Stern will make example of Arenas
David Stern suspended Ron Artest for the rest of the season after the 2004 brawl
Stern may impose same penalty on Gilbert Arenas for locker-room gun incident
Stern must take a harsh stance to avoid dangerous consequences in the future
Gilbert Arenas is three inches shorter, 45 pounds lighter and far less intimidating than Ron Artest. But they have one potential similarity that should be feared by Arenas: He, like Artest five seasons ago, will face a mammoth penalty imposed by commissioner David Stern.
You don't need Doppler radar to see that a perfect storm has been forming around Arenas since the New York Post broke news of his alleged Dec. 21 showdown with Washington Wizards teammate Javaris Crittenton. An argument over a gambling debt led to a confrontation in the Wizards' locker room -- the locker room! -- in which Arenas reportedly placed three firearms on a chair before Crittenton.
What happened next will come into focus as the two players answer the following questions posed Monday by the U.S. Attorney: Did Crittenton have a gun of his own, and did he pull that gun on Arenas? Were any of the guns loaded?
Crittenton's agent, Mark Bartelstein, has denied that his client had a gun and has gone as far as to say, "Javaris has done nothing wrong." Arenas has intimated that the incident was an act of horseplay gone too far, which, in his case, is entirely believable.
But his dereliction of common sense has created a national scandal. If found guilty of carrying an unlicensed or concealed gun in D.C., the players face a maximum sentence of five years in prison and/or a $5,000 fine. Additional penalties could be dealt if they try to hedge the truth about the incident, as there were witnesses in the locker room, and the truth will surely emerge.
After the legal investigation has run its course, the players will face a second verdict from Stern. And I believe the commissioner will come down hard.
Stern may well suspend them for the remainder of the season, as he did to Artest after he went into the Detroit stands to incite the 2004 brawl at the Palace. Depending on the severity of the incident, based on the result of the criminal investigation, Stern may also support the Wizards in attempting to void their obligation to pay Arenas $96 million over five years (including this season) on the basis of "moral turpitude."
Even if no guns were actually pointed at one another, even if the guns were unloaded, and even if they are charged with nothing more than a misdemeanor, these players -- and Arenas especially -- have created a problem to which Stern will respond firmly.
For years, Stern has worried aloud about the players' reliance on guns for self-protection, but there has been little he could do legally to stop them from packing licensed weapons. In this case, however, the collective bargaining agreement prohibits players from carrying firearms on team property. Arenas has acknowledged moving three unloaded guns into his locker at the Verizon Center last month because he didn't feel safe keeping them at home after the birth of his third child. Instead of reaching out for assistance in storing the weapons, he not only moved them into the team's facility but also then allegedly chose to reveal them in the middle of a heated argument.
The players are fooling themselves if they think Stern won't make an example of them as he did of Artest. Imagine if Stern was light in his punishment, only to watch in horror a year or two later as another incident among NBA players led to actual gunfire and injury. Then Stern would bear grave responsibility for not doing everything he could have in the case of Arenas to limit, once and for all, the use of guns by players.
If he does not respond with a large suspension, the commissioner himself will face accusations that he is derelict in enabling his players to run amok.
Look at it another way: Players ultimately face a "lifetime" ban for using cocaine and other recreational drugs. But the potential consequences of that crime are less incendiary than an escalation of an argument involving guns. (While the CBA enables the league to impose a series of incremental penalties for drug use, the sentence for possession of a firearm on team property is limited to a $50,000 fine and a suspension of Stern's choosing.)
Stern penalized Artest (and Carmelo Anthony, following a subsequent incident in New York) in a successful attempt at diminishing on-court violence because of the harm it caused to the NBA. Now, there is widespread conjecture that players pulled guns on one another in an NBA locker room. Those details may eventually be discounted by the investigation, but there is no escaping the fact that the players' own reckless behavior created all of this inflammable conjecture. Much as he did in the case of Artest, Stern will now want to show fans -- not only in the U.S. but also around the world, including countries that are horrified by America's freedom on guns -- that he will not tolerate such an irresponsible act.
There has been some speculation that the Wizards may be wary of alienating Arenas by threatening to void his contract, but I don't see it that way. The relationship between player and management has been turned upside down by the recession of the last two years. Many owners are demanding major cutbacks in player salaries and benefits when the next CBA goes into effect as early as the 2011-12 season, and they will undoubtedly wish to see Stern take a hard line in this case to help set the tone for the CBA negotiations to come.
While that hard line may result in a lengthy suspension, the potential of voiding Arenas' contract would appear unlikely. If it emerges that the weapons were unloaded and no guns were pointed, can the NBA find grounds to annul the remainder of a six-year, $111 million agreement? Furthermore, the attempt might ruin any chances of negotiating a new CBA with the players' union and avoiding a ruinous lockout in 2011-12.
"It's been a little rough lately, but I'm trying to keep a smile on my face," Arenas told The Washington Post on Saturday. "I'm a goofball. That's what I am. Even with something like this, I'm going to make fun of it."
Arenas' attempts at making light of the incident may be aimed at convincing the U.S. Attorney that the locker-room showdown really was a moment of horseplay. But I have a feeling his carefree attitude is killing Arenas in the eyes of Judge Stern. Every time Arenas laughs about the confrontation, he amps up the pressure on the commissioner to demonstrate that the incident is, in fact, viewed as a highly serious matter that must be contained as well as prevented from recurring.
When players talk about avoiding on-court violence, they bring up the name of Ron Artest as the example of what will happen if they go too far. In years to come, players may think twice about their relationship with guns because of the extended penalty that awaits Gilbert Arenas.
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