The NFL and guns: ‘When does enough become enough?’

After a violent off-season, concerns over the league’s gun culture linger as new season kicks off

New England Patriots fans walk toward the stadium to trade in their Aaron Hernandez jerseys during a free exchange offered by the team in July after his arrest in connection with a murder.
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

David Arrington doesn't have any children yet. The Rhode Island native and longtime New England Patriots fan, who attends a few games each season, was among the nearly 2,000 people who on an early July weekend took advantage of team management's invitation to swap out their Aaron Hernandez jerseys for the game-style shirt of another Patriots player. If Arrington were a father, he knows what he'd tell his kid about the former star tight end, who will be arraigned Friday afternoon on murder charges.

"I'd tell him that it's OK to have people you look up to, but that sometimes they let you down," said Arrington, who is from West Warwick. "I guess I'd say, 'You can have role models, but understand that they're people, too.' That, you know, they can make mistakes, even big ones. That they're just as (susceptible) to bad stuff, or to doing bad stuff, as the rest of us, even if we don't want to believe it. I'd make it a lesson, maybe, because it's sure been a lesson for me, as well, in terms of loss of faith."

The NFL kicks off its 94th season Thursday, and across the league, coaches and franchise executives will privately exhale a bit. The conventional wisdom is that with the new campaign comes a new beginning -- a chance to put one of the league's most disturbingly violent off-seasons in recent memory behind it.

There has been the typical and certainly troubling litany of DUIs, domestic violence cases and suspensions related to drug and substance abuse in the seven months since the Baltimore Ravens defeated the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII. But clearly more disconcerting to a pre-eminently popular league that so values public relations and image, and abhors black eyes are the incidents involving guns.

Among them, Hernandez's alleged June murder of Odin Lloyd; the June arrest of Indianapolis Colts safety Joe Lefeged on gun charges in Washington, D.C.; the charges against Tampa Bay defensive end Da'Quan Bowers when a handgun was discovered in his carry-on baggage as he made his way through LaGuardia Airport in New York in April.

Just this week, a California man filed suit against a pair of players, San Francisco linebacker Aldon Smith and Tennessee tight end Delanie Walker (Smith's former teammate), for a June 2012 incident in which he was shot. Neither player has been charged with a crime.

‘It used to be that people would say, ‘Well, maybe someone’s got to die before …’ Well, now we’ve had people die, so what do we do about it?’

Deion Sanders

The grisly Jovan Belcher murder-suicide in Kansas City, Mo., last December may have portended the troubles to come. Belcher shot and killed his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, and then shot himself outside the Chiefs' practice facility, in front of then-general manager Scott Pioli and then-coach Romeo Crennel.

Said veteran agent Joe Linta, who represented Belcher, but never realized that his client owned a cache of seven or eight guns: "You just never know when, where, if … It's a little bit unsettling."

A growing problem

New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez being taken out of his home in handcuffs in late June.
George Rizer for The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Despite the recent spate of incidents, guns are not new to the league; it just seems that way. Research indicates that since 2000, there have been approximately two dozen gun-related incidents involving NFL players or recently retired players; seven of them occurred in the past 16 months. The more notable incidents included the 2007 death of star Washington safety Sean Taylor, wide receiver Plaxico Burress' self-inflicted gunshot to the foot in 2008 and the death of standout quarterback Steve McNair in 2009. It should be noted that, as in the case of Taylor, not all the incidents involved players who actually owned guns themselves.

But to even put yourself around guns is dangerous, several players told Al Jazeera.

"It used to be that people would say, 'Well, maybe someone's got to die before …'" said Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders, one of several prominent players who in February taped a spot for Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the Michael Bloomberg-subsidized group encouraging enhanced awareness and education. "Well, now we've had people die, so what do we do about it? When does enough become enough?"

NFL officials and representatives of the NFL Players Association bristle at the notion of a so-called gun culture in the league.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello and Tim Christine, head of security for the players' union, claim that gun ownership among players probably mirrors that of the general population. Recent studies by the National Rifle Association indicate that roughly one-third of American adults are gun owners. A 2011 Gallup poll pegged the number of households with a gun at 47 percent.

While there is no official documentation about how many players actually own guns, there is considerable anecdotal evidence on the level of gun ownership among the NFL's rank and file, with some suggesting that as many as three-fourths of the players in the league own guns.

Former NFL coach Tony Dungy, who retired following the 2008 season, asked each year how many of his players owned guns, and said the number who raised their hands was "shocking."

"It took you aback," said Dungy, now an NBC analyst and adviser to the league and some players, and who in recent decades has come to be considered the conscience of the NFL. "It was an eye-opening, sobering thing. It had become part of their nature, kind of accepted."

‘A real fascination’

While gun ownership is certainly not strictly a racial issue, the fact is that about 70 percent of the NFL's players are black, and African-Americans are disproportionately affected by gun violence.

"The need for protection is the big excuse everyone uses," said former NFL defensive lineman Tank Johnson, whose playing years included arrest, incarceration and suspension on gun charges. "But you become what you know. And I know guns have been around for a while."

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, large groups from several franchises, including the Atlanta Falcons, would regularly unwind after practices with trips to the shooting range. Agents from two FBI offices, and an analyst from a third, told Al Jazeera that professional athletes often visited their local headquarters in groups, usually during road trips, to examine the bureau's firepower. The FBI officials said baseball and basketball players demonstrated the most curiosity about guns, but NFL players also arranged such visits.

"(Gun ownership) was a pretty regular thing then, and I can't imagine that it has changed much," said former NFL defensive end Chuck Smith, who played all but one of his nine seasons in Atlanta. "And it wasn't just (ownership). There was just a real interest in guns. Talking about them, being around them, whatever."

Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Adam Jones (formerly known as "Pacman"), whose career has included several suspensions, some for gun-related incidents, referred to it as "a real fascination" with guns.

A year ago, Dan Gross, president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, told USA Today that there is a troubling link between guns and professional athletes, and that many players are ill prepared for gun ownership.

"There's kind of a social norm that exists in certain professional sports around ownership of a gun," Gross said. "It's kind of encouraged. And I think there's a tendency among professional athletes not to look into the right equation in terms of risks versus benefits."

Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the NRA, has argued that football players, or pro athletes in any sport, are no different from the rest of the population and that in fact the rate of gun-related incidents among pro athletes is lower than the at-large numbers in the country, where there are more than 30,000 gun-related deaths annually.

"Maybe their deeds get more attention, because of who they are," LaPierre told USA Today. "But a gun crime is a gun crime, a shooting is a shooting, a murder is a murder."

Seminal moment?

That seems to coincide with the notion of Arrington, the Patriots fan, that players are simply people, subject to the same pressures of life, and that perhaps the pedestal needs to be lowered a bit. But some disagree and feel the resources of the NFL and the players' union need to be better utilized to educate players about gun violence.

"Everyone's excited about the season (starting), and we won't have to talk as much about some of this stuff," said Sanders, an NFL Network analyst and one of the most outspoken figures in the league's history. "But it needs to be talked about."

Earlier this year, the players' union began sponsoring seminars at gun ranges to instruct players on gun safety. Some players suggest, however, that a bigger focus should be placed on deterring players from purchasing guns, rather than on how to use them. The league and the players' association regularly address the issue of guns at the annual rookie seminar, a mandatory four-day session each spring for first-year players in the NFL, and there are preseason meetings with each team's security officials at which guns and gun safety are prominent topics. But there are some shortcomings -- perhaps due to legal concerns and Second Amendment rights -- that could be better addressed. Several general managers and scouts, for instance, said that during interviews with prospective players, they rarely, if ever, ask them about gun ownership and responsibility.

There are mixed opinions about whether the Hernandez case will have an impact on such sessions. It could, however, be a seminal moment.

"The bottom line is that we've got to do more," Sanders said. "So what if it's not just a player problem? Maybe it isn't fair that players get so much more attention or get singled out more than most people. But we've got more resources, too, than most everyone else to make things right. We've got the tools and the money to teach more common gun sense and responsibility."

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