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

The stadium scene.
Jan. 12 2010 4:17 PM

Less Than Zero

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

Gilbert Arenas. Click image to expand.
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.

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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.