Sports Nut

Less Than Zero

Why NBA Commissioner David Stern is behaving worse than Gilbert Arenas.

Gilbert Arenas of the Washington Wizards drives the ball

Great athletes have a rare power to bring people together. Take Gilbert Arenas: Who else could have inspired Al Sharpton and the New York Post to join the same mob?

But there was Sharpton, on the Washington Post op-ed page last week, adding the Washington Wizards’ star guard to the list of athletes who have been “billboards of violent and destructive behavior”—part of a cultural “sickness,” Sharpton wrote—and endorsing the NBA’s decision to ban Arenas indefinitely.

Or, as a commenter on the New York Post’s Web site put it: “The players act like they are on the street corner and not as professionals….Friggin Animals.”

Both were responding, in their own cultural registers, to a story in the New York Post. During a locker-room argument over gambling debts, Arenas had pulled a gun on teammate Javaris Crittenton, and Crittenton had pointed his own gun at Arenas in return.

Announcing Arenas’ open-ended suspension, NBA Commissioner David Stern sounded as if he was trying to placate the “Friggin Animals” crowd. He is “not currently fit to take the court in an NBA game,” Stern explained. In the days since, the Wizards have stripped a giant banner of their franchise player from the outside of the Verizon Center, pulled his No. 0 jersey from all the souvenir stands, edited him out of pre-game hype videos, and scrubbed the traces of him from their Web site. The 0 on mascot G-Wiz’s jersey disappeared, replaced with an innocuous star.

Why is Arenas getting the Michael Vick treatment? It’s less for what happened in the locker room than for how he acted afterward. When the New York Post story broke, Arenas went on Twitter and wrote, “[I] wake up this morning and seen I was the new JOHN WAYNE..lmao.” After a few more days of smart-aleck tweets, he greeted his teammates in a pre-game huddle by pointing his fingers like pistols and pretending to shoot them. A photo of the laughing Wizards went out over the wire—the NBA quickly tried to suppress it before reversing its stance—and Arenas was done for, banished by the commissioner on account of “his ongoing conduct.”

In other words, Arenas was suspended—and could face termination of the remaining $80 million on his Wizards contract—because he made a joke. Among the players whom the commissioner currently does deem fit to take the court are one who sprayed five shots in the air during a disturbance outside a strip club and another who has been charged with taking three concealed, loaded weapons out on a motorcycle ride, including a shotgun in a guitar case.

Arenas’ own gun infraction appears to have been stupid and reckless, and it seems like a clear violation of local gun laws and NBA rules. But follow-up coverage has suggested that while the original New York Post story got most of the nouns right—Arenas, Crittenton, locker room, guns—the sensational verbs were probably wrong. Rather than a gun-to-gun John Woo standoff, the weirder but better-sourced version of events describes an ongoing taunting feud between the two players, starting from a gambling debt incurred on a team flight, which led Crittenton to say he would shoot Arenas in his gimpy left knee. That led Arenas to lay out a batch of his own unloaded guns and invite Crittenton to choose one to shoot him with.

At that point, the weirdness did get unambiguously ugly and dangerous, as Crittenton reportedly pulled out a gun of his own and, according to the Washington Post, “chambered a round” (though still without pointing it at anyone). Yet as of Jan. 11, the NBA Web site still offered the pull-down menu option of buying a No. 8 Crittenton jersey. Arenas, meanwhile, was not only gone from the menu—if you tried to create a customized Arenas 0 jersey, it would be rejected as “inappropriate, derogatory, or profane.”

As far as the NBA is concerned, Arenas is a nonperson. This is the penalty for not taking the situation seriously. But what is the situation, really? Arenas has reportedly been cooperating with the law-enforcement investigation into his possession of the guns. What he’s not cooperating with is his prosecution in the court of public opinion.

“U can take the thug out of the ghetto …” another commenter wrote below the New York Post story. The anonymous name-callers were anticipating the mainstream discussion, which took for granted that Arenas was being a hoodlum. The Washington Post published a signed letter calling Arenas an “immature, overpaid thug.” Elsewhere in the Wizards’ hometown paper, columnist Sally Jenkins called Arenas a “soft guy pretending to be hard.”

Who was pretending what? Jenkins—who moonlights co-writing books with an athlete widely accused of doping about what a fine role model he is—lamented Arenas’ inability to establish a convincing, respectable public persona. Sharpton compared Arenas’ generation, unfavorably, to his own, saying younger people had lost the ambition “not to submit to a subculture that would confirm the worst depiction of who we were.”

What was Arenas doing, if not refusing to submit to his depiction? The John Wayne crack, the finger-guns in the huddle—this was not the behavior of an unrepentant thug, but of someone who couldn’t imagine being seen as a menace. His teammates cracked up because they got the joke.

David Stern didn’t think it was funny. The commissioner takes the charge of thuggishness seriously at all times. Next to the subject of crookedness or bias among his referees, this is what makes him most irrational and dictatorial: the possibility that people—ticket-buying white people—might believe that the NBA’s young, black players are dangerous. Stern is so afraid of the perception of thuggery, he even parses their hand gestures for thuggish intent.

After 2004—when a white Detroit Pistons fan threw a beer at a black Indiana Pacers player and started a player-fan brawl—the league imposed a new dress code, barring out-of-uniform players from wearing sportswear, headphones, visible chains and medallions, sneakers and work boots, or anything else a casually dressed hip-hop fan might choose to put on. NBA disciplinary policy treats the athletes as if they might go out of control at any moment, punishing trash-talking and routine scuffling as if they were incitement to riot.

The Arenas case falls in the gap between the commissioner’s fears and reality. Gun violence is serious, but Gilbert Arenas is not Gun Violence. If the latest reports are right, he was an unarmed person who suggested someone else could shoot him with an unloaded gun. That was dumb and probably illegal, but not particularly gangsta. When it comes to the league’s image, the commissioner should worry less about Ron Artest and more about Tim Donaghy. If Arenas is a threat to the NBA’s integrity, it’s not for his firearms, but for his joining the roster of stars with an out-of-control gambling habit.

The harder the NBA and the Wizards work to purge Arenas, the less convincing the display of pious outrage becomes. The team cannot tolerate gun trouble, the story goes, because Abe Pollin, their recently deceased owner, was a passionate foe of gun violence—so much so that he changed the team’s name to the Wizards from the Bullets.

But as the Washington Post’s Dan Steinberg points out, the team still sells Bullets merchandise, “profiting off a name that they decided was too heinous to wear on the court.” The real problem with the Washington Bullets name was that it didn’t alliterate, and the reason it didn’t alliterate was that Abe Pollin stole the Baltimore Bullets. That was the link between the team name and crime.

And if Arenas having guns in the locker room was so unthinkable, how was it that his teammate Crittenton allegedly had his own gun and ammunition at hand? That’s a lot of firearms to have around, for a team and a league that never tolerate guns.

The Wizards’ more obvious trouble with Arenas is that they decided to build the franchise around him, giving him a contract for six years and $111 million, despite a shredded left knee, and the knee still hasn’t healed right. The figures keep popping up, in story after story, as fans and executives and analysts pretend to be weighing the question of Arenas’ morals.

So do anecdotes about Arenas’ bad work habits, immaturity, and selfish play—none of which explain what makes him unfit to play basketball (or any different from his underachieving Wizards teammates), and few of which are surprising. The clubhouse wrestling and pestering, the excessive and disgusting practical jokes—there’s nothing that goes beyond the behavior of some of America’s most-revered jock-saints. This stuff is no more or less disturbing than it was back when Arenas was knocking down game-winning shots or scoring 60 points on the Lakers.

The biggest revelation about Arenas, in fact, has been a nonrevelation. Rather than turning up the hidden dark side of a beloved player, the scandal has so far confirmed that he is the person he always seemed to be. The epithet that sticks is not “thug” but “class clown.” He is the guy who won’t stop pestering people and fooling around, especially when someone tells him to sit down and shut up. When the league finally squeezed a statement of apology out of him—”my attempts at humor showed terrible judgment“—it read like a letter from a hostage.

That doesn’t mean Gilbert Arenas is a sweet or simple person. Even at his most entertaining and likeable, his joking always had a not especially secret hostile edge. Every class clown has the same punch line: Who says you’re the boss, boss?

David Stern can accept players breaking the law, sometimes even when they’re unrepentant. (“It’s no big deal,” LeBron James told the press, after being caught going 101 mph in a 65 zone. “I was on my way home to go to sleep.”) What he can’t accept is anyone mocking his authority.

If prosecutors are able to convict Arenas on weapons charges, fine. Nobody is supposed to bring guns to work in Washington, D.C. But in the accompanying show trial, I’m siding with the player who wouldn’t pretend to be ashamed, not the NBA authorities feigning righteousness. Shoot me.