Columns, Sports

McCoy ’14: Confronting gun culture in the NFL and NBA

Sports Columnist

It is no secret that in the NFL and the NBA, a gun culture exists among the same players whose jaw-dropping athletic exploits bring family and friends together on a nightly basis.

There is no official data on the exact number of professional athletes who own guns, nor on how many guns each athlete owns, but numerous estimates from players in both leagues indicate a percentage that far exceeds that of the overall American population — 47 percent of all American adults, a 2011 Gallup poll found. According to a December USA Today investigation, multiple NFL players estimate that three out of every four players in their league own guns. In the NBA, estimates prove harder to come by, but Atlanta Hawks guard Devin Harris surmised in 2010 that 75 percent of NBA players are gun owners, and gun-related incidents have consistently been a blemish on the league’s image.

The reasons behind the pervasive gun possession make sense. In signing professional contracts, young men are thrust into positions of instant wealth and notoriety where their faces, incomes and even the locations of their homes become public knowledge. Many athletes feel this makes them a target for crime and seek to defend themselves and their families accordingly. Another factor may be the machismo culture of professional sports that brings forth constant trash talk and the urge to intimidate opponents and command respect. Just take a look at the 2011 Men’s Journal article on Steelers linebacker James Harrison titled, “Confessions of an NFL Hitman,” which features a photo of a shirtless Harrison staring down the camera and crossing two handguns over his chest.

Gun-related incidents off the field have riddled both leagues in recent years. In 2009, Washington Wizards guards Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton pulled guns on one another in the team locker room during a disagreement over gambling debts. That same year, then-Cleveland Cavaliers guard Delonte West was pulled over for a routine traffic violation and found in possession of a small arsenal including two loaded semi-automatic handguns and a shotgun concealed in a guitar case. This past spring, former Nets center Jayson Williams was released from an 18-month prison sentence following the accidental fatal shooting of Williams’ limousine driver.

The NFL has seen similar headlines. Last July, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs was forced to surrender his collection of seven firearms, including an AK-47, after a domestic abuse case. In November 2008, former New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress infamously shot himself accidently in the thigh with a Glock pistol inside a nightclub. And just last December, in a tragedy that sent shockwaves around the sports world, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher shot and killed his girlfriend before turning the gun on himself in front of the team’s head coach and general manager at Arrowhead Stadium.

Players in the NFL and NBA are well aware of the stage they live on. They recognize that their actions on and off the field are followed, scrutinized and emulated by youths and adults across the nation. Both leagues have done an admirable job of giving back to local communities and using their positions of influence for good. League-wide initiatives include the NFL’s Play 60 and NBA Cares, carried out alongside the seemingly endless efforts of individual athletes and franchises.

But now more than ever, it is time for these athletes to confront a glaring problem in their own world and expand their work off the field to help prevent gun violence. Players and teams in both leagues responded to the Sandy Hook tragedy in touching and sincere ways, from Kevin Durant and Chris Johnson writing tributes on their footwear to Victor Cruz visiting the grieving family of six-year-old Jack Pinto, who was laid to rest the day before wearing his favorite Cruz jersey. These players, conscious of their positions in the spotlight, responded with grace, selflessness and compassion. But can — or will — members of the sporting world use that same pedestal to act further? To confront the pathology surrounding guns in this country by changing their own ways?

As the push to curb mass shootings and gun violence — perhaps the most maddening aspect of American exceptionalism — begins to finally gain long overdue momentum, professional athletes must also recognize their role in this movement. As is true with the spectrum of gun owners across the country, many athletes are likely responsible gun owners, but these unsettling trends of incidents involving their colleagues should give all players pause. It is unrealistic to expect every player to turn in his guns, but gun-owning athletes must reevaluate their firearm ownership. Personal responsibility aside, now is the time for players to also speak out about the dangers of guns, lend their influential profiles to gun control campaigns like Demand a Plan and push within front offices for measures that will increase their leagues’  roles in combating gun violence.

Steps in the right direction have already begun. After the Belcher tragedy, seven NFL players reportedly turned in their guns. After Sandy Hook, Chicago Bulls enigmatic big man Joakim Noah pledged to ditch his signature “six shooter” celebration, and has since stuck to his words. Earlier this month, outspoken Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe voiced his support for increased gun control on the Colbert Report. These instances are encouraging and serve as examples of both personal accountability and a recognition of professional athletes’ prominent roles in American culture.

I am not arguing that the NFL or NBA should ban their players from legally purchasing and owning guns. That is simply not possible and would only serve to play into the hands of right-wing extremists spewing rhetoric about the government taking their guns away — the NFL to them would be a microcosm of the country, with Roger Goodell serving as the tyrannical Barack Obama. Nor am I saying that these leagues can bring about change alone, or in a way that advocacy groups and individuals who have worked tirelessly toward gun control cannot.

But professional sports are an ingrained part of American culture, and players reside in positions of enormous power and influence. As the recent responses to the Belcher tragedy and the heartbreak of Newtown have shown, many believe that enough is enough. Now is the chance for these individuals to tackle a problem that has long been staring them in the mirror, and in doing so take a leading role in helping to change what we value and who we are as a nation. These athletes are already leaders when it comes to practicing and advocating education, physical fitness and community involvement. Now is the time to add gun control to that agenda.


Ethan McCoy ’14 thinks the shotgun offense is the only gun the NFL needs. He can be reached at


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  1. I’m somewhat less concerned about the gun culture in professional sports than I am about the thug culture in professional sports.

  2. theotherRJH says:

    You’re white. What do you know about any “culture”?

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