Packed with trouble

By Joseph Williams
Updated: December 29, 2008

WASHINGTON — Boston Celtics star Paul Pierce is reluctant to discuss the night he nearly lost his life in a Boston nightclub eight years ago, but his skin tells part of the story: several small, nick-like scars on his cheek, a longer one under his right eye.

The scars that mark his chest and back are hidden by his practice uniform.

At a morning practice before a recent game against the Washington Wizards, Pierce was polite but terse when asked how he has changed since a group of men jumped him that night, beating him, stabbing him, and smashing a bottle over his head.

He would not say what he thought of Plaxico Burress, the New York Giants receiver who accidentally shot himself Nov. 28 with an unlicensed gun he brought into a Manhattan nightclub.

“I’m in a whole different situation (than Burress),” Pierce said. Though he said he’s more careful “since I been through what I been through,” he would not say how.

“That incident … I don’t want to focus on that at all,” Pierce said, abruptly waving his hand under his chin and cutting off the interview. “You want to talk about basketball, I’m good.”

Yet Burress, who caught the winning touchdown in last season’s Giants Super Bowl win over the Patriots, was in a similar situation as Pierce, the NBA’s reigning Finals Most Valuable Player. Both are young, highly paid star athletes whose night out with friends ended in a dangerous, potentially deadly situation.

By all accounts Pierce wasn’t looking for trouble; Burress apparently armed himself in case anyone tried to attack him.

Experts in sports and society, however, say both cases point to a complex, stubborn problem in professional sports: athletes, particularly blacks, have become targets for criminals, leading some of them to arm themselves, increasing the possibility that something bad will happen to them or someone else.

An alarming trend

The arrest of Burress is the latest in a string of disturbing incidents involving pro athletes and violence.

On Jan. 1, 2007, drive-by gunmen shot and killed Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams after a confrontation in a downtown Denver nightclub on New Years’ Eve; Williams was with NBA star Kenyon Martin and Oakland Raiders receiver Javon Walker at the time.

In October 2007, Adam “Pacman” Jones, an NFL star then with the Tennessee Titans, was allegedly involved in a fight and shooting at a Las Vegas strip club that wounded three people, leaving a club bouncer paralyzed.

In perhaps the highest-profile incident, Sean Taylor, a rising star with the NFL’s Washington Redskins, was shot and killed in November 2007 in a home-invasion robbery in Miami.

And three months ago, Richard Collier, an lineman with the Jacksonville Jaguars, was paralyzed when assailants shot him 14 times as he headed home after a night out.

Both the NFL and the NBA have harshly punished players involved in off-field incidents; Jones, for example, was suspended for the entire 2007 season, forfeiting millions. Both leagues also feature mandatory player-education programs to avoid bad situations by making better choices.

“The real issue to me is when the players feel they’re unsafe, they shouldn’t be there,” said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell days after Burress’ arrest. “So, get out – don’t be there. If you feel the need to have a firearm someplace, you’re in the wrong place.”

Learning gap

But Dave Czesniuk, director of operations for Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society, said Goodell’s comment misses the point. Most of the players in violent situations have been young blacks, something the league ignores in its player education.

“I think the huge gap lies in the makeup of players and makeup of management,” said Czesniuk, who specializes in the relationship between race and sports. “There’s a huge racial divide” between the NBA and the NFL leadership and the black athletes who dominate the leagues – and the culture some bring with them to the pros.

“A lot of times, they aren’t speaking the same language,” he said.

While the majority of athletes in the NBA and the NFL avoid trouble, they do stand out by size alone, while their celebrity and high income make them appealing targets for troublemakers.

The problem is compounded, Czesniuk said, when some athletes steeped in urban or hip-hop culture can’t or won’t leave the expensive cars, jewelry, and oversized bankrolls behind.

“That puts them in a position where they feel they need to defend themselves ‘by any means necessary,'” including guns, Czesniuk said. “When they all come together, you have the potential (for a dangerous situation).”

Former NFL star Jerome Bettis, who does commentary for NBC Sports, confirmed that viewpoint in a recent interview with the online Web site

“Some players like to splurge on very expensive items: rings, watches, bracelets, and chains,” said Bettis, who played 13 seasons, mostly with the Pittsburgh Steelers. “So there have been a lot of instances where players have been robbed.”

Christopher L. Henry, the NFL’s director of player development, said the league is working to change those attitudes, particularly among new players who value a flashy lifestyle – and now have the money to get it.

“What we’re looking at is young players coming into the league with practically 20 years of reinforced behavior,” Henry said. “We’re taking them out of their communities and giving them an opportunity that many of them have not seen before. With that comes a great responsibility.”

Even if a player is trying to walk the straight and narrow, “People know everything about these guys – who they are, how much they make,” Henry said. “It’s a challenge, there’s no question about that. Our job is to educate them about what they have to lose.”

Unfair criticism

Richard Lapchick, an expert on sports culture, said he believes the NFL and NBA education programs are “absolutely imperative” to keep players out of trouble, but he said education should start even earlier, when a star player is in high school or college.

“The sooner you get to them, the better off they’ll be, either to stop themselves or intervene in a case where (violence) is happening,” said Lapchick, director of the University of Central Florida’s Sports Business Management program and a founder of Northeastern’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society. “People, for better or worse, look up to athletes, so education is critical for everyone in our society.”

Still, it’s unfair to criticize athletes without examining American culture, which has become more violent in general, Lapchick said. Statistically, he said, a pro basketball or football player is no more likely to be involved in violent behavior, either as a perpetrator or a victim, than anyone else.

“These individual athletes do have a problem, but it’s a much bigger problem in America,” he said.

Lapchick did agree that race plays a factor, but in perception of athletes as much as reality: critics are likely to tarnish black athletes in general if a pro football or basketball player is involved in an incident, but “when a hockey player or baseball player is arrested, I get calls about an individual athlete,” Lapchick said.

Though the outpouring of support for Pierce as well as for the families of Williams and Taylor is touching, Lapchick said, scores more people die anonymously from violence nationwide on any given day.

Because they aren’t athletes, he added, “We’re nevr going to know their names. We’re not going to support their families.”