By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 8, 2010; B01
In Washington, the story of Gilbert Arenas and his guns is yet another in a long line of sports embarrassments for a town that has a tough time finding winners. But in the rest of the country, the news that the Washington Wizards' star guard displayed his guns in the team locker room -- and the utter lack of seriousness with which Arenas and his teammates handled the incident in the ensuing days -- is being perceived as a morality play about thuggish behavior in the NBA, race and the age-old debate over athletes' responsibility to young fans.
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence blasted Arenas as "far from a role model." In a column at Foxsports.com, Stephen A. Smith blamed the "culture of tattoos," the "hyper-masculinity syndrome" and the "foolish acts" of athletes such as Arenas, Plaxico Burress and Ron Artest for "influencing black America's youth." In the New York Daily News, the Rev. Al Sharpton asked why black leaders haven't spoken out about the "culture of violence being perpetuated in professional sports. . . . 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 from our black athletes.' "
But closer to home, where Arenas's oddball approach to basketball, life and his public image is better known, there was no such leap to assign deeper meaning to his decision to flaunt the rules and then mock those who took his actions seriously. (NBA Commissioner David Stern on Wednesday suspended Arenas indefinitely without pay, a decision driven in part by the player's actions on the court Tuesday night, when he pretended to shoot his teammates with his hands during a pregame huddle.)
Mayor Adrian M. Fenty avoided harsh criticism of Arenas. "I think a lot of what people will think about this incident is, is he truly remorseful? Does he want to change?" Fenty (D) said on WRC (Channel 4) on Thursday. "I think that's always one of the biggest tests and standards for whether someone should be allowed to do something again. People deserve second chances, but they've really got to want them and desire them."
And the mayor's potential primary opponent, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, similarly steered away from unbridled condemnation of Arenas. Gray (D) said he regrets what the player's actions "say to our kids, who we're constantly preaching to about not getting involved in deadly weapons," but he added a reminder that Arenas "stepped right up to the plate" to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. "In a situation like this," Gray said, "people remember an incident like this and they completely forget all of the good things you may have done in the past."
Washington sports teams don't capture the national imagination very often, except perhaps as examples of world-class futility. But while the Washington Redskins' changing of the guard initially overshadowed the Arenas affair locally, the rest of the country was abuzz about the Wizards.
On CBS, David Letterman offered 10 possible explanations the team might give for the locker room confrontation, including "Team recently signed an exclusive endorsement deal with Smith and Wesson," "Sick of Tiger getting all the attention" and "When you're the Washington Wizards, any press is good press."
On the streets of Washington and across the country, the name Arenas is suddenly the new shorthand for sports stars and other celebrities who act like wayward adolescents.
"I mean, how stupid is this guy?" Chris Johnson said Thursday while standing on Abe Pollin Way, the one-block stretch of F Street NW named for the late Wizards owner, who dropped the team's old name, the Bullets, in 1997 because of violent crime rates in Washington and the assassination of his friend, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. "How many millions is he making? Pay somebody to store your guns, man. You can afford it. And don't play around with them. That's nothing to joke about, man." Arenas signed a six-year, $111 million contract extension with the Wizards in 2008.
Washingtonians seemed more likely to think about Arenas's actions in the context of his antics both on and off the court, incidents in which he has, for example, filled a teammate's bathtub with coffee or sliced up his teammates' suits. But if the strangeness of a player who boasts that he takes nothing seriously made some locals reluctant to see his latest behavior as a symbol of any deeper social ills in professional sports or the celebrity world, it has not blinded D.C. fans to the gravity of Arenas's violation of team and league rules -- as well as the law.
"Gilbert Arenas has another thing coming," Ben Ross said outside Verizon Center on Thursday morning, shortly before the Wizards removed a giant Arenas banner from the building's facade.
"He's not above the law," Earl Bell said.
"He thinks he is," Ross said. "Gilbert thinks it's a . . . joke."
"He needs to be prosecuted," Bell said. "See if he laughs then."
"Yeah, and fire your damn fingers again like they're guns, Gilbert," Ross said.
"What an idiot," Bell said. "I hope they kick Arenas out of the league."
"Gil needs to be serious," said Tommie Williams, who was on his way to a pretrial drug test at D.C. Superior Court. ("Coke charge," he shrugged.) "Guns -- that's a serious offense in D.C. He's gonna find out." "
Upstairs at the courthouse, Dontea Robinson was waiting for a friend and wondering why people are so worked up about the Arenas case. "There's people out there doing worse things than that," he said. "It was a practical joke. He never meant to harm nobody. They should take it light on Gil."
A D.C. Superior Court grand jury this week began hearing evidence in the Arenas case; although the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the city's ban on handguns last year, it remains illegal to have a gun at a workplace or to bring a gun into the District from another jurisdiction.
At City Sports, just up the block from the Wizards' home court, a rack of Gilbert Arenas jerseys ($75 each) languished, as did the player's signature Adidas shoes, which had been marked down, with some styles sitting on the clearance table (two pairs, $50).
"It's stupid, what he did," said cashier Naja Kelly, shaking her head. " 'Let me boost my image and go the thug route.' But everybody knows you're not a thug." She wondered why Arenas hadn't been charged yet. "I'm a student at Howard, and we've had incidents where people have had handguns, and they've been detained right away." She wondered, too, whether he would receive anything more than a slap on the wrist from the law. "He won't go to jail. But I'm sure he'll be doing gun safety ads and talking to kids about why guns are bad. But is he really going to change his mentality? They never do."
Staff writer Nikita Stewart contributed to this report.