Silent Night: Gilbert Arenas beyond Black and White

By: 01.07.10

Gilbert Arenas (photo. Mannion)

So I guess I’m supposed to have something serious to say about this Gilbert Arenas thing, right? Black athlete gets in trouble, powerful White man pounds the gavel and takes money out of Black athlete’s pocket, Black sportswriters instinctively begin to crank out … something … because whether it’s the Thunderbird-fueled wino on the bus or it’s some other clown, what one of us does in front of White folks reflects on all of us. And given the players in this particular drama, there must be a racial seed at the root that needs to be addressed.

I can’t do it. At least not in the way you might expect. And not because I fail to see any racial injustice — if this were Brad Miller displaying his hunting rifles to Aaron Gray in blood-soaked Chicago and daring him to “pick one,” he’d get suspended, too — but because I can’t even defend Gilbert Arenas here.

There is a bigger-picture issue on the table, but it’s not (exclusively) about race. It’s more about another high-profile athlete/celebrity blowing another chance to use his influence to make a positive difference.

I’ve been in the game long enough to know why big-time athletes don’t take political or social stances anymore, despite the urgings of aging predecessors like Jim Brown. The full version was already written in the book Forty Million Dollar Slaves by William C. Rhoden, but for now the short version will suffice: There’s too much money on the line. No superstar wants to risk endorsement dollars by alienating a fan base (as Michael Jordan famously said, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”), and no role player wants to risk getting blackballed like Craig Hodges. (While we’re at it, anybody seen Ira Newble lately?)

In Gilbert’s case, even if he truly feels his situation is being blown out of proportion, he could have used the now-inevitable connection between himself and guns to do something right, especially in a city with a history of violence like D.C. He could have cut a PSA about gun violence; he could have made a verbal apology to the kids who look up to him, going off-script to genuinely own up to his mistakes. He could have tried to keep the focus on his actions as a good father (deciding to take guns out of his house when he daughter was born) rather than those as a prankster teammate.

Instead, Arenas constantly downplayed the situation, then on Tuesday night sealed his fate by making finger-gun gestures and cracking up with his teammates — I didn’t notice Javaris Crittenton in that huddle, by the way — before the Wizards game at Philly; another NBA city that has a gun/violence problem. “Ongoing actions” was the term David Stern used in his statement announcing Gil’s indefinite suspension. In other words, it’s not just what you did originally, it’s what you kept doing after the fact.

“If I really did something wrong, it would bother me,” Arenas was quoted. “I would feel remorse for what I did. But I didn’t do anything.”

It’s even more disappointing for me because (1) I like Gilbert, and (2) I know he’s smarter than that. I’ve worked with Arenas several times at Dime, first for a feature story in ’06, then for a cover in ’08, thrown in amongst a handful of one-on-one interviews and random run-ins in locker rooms and at events like All-Star Weekend. Gilbert is smart, honest, perceptive, and for the most part, he gets it. He can point out the fallacies and hypocritical nature of the media. He can recognize his influence on youngsters. He can identify his privilege as one of the fortunate ones who made it out of the storm. He’s shown that he’s not afraid to take a stance on something or to challenge status quo.

And he could have done so much more with this.

Arenas could have been a voice the community would listen to, somebody to step up and call out gun-toting kids and grown-ups in D.C. and around the country for what they really are: Self-proclaimed survivalists masking the fact that they’re simply scared.

“You kids today are punks. Sissified. So quick to pick up a gun; you’re afraid to take an ass-whuppin’.”

Who would’ve thought that the most profound statement regarding youth violence would be asked by John Witherspoon in a comedy movie? Fact is, young people, especially young men, are going to get angry and have beef; but what happened to fighting it out like a real man? When did that which used to be worth getting a black eye become worthy of death?

So while I applaud “NBA Cares” for reading to kindergarten kids, helping rebuild courts, visiting hospitals and handing out turkeys on Thanksgiving, I do wonder where the League — and its stars individually — factor into addressing the most tragic problems in their cities?

Kids are getting killed in Chicago, D.C., New Orleans, Detroit, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Oakland, Houston, Indianapolis, L.A., New York, Miami, Philly, Memphis … everywhere. Kids who love basketball. Kids who listen to the same music basketball players listen to, who watch the same movies and watch the same TV shows. Kids who don’t have the protection of privilege and gated communities and bodyguards. But kids who will listen if only our high-profile influencers ever decided to talk loudly enough.

It’s not all on Gilbert Arenas’ shoulders. Nor is it all on Kobe, Shaq, LeBron, Derrick Rose or any single athlete. But eventually, unless it is mandated by the NBA, somebody will have to step up alone and take the lead. And as much as I appreciate guys like Etan Thomas who will speak out, it has to be a superstar willing to make the move.

Arenas had his chance, and he didn’t take advantage. And while it’s not too late for him, the next time he opens his mouth to speak on real issues, he’ll have to overcome the perception that he’s just doing it as part of some forced community-service or PR campaign.

Otherwise, the podium is open, waiting for a speaker. Waiting for a leader.

Who’s up?

*Follow Austin Burton on Twitter: @AustinatDIMEmag
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