Someone isn’t just raining on David Stern’s image parade, someone is threatening to shoot it up.
Gilbert Arenas’ gun-toting behavior, his fingers-cocked mockery of it and the recent charges against him are all loaded weapons and they’re pointed at the heart of Stern’s delicate balancing act.
Stern has been a master at harmonizing the consumer imperatives of mass popular entertainment (turning the NBA into a kind of Disney-in-shorts) and the testosterone-fueled culture of millionaire athletes. The result is a NetJetting world of empowered wealth, bought-off enablers and handlers, and gatekeeper-free behavior.
I wouldn’t be surprised one bit if hoopster-in-chief President Barack Obama comments on this, and tries to turn Arenas’ locker-room gun antics into one of his “teachable moments.” Perhaps a passing question tossed at him by a reporter, ummm, triggers it. Or perhaps he just brings it up because it’s on his mind.
That would be a massive irony. Stern has worked assiduously to clean up pro basketball’s image. His mission is to keep the NBA kid-friendly, so that largely upper- middle-class parents feel welcome taking their children to games. And he has succeeded. Sure, fans will predictably gripe about overpaid athletes, but the hardwood theater works. And happy fans mean happy – if not euphoric – merchandise sales. With that, the NBA brand and its teams with marketing radiance are wearable badges.
No wonder that the commissioner has been the NBA’s Enforcer-in-Chief, a head-cracking hall monitor who promulgated a dress code, who suspended players for almost unprecedented lengths of time – see Latrell Sprewell and Arenas – and who single-handedly kiboshed Allen Iverson’s rap career.
I don’t think Stern had any choice in the past, or with Arenas. But what’s next? Therein resides the paradox. Because Stern is being drawn into the sticky wicket of gun ownership within the NBA, and it’s well beyond a single incident of locker-room machismo. Imagine a constitutional debate about the rights of a $111 million athlete featuring Bill O’Reilly, the NRA, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a green room full of gun-control advocates, strict constructionists and media-sexy strange bedfellows. That’s technically called reputational hell.
On one level, Stern clearly can’t permit guns on NBA property, even in an Escalade parked outside an NBA training facility. So perhaps he’ll say that if you’re caught packing heat in the glove compartment, if the cops catch you with a gun anywhere it shouldn’t be, you’ll be beyond deep trouble – maybe suspended for a year, maybe for life. And there’s also the issue of the NBA and gambling; the Wizards’ coach already has banned gambling on the team plane.
So the genie has been 3-pointed out of the bottle. The conversation is jet-streaming across the cultural firmament. Arenas used Twitter to joke about his reckless behavior; the New York Times called it “irreverent commentary.” Actually, turning to social media is a clever jujitsu attempt to commandeer the conversation and normalize outlier behavior through a charm, humor and self-deprecation; it’s a strategy that worked for David Letterman and fits with the Arenas persona.
If the pressure builds on Stern to get even more aggressive, say a blanket ban on gun ownership by NBA players, major issues could loom. I think he’s too smart for that, though. As my son Lucas put it – and he really understands these nuances and contributed immeasurably to this piece – in an e-mail:
“So when push comes to shove, if Stern tries to unilaterally deny the Second Amendment rights of his work force, it’s going to be a problem that involves all of sport. Which would be a PR disaster. Especially for the NBA. Because a bunch of players who David Stern desperately doesn’t want talking about guns are going to end up talking about guns. The last thing he wants right now is for the word ‘gun’ to emerge from LeBron James’ mouth.”
So Stern has to hope that his decision doesn’t extend the news window and turn what he wants to quarantine as an isolated incident into a systemic problem, a reminder of the post-Jordan era when the league was in serious limbo with major image issues in the news.
If this story stays hot, the media will start their hunt for other angles, and will push deeper and construct a larger narrative about the dirty little secret of violence in professional sports. And so the fabric gets embroidered. Meanwhile, wealthy athletes will claim they are targets and need to protect themselves, using their celebrity to justify packing heat. They’re not wrong; for every Plaxico Burress or Pacman Jones there’s a Sean Taylor or a Dunta Robinson.
Taylor was killed and Robinson was bound and gagged, both during home invasions. And what about the scores of Latino baseball players whose families have been abducted and held for ransom in their native countries simply because they represent an extortable asset?
The longer people talk about this, the more it unfurls into a conversation about entitled millionaire athletes and Second Amendment rights, the more it becomes Stern’s ultimate nightmare: a national water-cooler conversation about guns, gambling, basketball and the wrong kind of shooting.
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