Arenas investigation could have far-reaching consequences
Gilbert Arenas allegedly had dispute with teammate in which guns were displayed
Arenas may have broken the law by storing firearms in his Wizards locker
The Wizards' point guard could face criminal charges and/or an NBA suspension
Because of Washington guard Gilbert Arenas' decision to store firearms -- unloaded handguns, according to the player and the Wizards -- in his locker, he could soon face the wrath of law-enforcement authorities, the NBA and his team. Arenas' woes may be compounded if he and teammate Javaris Crittenton drew guns on each other during an alleged locker-room argument.
According to published reports, the dispute between the two players originates from Dec. 19 on a team flight, when Arenas and Crittenton played card games for money. The 27-year-old Arenas, a three-time All-Star in the second year of a six-year, $111 million contract, reportedly refused to pay Crittenton, a 22-year-old bench player. Two days later, Arenas allegedly showed Crittenton three guns that he stored in his locker at the Verizon Center. Some reports indicate that Arenas and Crittenton then drew guns on each other; other reports suggest that only Arenas pointed a gun at Crittenton or that neither grabbed a gun. There is also uncertainty over whether the players viewed the situation with seriousness or lightheartedness, or if other Wizards players or staff witnessed the alleged incident. Arenas and Crittenton both deny they pulled guns and insist the entire story has been blown out of proportion.
Even if the gun-pulling incident did not occur, Arenas may have broken Washington, D.C., law by simply storing guns in the Wizards' locker room. Depending on the type of guns he stored and whether he registered them, he may have broken other D.C. laws, too. Although D.C. gun laws changed after the U.S. Supreme Court's 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, which invalidated a D.C. prohibition on owning certain firearms, D.C. still prohibits a wide range of firearms, including "unsafe" handguns. It also imposes registration and usage requirements on other guns, particularly when transporting them on public spaces, such as roads and highways. Failure to satisfy D.C. gun requirements can result in fines of up to $5,000 and up to five years in prison.
Arenas already knows there can be legal consequences for possessing guns without proper legal authority: In 2003, he pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge in California for illegally possessing a concealed weapon (he also pleaded no contest to a separate charge for driving without a license).
Also, while Virginia authorities have not publicly signaled interest in the legality of Arenas' guns, Arenas lives in Virginia and his storing or carrying of guns in that state must abide by Virginia's gun laws. Virginia's gun laws are more permissive than in D.C., but they still require a permit for carrying a concealed weapon, a violation for which by a first-time offender can result in a fine of up to $1,000 and up to 12 months in prison. Virginia's gun laws extend reciprocity or recognition to citizens carrying concealed weapon permits from other states, including Arenas's previous state of Arizona (but not California), a fact that could work in Arenas' advantage if he did not obtain a permit to carry a concealed weapon in Virginia but did so in Arizona.
If Arenas and Crittenton drew guns on each other, or if one pointed a gun at the other, they better have been unloaded guns and the players better have done the pointing without the intent to harm. Otherwise, and depending on the circumstances, the players could run the risk of being charged with a crime, including assault, which under D.C. laws includes "threaten[ing] another in a menacing manner." A key factor with assault under D.C. law is whether the accused intended to instill fear in the victim, meaning a player could be in trouble if he pointed a gun at another player. Arenas and Crittenton are expected to meet separately with police over the next few days. If their stories don't match up, the police could be more likely to investigate the potential criminal aspects of the alleged incident.
Meanwhile, Arenas also faces potential sanctions by the NBA and the Wizards. The NBA appears to possess solid grounds to discipline Arenas. Most notably, the collective bargaining agreement expressly prohibits players from possessing firearms at NBA arenas. Commissioner David Stern also would enjoy broad deference to preserve the integrity of, and maintain the public's confidence in, the NBA. According to the CBA, the commissioner has the power to "suspend for a definite or indefinite period" any player who "shall have been guilty of conduct that does not conform to standards of morality or fair play, that does not comply at all times with all federal, state, and local laws, or that is prejudicial or detrimental to the Association."
Given concerns about the league's image and associations with guns and violence, Stern might use the Arenas controversy to send a clear message that guns have no place in the NBA. Plus, considering the recent scandal involving former NBA referee Tim Donaghy, any linkages between league personnel and gambling, even mere card games on a team flight, could heighten Stern's interest in imposing a stiff punishment. Stern could also cite that Arenas is a repeat offender, given that the commissioner suspended Arenas for one game after Arenas, as noted above, pleaded no contest to possessing a concealed weapon.
Through arbitration, however, the players' association would likely challenge any punishment of Arenas that it deems excessive. It would do so not only for Arenas' sake but also for future players who could be affected by Stern's adopting a tougher approach to discipline. Although Stern is not bound by the lengths of his prior suspensions, it is notable that he suspended Sebastian Telfair for only three games in 2008 after a loaded handgun was found in his luggage.
The Wizards could also attempt to sanction Arenas. The franchise could do so through a suspension or, more controversially, through a termination of Arenas' lucrative contract. Although I have not reviewed Arenas' contract, Clause 16 of the NBA's Uniform Player Contract cannot be modified for individual player contracts and describes the circumstances in which a team can terminate a deal. One such circumstance occurs if a player "at any time, fails, refuses, or neglects to conform his personal conduct to standards of good citizenship, good moral character (defined here to mean not engaging in acts of moral turpitude, whether or not such acts would constitute a crime), and good sportsmanship ..."
To be sure, the players' association would vehemently object to the Wizards' using Clause 16 to escape financial obligations, with the union seeking to protect Arenas and other controversial players who could be subject to contractual termination by their teams. Indeed, the very concept of guaranteed NBA contracts could be jeopardized by the termination of Arenas' deal.
The Arenas situation might also spur changes in league policies that implicate player privacy. For instance, might the NBA demand greater freedom to search players' lockers, either randomly or with cause? The league may already enjoy that right since Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures do not apply to searches conducted by private parties -- such as an NBA team or league officials -- who are not acting as agents of the government. Some states' privacy laws, however, might protect NBA players, though not if the NBA and players' association agreed to protocols for searches. More dramatically, the NBA could seek to collectively bargain changes to the Uniform Player Contract that would stringently limit or outright prohibit player possession of guns, including during the offseason.
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Michael McCann is a law professor at Vermont Law School and the distinguished visiting Hall of Fame Professor of Law at Mississippi College School of Law. In the spring of 2010, he will teach a sports law reading group at Yale Law School.