Athletes And Guns: A Loaded Question

By Lance Pugmire
Updated: December 17, 2006

LOS ANGELES— Tampa Bay running back Errict Rhett was making a career of fearlessly confronting 300-pound linemen and rock-solid linebackers, but his first encounter with real, heart-thumping fright came the day he faced a .45-caliber muzzle.

That was a decade ago — on a day when the NFL’s 1994 offensive rookie of the year needed a car wash and a haircut. He pulled into a neighborhood shop that provided both.

His uniform of the day: a stylish linen shirt and white pants. When he rose from the barber’s chair, he looked sharp. So did the freshly washed and shining red Lexus waiting for him outside the door. Maybe too sharp. He stood out in the crowd.

A car wheeled in front of Rhett, blocking access to his car. The driver, a menacing stranger, challenged him — then reached under his seat.

“I know that motion there,” Rhett recalled in an interview. “Where I’m from, the inner city of South Florida — Carver Ranches — whenever you see that motion, everyone knows that damn motion.”

And, as Rhett rightly sensed, in another instant he was staring at a handgun. It was pointed at his head.

“My heart started beating so fast it was uncontrollable,” he said. “I’ve never been so scared. The whole world got quiet.”

That moment changed him. Rhett, like a lot of other professional athletes, decided he would never again leave home without his own concealed handgun.

While NBA and NFL officials decline to estimate how many players are licensed to carry weapons, a spate of recent gun incidents involving professional and college players has revealed that numerous athletes apparently are armed.

Three NBA players were found to be carrying concealed handguns after police were called to a shooting incident in October outside an Indianapolis strip club.

Stephen Jackson of the Indiana Pacers had fired off five shots in the parking lot outside the club. He said the driver had threatened him and his friends.

Police found that all three Pacers teammates were armed. Jamaal Tinsley and Marquis Daniels, like Jackson, also were licensed to carry concealed weapons.

Prosecutors charged Jackson with criminal recklessness and misdemeanor battery. Tinsley and Daniels had not used their guns and were not charged.

“Stephen Jackson should be ashamed of himself,” said attorney David Cornwell, who nonetheless defends an athlete’s right to be armed. The Atlanta lawyer represents such prominent football players as Reggie Bush of the New Orleans Saints and Shawne Merriman of the San Diego Chargers.

Athletes “have a right not to be assaulted,” Cornwell said. But he regarded Jackson’s alleged gunplay as a dangerous example of someone apparently using a gun to gain “respect in the streets.”

There have been a number of other incidents.

In January, Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chris Henry pleaded guilty in Orlando, Fla., to a concealed weapon charge. During an argument with a group of people, he had pulled his 9-millimeter Luger and allegedly pointed it into the crowd.

In February, point guard Sebastian Telfair, then a Portland Trail Blazer, was questioned by Massachusetts state police after a loaded handgun was found in his luggage aboard the team plane. Telfair said he had accidentally carried his girlfriend’s gun on the road trip to Boston. He was fined by the team.

And in August, former NBA player Lonny Baxter was arrested in Washington, D.C., after shooting a gun from his vehicle near the White House. He was sentenced to two months in jail and is working out in Italy, trying to land a spot on a professional team in Europe.

“He has nothing to say about it, and he wants to move on,” said Baxter’s Washington attorney, Richard Finci. “The fact is it’s a felony to have a gun near the White House, and it’s stupid to discharge one into the air.”

Such incidents have raised new concerns throughout the sports world and focused critical public attention on the issue of armed athletes.

NBA Commissioner David Stern tackled the subject during his annual preseason conference call in October, saying he prefers that players keep their guns at home.

“We think this is an alarming subject,” Stern said. “Although you’ll read players saying how they feel safer with guns, in fact those guns actually make them less safe.”

The commissioner argued that carrying a gun dramatically increases “your chances of being shot by one.”

The league’s collective bargaining agreement restricts players from bringing even licensed firearms to arenas, practice facilities or promotional appearance. NBA rookies are instructed about the pros and cons of gun ownership during their league transition program.

Stern said players can own guns, but “I would favor being able to have a firearm to protect your home. Period.”

One of the worst incidents involving a gun and a basketball star, however, took place at home. In 2002, then-recently retired New Jersey Nets star Jayson Williams was charged with reckless manslaughter after a limousine driver was shot dead in Williams’ New Jersey home.

A jury deadlocked on the felony charge and Williams is scheduled to be retried.

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy also acknowledged that the recent rash of gun incidents with athletes has raised concerns in his league.

“It’s something we closely watch,” he said.

Last week, Terry “Tank” Johnson of the Chicago Bears was arrested at his home for possessing a number of guns and assault rifles, allegedly unregistered and in violation of probation from a previous gun charge.

Johnson, a 6-foot-3, 300-pound defensive tackle, had been arrested in 2005 after a Chicago nightclub valet told police Johnson stowed a 9-millimeter gun in the console of his truck. A loaded handgun was discovered.

He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor unlawful use of a weapon in November 2005 and was serving an 18-month probation.

“It was bad luck,” Johnson’s attorney, Jerry Marconi, said of the first gun charge. “Tank belonged to Bass Pro Shops’ gun range in Arizona,” where he used the gun. But, Marconi said, the lineman “had so many cars … he truly forgot it was in the truck.”

Regarding the stash of weapons found in Johnson’s home this week, Lake County prosecutor Jeff Pavletic said: “It’s quite an arsenal for someone to be claiming he target shoots.”

Johnson’s bodyguard, Willie B. Posey, was shot to death Saturday in a Chicago nightclub. Johnson’s attorney has said the player had nothing to do with the shooting.

Other NFL players involved in gun incidents since 2005 include Sean Taylor, Michael Doss and Jabar Gaffney.

Gaffney, then with the Philadelphia Eagles and now a receiver for the New England Patriots, was found in June by New Jersey police to have a .380 semiautomatic pistol in his glove compartment — a gun legally registered in Texas, but not in New Jersey. The charges later were dropped.

Taylor, a first-round draft pick of the Washington Redskins who signed for $18 million in 2004, was charged in Miami-Dade County, Fla., with aggravated assault with a firearm. Law enforcement authorities said witnesses reported Taylor had pointed a gun at a group of men, accusing them of stealing two of his all-terrain vehicles.

Taylor’s attorney said “it was a fistfight” with no weapons involved. Taylor pleaded no contest to misdemeanor simple battery and simple assault in June — a plea bargain that allowed Taylor to avoid answering if he used a gun in the incident.

The Redskins safety was placed on 18 months’ probation, ordered to talk about the importance of education at 10 Miami schools and required to contribute $1,000 for scholarships to each of those schools. The NFL also fined him four game checks — $71,764.

Doss, an Indianapolis Colts safety, received 40 hours of community service after firing shots outside a restaurant in Akron, Ohio, in the middle of the night.

Police found shell casings on the ground and a gun in Doss’ Mercedes-Benz. The NFL also suspended Doss for one game.

In August, former Ohio State star running back Maurice Clarett, briefly of the Denver Broncos, was arrested by Columbus, Ohio, police. They found four loaded guns in Clarett’s SUV.

Earlier this year, heavyweight boxer Andrew Golota was charged with misdemeanor violations when police conducting a sexual assault investigation in Illinois found Golota to be possessing more than a dozen firearms without permits.

In 1997, Dallas Cowboys Coach Barry Switzer was detained by security guards at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport for carrying a loaded revolver in a canvas bag. Airport officials said there was no criminal intent, and Switzer explained he placed the gun in the bag previously to keep it away from three children visiting his home, then forgot.

Baseball players Jose Canseco and Steve Howe also faced illegal gun possession charges during their playing careers.

A number of professional athletes have been attacked in public.

Boston Celtics star Paul Pierce was stabbed 11 times by a nightclub patron in 2000. The former Inglewood High player says he has a gun at home.

Corey Fuller of the Baltimore Ravens used his gun to thwart a robbery when he was confronted by two armed men outside his Tallahassee home in 2004.

Defensive back Terence Kiel of the Chargers was shot in an apparent carjacking attempt in a Houston mall parking lot in 2003.

Athletes who carry guns do so, lawyer Cornwell said, because of “legitimate safety concerns.” But he said he urges his clients to hire private security guards.

“I tell guys unless you’re trained, don’t carry. There’s tragedy looming at the end of a gun muzzle,” he said.

Todd Boyd, a critical studies professor at USC specializing in pop culture, calls guns part of the real world of many young athletes.

“So many of these players come from impoverished, urban or rural South environments,” Boyd said. “Now you talk about that kid becoming an NBA player, making a lot of money, wearing expensive jewelry, driving expensive cars, and coming from a culture where you have to protect yourself — it’s no surprise they’re taking steps to cover each other.

“Of course, the guys who are smart have guys around them with guns — bodyguards.”

After his encounter with the .45-caliber handgun at a Tampa carwash and barbershop, when Rhett was able to talk his way out of trouble, he went on to play another five seasons in the NFL — after the Buccaneers, he went to the Ravens and the Cleveland Browns.

And he remained an armed athlete.

“It’s a simple reason,” he said. “You want to protect yourself with a gun, not flaunt it.”

The problem for many pro athletes, Rhett said, is balancing newfound personal wealth and maintaining contact with friends and family in public places where the athletes were raised.

“When I visited my mother and father in the inner city, man, it was scary,” Rhett said. “My dad’s been robbed at his door eight times. It was so bad…. And in clubs, there’s a 99% chance you’ll run into at least one person who’s jealous of you.”

Rhett said his decision to protect himself with a concealed firearm led him to the hobby of gun collecting. He amassed a collection of 60 guns, he said — everything from small pistols made in the 1800s to World War II handguns to a replica of the large, bazooka-looking flare gun Al Pacino flashed during his memorable “say hello to my little friend!” confrontation in the film “Scarface.”

He said he maintained weapons permits for each firearm. But he had to use one of his guns only once, he said — and then it was merely a show of force.

Backing out of a fast-food parking lot with his pregnant wife, Rhett said he accidentally struck another car. The couple suddenly was surrounded by angry teenagers.

“It was getting very hostile, these kids yelling ‘Come on, man’ at me, with more cars pulling up,” Rhett said. “It was totally intense until I showed them what I had. They backed off, and I called the police from my cell. I had my [firearm] license. Everything was fine.”

Rhett said he ultimately decided to “start concentrating on being a better father instead of a gun collector.” He said he gave up trips to firing ranges with teammates and traded in his “priceless” gun collection.

But locker rooms haven’t changed, he said.

“You could tell the guys who would be dangerous with a gun,” Rhett said. “Every team has … three or four guys you knew were packing, and you were thinking, ‘Oh, man, that guy’s dangerous.’ ”