I root for the New York Football Giants and as such I've been doing some thinking about the recent Plaxico Burress situation. If you don't know, Burress is the star wide receiver who shot himself in the leg while at a club when the gun slipped from the waistband of his sweatpants. Obviously, he's a total genius. Absolulute Class A intellect, I mean, it's not like he makes a living with his body or anything. As well, and in light of the Giants' pathetic loss to the Eagles on Sunday, Plax is squarely in the crosshairs of blame if the season goes south. But, actual on-field machinations aside, Burress is getting a bum wrap.
How on earth can someone be getting a bum wrap if they've shot themself in the leg and thus might cost their team a legitimate shot at a championship? It's easy if he was, albeit stupidly, carrying the gun for protection on the same week that the NFL spent tons of time and hype on the one year anniversary of the death of Sean Taylor, the Washington Redskins safety who was killed in his home during a botched break in. Gee, why would professional football players feel threatened. And isn't it amazingly convenient that Giants were playing in Washington that very weekend and the pregame show was devoted to the unveiling of Taylor's place in the Washington Ring of Fame and all game we got to listen to Kenny Albert and Daryl Johnston wonder if the Giants would be able to match the emotional intensity that the Redskins, in light of the anniversary, would bring to the table? (The answer was yes, by the way.) The point is there's a bit of double standard as far as the league is concerned: they've villified an athlete for taking steps to defend himself as they memorialize an athlete who died trying to.
On top of this is the standard sports reporter take on it, put very succinctly by ex-player Warren Sapp on last week's Inside the NFL. Sapp reminisced that during his playing days, if he was in a situation where he felt that he needed a gun, he would just go home. This is extremely problematic on two fronts, the first and most obvious being that Sean Taylor was killed in his home. Obviously not being out at a club would have helped Plaxico Burress from shooting himself in the leg in this instance, but the idea that a person is always safe in their home is a stretch. It's also interesting that during the same week that was the anniversary of Taylor's death and Burress' incident, another Giants wide receiver, Steve Smith, was mugged at gun point out in front of his home in Clifton, New Jersey. The story received little to no attention as the Burress incident occurred a few days later, but it highlights too big things: athletes are targets and Burress wasn't crazy to be scared. I'm a big fan, and I know Smith when I see him on the field, but I don't think I could pick his face out. Yet whoever robbed him knew exactly who he was, making it likely that this wasn't a random mugging, but a premeditated act. Burress is ten times as famous as Smith and much more recognizable, and thus that much more a potential target.
Of course, none of this theorizing accounts for the stupidity of holding the gun in the waistband of sweatpants. Obviously it was gonna slip, Plax! And why was he wearing sweats to the club anyway? As well, what about the safety? SNL had a great line about wide receivers hating cornerbacks and safeties, but really, man. Did he think he wouldn't have time to disengage it if something happened? There's just no making sense of it, but it is kind of funny that if he had just decided to wear jeans, none of it would have happened.
Back to the theoretical, there is something deeper in what Sapp said that has stuck with me. It's very problematic to ask athletes to stay home all the time. No one ever insists the same of troubled actors, we tell them to get to rehab or land a spot on the next installment of Dancing with the Stars. We don't tell them to wait in their bedroom until we summon them for our entertainment every Sunday. There's something very unsettling about the way we treat athletes, especially African-American ones, in our sports-centric culture. We want them to be accessible enough to be loved by middle aged white people. We want them to show daring intensity on the field and tremendous restraint off it. Most of all, we want to divorce their athletic feats from their real lives, as if for the athlete the two are totally separate. But in the end it can't happen, because these guys are people first and athletes second, just as the rest of us are only partially defined by our jobs. And we keep rooting for the same organization as players come and go, because they aren't as important as the jersey that they wear. Go team.
Come on, Eldrick.