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Michael Wilbon: Al Sharpton speaks wisely on Gilbert Arenas

By Michael Wilbon
Wednesday, January 6, 2010; D08

It has all the elements, serious and outrageous, required for a big production in today's theater of the absurd: a hundred-million-dollar athlete, guns, race, the Feds, the NBA, the Rev. Al Sharpton, tabloid headlines and scandalous Internet rumors.

Gilbert Arenas and the issue of his guns in the Washington Wizards' locker room has officially made the transition from local sports story to hot material for every talk show and Internet discussion in America. No amount of backsliding by Arenas now that he has been interviewed by law enforcement investigators is going to contain a controversy that has now grown far larger than Arenas.

Sharpton can change the news cycle all by himself, and did when he called on black leaders and Commissioner David Stern to come down hard on Arenas. Sharpton has already spoken with Stern and told the New York Daily News, "The NBA needs to stand up and send a strong message by dealing with this situation." Sharpton says his concern is a "culture of violence being perpetuated in professional sports."

That, of course, is simply stating something that's been obvious for decades -- from Michael Brooks, a former linebacker with the Giants from 1993 to '95, keeping a handgun in a duffel bag in his locker at Giants Stadium to a gun being found in Allen Iverson's car in 1997.

Arenas bringing guns into Verizon Center and keeping them in his locker is just the latest example, and not as serious as others, including the criminal episodes of Plaxico Burress, Pacman Jones and Michael Vick. A listing of the number of professional athletes caught carrying weapons in the last 10 years would fill an entire page of the sports section, as would violent transgressions of college athletes the last 10 years.

To get to what really angers Sharpton we have to read deeper into his comments in the New York Daily News. Sharpton referred to the report in the New York Post, which appears to be an exaggeration if not entirely inaccurate, that Arenas and teammate Javaris Crittenton pointed weapons at each other in the locker room.

Sharpton told the Daily News: "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 of our black athletes.' "

It's a jolt to hear Sharpton be this critical of Arenas and a subculture of black athletes that has been involved in so many incidents of lawlessness for years and years. It's nice of Sharpton to finally join this particular debate so long in progress.

Sharpton's absolutely right, in that a player of one race pointing a gun at a player of another would have created huge outrage, not that anybody has pointed a gun at anybody, from what we can tell. But black leaders have had every opportunity over the past 25 years, starting with Sharpton, to take misbehaving black athletes to task, and have, for the most part, taken a pass.

But yes, better late than never. Devin Harris of the New Jersey Nets has said he believes 75 percent of NBA players own guns. Whatever the actual percentage is, NFL players can't be far behind. Some feel the guns are necessary to protect themselves; a string of robberies in Chicago in which NBA players were the victims suggests they have every right to be concerned. Others come from communities, particularly in the South and Southwest, where gun ownership is commonplace.

What's different about the Arenas episode is having the guns in the locker room, which is where Sharpton is right about Stern having to impose a harsh penalty. The punishment should have nothing to do with race. The law, as it pertains to Arenas bringing guns from Virginia to the District and into an NBA workplace, is very clear.

"Guys have got to protect themselves, but it makes no sense to have a gun in the locker room with teammates,'' Stephen Jackson said Saturday. "There's no reason to get so mad you'd want to pull a gun on a teammate. Even I can't imagine that. No way would I ever think about that -- bringing a gun to a game, or into the locker room. Nothing should make you that mad.''

When Stephen Jackson, who's had his own brushes with violence, takes the high ground, you could be in real trouble.

Where black leaders and professional sports unions have to do a better job is in demanding, angrily if necessary, that young men who make $100 million with very little education and sometimes even less maturity understand that they are businesses, not just athletes. In some cases they'll have to behave better than whatever circumstances produced them, or face serious consequences that could include suspension or legal punishment.

That kind of zero-tolerance insistence on accountability by black folks, black leaders if you will, has been rare. Sharpton, on this point, is right on the money. This is the kind of policing that has to start when kids with Arenas's talent are identified as star athletes, celebrities in most of our communities, by the time they're 12 years old. Usually, especially in basketball, the best and brightest are told or at the very least allowed to think that they can do whatever they want without consequence, or that their actions can be excused or explained away.

Arenas -- now that he's being questioned by the Feds, criticized by the likes of Sharpton and subject to punishment legally and by the league that employs him -- might be just the kind of example the good reverend is hoping for.

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