face with the evidence that the appearance of being bulletproof does not make them invincible, and they're realizing that they must protect themselves.

The deaths of Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams, Redskins safety Sean Taylor, and former Titans quarterback Steve McNair in violent gunshot attacks have players very conscious of their own mortality. This says nothing of the beating of Raiders receiver Javon Walker and the paralysis of Jaguars offensive tackle Richard Collier. Players are now aware that their careers, if not their lives, can be gone in an instant.

It's that very awareness that prompted Burress to take a loaded weapon with him to the Latin Quarter nightclub on November 28, 2008. Nine months later, Burress has pleaded guilty to criminal weapon possession charges and faces a 20-to-24-month jail sentence.

Meanwhile, in the NFL, what will change? Despite the awareness of the dangers awaiting them outside their front doors, the NFL is still a league of men aged 21 to 35 who live on adrenaline. It's not easy to tell these guys that they need to stay home at night.

Walk into your typical nightclub, and you're walking into a combustible mix of things that should be approached with great caution. Testosterone and alcohol can easily create a dangerous situation by themselves, especially in a club environment where no one wants to look weak in front of onlooking females. The danger increases exponentially when deadly weapons are introduced into the situation, especially by a well-known athlete.

As Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger said in a 2008 ESPN The Magazine article, "Depending on the setting, you get guys who just get really gutsy when they get a couple of drinks in them."

The swagger of an NFL athlete, however, dictates that they not back down in the face of aggressively "gutsy" fans. They must be prepared for something to jump off. Unfortunately, preparing for something to happen can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Going in armed can lead to a mindset that says, "If anything goes down, I'm prepared to draw first." That mindset can easily increase the likelihood of an incident, rather than reduce it.

In a 2003 article in the New York Times, former offensive tackle Lomas Brown said "almost every player I knew" owned and carried a gun. None of this is likely to change in the wake of the Burress sentencing.

It can be hoped that players will, however, take the time to consult their attorneys on the gun laws in their area, as Plaxico would have been well-advised to do.

Burress's defenders argue that there was no "criminal intent" behind Plax carrying a gun, but in New York, carrying an unregistered firearm is a criminal act. Burress not knowing that fact does not excuse it, as ignorance of the law is not a legal defense.

It's easy to paint the NFL's players as a crazed pack of gun-toting scofflaws, due to the large media coverage of athletes' legal issues. However, the San Diego Union-Tribune noted in 2008 that NFL players, from 2000 through April of 2008, were a better-behaved lot than society at large.

The general U.S. population was arrested at a rate of one for every 21 people.

NFL players during that time frame were arrested at a rate of 1 in 47, including practice-squad players and those on injured reserve.

To repeat a point, athletes do know that they have quite a bit to lose. There is a need, however, for players to educate and prepare themselves in better fashions. Roethlisberger, as well as former Giants RB and current NBC News reporter Tiki Barber, is public about hiring off-duty police officers for security purposes when he goes out.

Far from making an athlete look weak, having accredited security personnel watching one's back instead of a bunch of friends from the neighborhood is a smart maneuver. That way, a player doesn't go about preparing to defend himself from losing everything in a manner that causes him to take it all away from himself.

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