Search the Site

Is Plaxico Burress an Anomaly?

INSERT DESCRIPTIONPhoto: G. Paul Burnett/The New York Times

A few years back, I wrote an article about the N.F.L.’s annual “rookie symposium,” a four-day gathering during which the league tries to warn incoming players about all the pitfalls they may face — personal threats, bad influences, gold-digging women, dishonest money managers, etc.

The N.F.L. even brought in a bunch of veterans and retirees to try to teach the young guys some lessons. One was the former wide receiver Irving Fryar:

“We’re going to have some idiots come out of this room,” he begins. “Those of you feeling good about yourselves, stop it. You ain’t did nothing yet.” Fryar recites his career stats: 17 N.F.L. seasons, a drug habit since he was 13, and four trips to jail. “The first time, I was stopped in New Jersey,” he says. “I was on my way to shoot somebody. Driving my BMW. I had guns in the trunk, and I got taken to jail. The second time, also guns. Third time was domestic abuse. Fourth time, it was guns again. No. Yeah, yeah, it was guns again. Things got so bad for me, I put a .44 Magnum up to my head and pulled the trigger.” Now Fryar is a minister. “When I was a rookie,” he says, “we didn’t have anything like this [symposium]. I had to learn it the hard way. Don’t use me as an example of what you can get away with, brothers. Use me as an example of what you shouldn’t do.”

It looks like Plaxico Burress didn’t pay attention. I briefly met Burress back when he was first drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers, and have followed his career medium-closely ever since. I have concluded that my first impression was pretty much accurate: he is a Grade-A knucklehead. His latest misstep — shooting himself in the leg in a nightclub — is easily the most serious (he may well go to prison for criminal possession of a handgun under New York City law), but his history on and off the field reads like an idiot’s checklist.

But how anomalous is Burress?

According to this ESPN report from a couple years ago, not very:

Many incidents indicate that athletes rely on firearms for self-protection or as a means to resolve an altercation. But estimates on how many professional athletes carry guns, legally or illegally, vary. By [Luke] Scott‘s estimation, as many as 20 percent of Major League Baseball players carry concealed weapons, and more than 50 percent own some type of gun.

Roger Renrick is familiar with the prevalence of guns among professional athletes. A former Boston police officer, Renrick is now a bodyguard who has worked for Paul Pierce, Antoine Walker, and Jalen Rose. Renrick describes gun ownership among N.B.A. players as “very common.”

“I would probably say close to 60 percent,” he said.

New England Patriots wide receiver Jabar Gaffney, a gun owner himself, said he thinks 90 percent of N.F.L. players have firearms.

“Lots of guys I know have weapons either in their house or, in places where you can carry it, they have a permit to carry it,” Gaffney said.

Burress’s problem — aside from the fact that he shot himself — is that he didn’t have a carry permit. And that, while he lives in New Jersey, the shooting took place in New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg is devoutly anti-gun. And, according to The Times, the Burress incident has Bloomberg seething:

On Monday, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg harshly criticized Burress for carrying an illegal handgun; New York Presbyterian Hospital for failing to call the police of his gun-related injury, as city law requires; and the New York Giants, which also neglected to notify the authorities.

“Our children are getting killed with guns in the streets. Our police officers are getting killed with guns in the hands of criminals, and because of that, we got the State Legislature to pass a law that if you carry a loaded handgun, you get automatically 3-1/2 years in the slammer,” Bloomberg said, speaking to reporters following an announcement about the expansion of job placement services in the city’s workforce centers.

“I don’t think that anybody should be exempt from that, and I think it would be an outrage if we didn’t prosecute to the fullest extent of the law, particularly people who live in the public domain, make their living because of their visibility; they are the role models for our kids.”

If the ESPN figures are even halfway true, the question arises: Is the risk of carrying an illegal handgun smaller than the risk that the average N.F.L. player faces if he goes out in public without a gun?

Burress would seem to have thought so.

Of all the stories about players who’ve gotten in trouble with guns — think Ray Lewis, think Pacman Jones, think Joey Porter — there’s also the case of Sean Taylor, who was shot to death in his own home even though he was armed and tried to defend himself.

His weapon? A machete.