Published January 11, 2010
Some people ask why a man who stands 6-foot-4, weighs 215 pounds and doesn't have an ounce of fat on him needs to carry a gun.
But Gilbert Arenas is not an anonymous physical specimen. He's a player for the NBA's Washington Wizards. And statistics show that the point guard's fame and recognition make him much more likely than the average man on the street to become the victim of a violent crime.
Arenas, who has no previous criminal record, was indefinitely suspended without pay Wednesday by NBA Commissioner David Stern for bringing unloaded guns into his team's locker room. Federal and local authorities are looking into criminal charges, particularly possible violations of the District of Columbia's strict gun laws.
In suspending Arenas, Stern said: "The possession of firearms by an NBA player in an NBA arena is a matter of the utmost concern to us."
While Stern was originally expected to wait for the outcome of the investigations before acting, he reportedly felt compelled to suspend Arenas immediately when the extent of Arenas' actions — and his consequent behavior — became known.
On Tuesday, the day before he was suspended, Arenas pointed his index fingers at an opposing player, purportedly mimicking guns, in a game with the Philadelphia 76ers. Another contributing factor for the quick suspension, some have suggested, was the tone of Arenas' public apology for the gun incident on Twitter:
"I wanna say sorry if I pissed any body off by us havin fun...I'm sorry for anything u need to blame (me) for right now," Arenas wrote on a Twitter account that has since been deactivated.
For some observers, it is hard to comprehend why professional athletes carry guns. The massive size and strength of NBA players would appear to make them unlikely crime victims. But Gary Kleck, a criminology Professor at Florida State University and co-author of "The Great American Gun Debate," says that's hardly the case.
"Athletes in some respects constitute more attractive targets," Kleck says. "They have a high public profile and are known to have wealth and items that can easily be stolen, such as jewelry."
Statistics support Kleck's case. Five NBA players were robbed during the four years from 2005 to 2008 — a rate of 280 per 100,000 people, compared to 145 per 100,000 for the rest of the U.S. population. In other words, the rate that NBA players are robbed was about twice the rate for the rest of the country.
While "only" five robberies over four years might appear to be too small a number for a fair comparative evaluation, Professor Lloyd Cohen, who teaches statistics to lawyers at George Mason University Law School, says: "This is an appropriate benchmark for determining that the likelihood of an NBA player being a victim of robbery is greater than [that] for the general population. This is not an artificially selected sample. This is looking at all the reported incidents in recent years."
The robberies of the NBA players also were comparatively brutal. Possibly because of the players' physical size, those who rob them generally commit their crimes in groups and appear to engage in more planning. Indeed, all the robberies committed against NBA players from 2005 to 2008 involved at least two robbers, and they averaged 2.6 robbers. By contrast, a single robber commits the overwhelming majority of other robberies.
The NBA players and their families are also much more likely to be assaulted and tied up. While only 40 percent of typical robberies involve guns, all the attacks against the NBA players involved guns. Two of the players were shot at, with one being seriously wounded.
Shelden Williams, the 6-foot-9, 250-pound forward for the Atlanta Hawks, had his car stolen from him by two men at gunpoint shortly before a game in December 2007. Williams' longtime friend and former college teammate, Luol Deng, told the Chicago Tribune at that time: "It's not like Shelden is a guy who went and looked for trouble. They were after him for some reason."
Four of the five robberies occurred in wealthy, very low crime areas, and three occurred in homes in wealthy residential neighborhoods. One of the robberies occurred in an area with an armed robbery rate of fewer than 4 per 100,000 people; another occurred in a small city with a robbery rate of about 110 per 100,000 people.
The higher victimization rate is not limited to NBA players. National Football League players face a measurably higher risk of being murdered. From 2005 through 2008, the murder rate for NFL players was about six times that of the general U.S. population. Possibly the most memorable death involved the Redskins' Sean Taylor, who was killed by an intruder in his home.
Fortunately, no NBA player was murdered during that time, but there have been plenty of threats of violence. Indiana Pacers' guard Jamaal Tinsley was shot at three times during a 14-month period from late 2006 through December 2007; the last attack left the team's equipment manager wounded. The equipment manager and Tinsley were reportedly just sitting in Tinsley's car talking when the last attacked occurred.
Eddy Curry, the 6-foot-11, 285-pound forward for the New York Knicks, was subdued and bound with duct tape, along with his wife and an employee, when his mansion was robbed in July 2007. That same weekend, the 6-foot-9, 245-pound Miami Heat forward Antoine Walker was robbed while he was with a relative at his townhouse in Chicago. When Los Angeles Clippers star Cuttino Mobley was robbed in 2005, he said he felt so "violated" by the incident that he didn't live in the house for at least the next two years.
Chicago Bulls forward Joe Smith, 6-foot-10 and 225 pounds, told the Chicago Tribune that the threat of violence has changed his life. "It can be a repairman, a cable guy, it can be anybody. And all they have to do is just relay the message to the wrong person on where you live," Smith said.
This glut of violent crimes has led many NBA players to decide to carry firearms. New Jersey Nets guard Devin Harris told reporters this week he believes as many as 75 percent of the league's players own guns.
The risks of being a crime victim, Kleck says, "provide more motivation for athletes to carry a gun for protection."
Professional athletes provide a range of opinions on how to protect themselves from crime. "My gun definitely makes me feel a little safer," said Houston Texans Cornerback Dunta Robinson, who was the victim of an armed robbery in September 2007. On the other hand, former Utah Jazz star Karl Malone told Sports Illustrated that players should just learn not be out late at night at parties:
"Three a.m.? My goodness gracious, what were you doing out at 3 o'clock in the morning? Who were you with? Where were you at?" Malone said.
Over the years, some NBA stars, including Shaquille O'Neal and Charles Barkley, have carried concealed handguns. But it isn't just NBA players who feel the need for protection. From talk show hosts (Don Imus, Howard Stern, and Sean Hannity) to actors (Bill Cosby, Cybill Shepherd, Tom Selleck, Robert De Niro) to numerous politicians, many in the public eye have said they feel the need to protect themselves. Others, including Rosie O'Donnell, rely on armed bodyguards.
What is clear is that the fear that professional sports figures have over crime is not unique to them.