Football: Plaxico Burress & Justice

by Hayden Alfano

If the New York Giants want to repeat as Super Bowl champions, they’ll have to do it without the man who caught the game-winning touchdown pass in last year’s championship game.

Earlier this week, wide receiver Plaxico Burress was suspended for four games by the team for an incident in which he accidentally shot himself in the thigh with an illegally concealed weapon at a New York City nightclub. The Giants also placed him on the reserve non-football injury list. Under National Football League (NFL) rules, placement on the list makes a player ineligible to play for the rest of the season.

Of course, Burress faces problems much larger than his season being over, or whether the Giants or the NFL, for that matter, will welcome him back next year. He’s potentially facing charges that carry with them a minimum three-and-a-half-year prison sentence.

Burress’ behavior was certainly bad. But even more outrageous were the comments made by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the aftermath of the incident.

Bloomberg, whose agenda as mayor has included an anti-gun initiative, reportedly had the following to say: “Our children are getting killed with guns in the street. Our police are getting killed. I think it would be an outrage if we didn’t prosecute to the fullest extent of the law.”

Bloomberg’s comments are over the top. While one reading of his response is that Burress should not escape punishment due to his celebrity status, his word choice belies a different motive. If you want to say that so-and-so shouldn’t get preferential treatment, you come out and say, “So-and-so shouldn’t get preferential treatment.” You don’t invoke “prosecution to the fullest extent of the law.” Such harsh language paints Burress in a more disfavorable light than he deserves.

Particularly if Burress ends up spending a significant time locked up, comparisons to former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick are inevitable. Vick is, of course, serving a federal prison sentence for his involvement in operating a dogfighting ring.

There’s likely a difference between Burress’ and Vick’s cases, however. Vick’s criminal behavior violated the very principles that lead the legislature to make what he did illegal. He financed dog fighting, and that led to gambling and cruelty to animals. Financing dog fighting is illegal in this country precisely because it leads to gambling and cruelty to animals.

Burress’ situation is a bit different. While the mere presence of a gun creates a danger that wouldn’t otherwise be there, the children and police officers that Bloomberg referred to being killed are not being killed by people like Plaxico Burress. They’re being killed by gang members and drug dealers and others who carry guns for violent purposes. There’s no indication that Burress is such a person.

Burress clearly broke the law, and Bloomberg is right in that he shouldn’t be treated differently simply because he’s a professional athlete. But that cuts both ways. There’s no indication that Burress was carrying the gun for violent purposes, or that he pulled it out during an altercation. He most likely was carrying it for self-defense. Who knows why it went off, and while the fact that it did go off is a good argument against carrying guns, that fact hardly makes Burress the violent criminal that the words “the fullest extent of the law” seem aimed to make him out to be.

Burress deserves to be punished for his crime, and if that means prison time, then so be it. But he doesn’t deserve to be treated as the example for a mayor trying to make a point.

(Photo by tedkerwin via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)

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Rick Rockwell said...

I feel compelled to comment here. Although Mayor Bloomberg goes perhaps a shade too far, actually, in my book he gets it mostly right.

Something is happening to Burress and although he is a 31-year-old adult, he seems incapable of accepting responsibility for his actions. He’s had at least three run-ins with the law since June, the self-inflicted wound being just the latest; the others involved domestic disputes. According to ESPN the Giants have fined him $300,000 alone just for missing meetings or coming late to meetings. This is also a problem he had in Pittsburgh. Certainly, that’s no reason to throw someone in jail. But the thug behavior he models has a resonating effect in society.

If Burress can carry a gun, then so can anyone else. And likely, those others are the ones who want to start trouble that could end up with a dead cop or dead child at the other end. Burress’ example of flouting the law, something superstar athletes seem to do quite a bit these days, usually with little consequence, is what Bloomberg is trying to stop. This blog has weighed in more than a few times about how athletes seem to feel they exist in a society where they set the laws and norms. This is just another example. And until there are more judges and juries willing to make the law stick, no matter the number of high-priced lawyers hired, then we will continue to see more of this.

Just a few points to wonder about:

1) Why are athletes out drinking to all hours while their sport is in season and often less than 48 hours before game time?

2) By wielding guns, don’t athletes make themselves bigger targets?

3) By frequenting clubs with questionable reputations (please see Adam “Pacman” Jones here) don’t athletes make themselves targets?

4) If an athlete makes more than three million a year, perhaps they can pay for bodyguards if they want to live this type of lifestyle?

5) Shouldn’t anyone with a loaded gun who is imbibing alcohol have to do some jail time, just for the clear and present danger they present to society and those around them? How is this any different (if not worse) than drinking and driving?

Plaxico needs to grow up. Perhaps if the penalty is harsh enough, he’ll finally realize he has a responsibility not just to himself but to his teammates, his city, his fans, and society.

Cristina Garcia said...

My concern is the children that look up to these athletes like Michael Vick, Pacman Jones, Joey Porter and now the latest scandal involving Plaxico Burress. These athletes are setting bad examples for kids around the whole country that admire them. What we need to do is teach our children that breaking the law. I agree completly with Rockwell, these multi millionaires should pay for bodyguards instead of risking their lives and the publics safety. Plaxio Bureess case is a great example of what can happen when carrying a loaded weapon. Are these athletes getting special treatment? or are they being treated as any other member of society.

Hayden Alfano said...

I didn't mean to be understood as accepting or excusing Plaxico's behavior. As Professor Rockwell points out, the guy clearly has discpline problems, whether it be the law or New York Giants team rules he is asked to obey.

I'm the last person you'll see advocate for any individual's right to carry a gun inside a nightclub. Without getting into the gun control debate, let me just say that the point of my column was not to say that the punishment Plaxico is facing is too harsh -- and I'm a Giants fan.

But I still maintain that Mayor Bloomberg's choice of words was, at best, unfortunate. You can indicate, as I mention in the column, that someone will not get special treatment because of their celebrity status without resorting to the overly dramatic "prosecute to the fullest extent of the law." Maybe I'm attaching too much meaning to that phrase; I don't know.

In their comments, both Professor Rockwell and Cristina Garcia seem to me to make an appeal, in one way or another, to the idea of equal treatment -- that Plaxico Burress should not be treated any less harshly because he's a professional football player, that he should receive the same sentence that any "regular" person with a similar criminal record would if they committed the same crime. I'm fine with that, but it has to cut both ways; if you aren't going to cut him any slack because of who he is, then you can't make an example out of him, either. Bloomberg's words, to me, did exactly that.

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