Sunday, July 5, 2009

The National Football League, Gun Violence, and Hyper Masculinity

Yesterday it was reported that one of my favorite NFL players, Steve McNair, was killed, shot multiple times, including once to the head. A 20-year-old woman, Sahel Kazemi, was also killed, and like McNair, shot in the head. McNair was a three time Pro Bowl player and won the MVP award in 2003.

From ESPN: "Former MVP McNair found dead":

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Former NFL quarterback Steve McNair, who led the famous Tennessee Titans' drive that came a yard short of forcing overtime in the 2000 Super Bowl, was found dead Saturday with multiple gunshot wounds, including one to the head. Police said a pistol was discovered near the body of a woman also shot dead in a downtown condominium.

Nashville police spokesman Don Aaron identified the woman as Sahel Kazemi, whom he called a "friend" of McNair's. She had a single gunshot wound to the head.

Police said the 36-year-old McNair was found on the sofa in the living room, and Kazemi was very close to him on the floor. Aaron said the gun was not "readily apparent" when police first arrived.

Given the circumstances, it appears to be a murder-suicide enacted by Sahel Kazemi, but that is speculation at this point. Early reports touching on McNair and Kazemi's relationship state that Kazemi was arrested for drunk driving a few days ago with McNair in the car as a passenger. He was not arrested.

That McNair was married with four children will also provoke questions about his partnership with Kazemi. Given male athletes' well-documented tendency to philander with multiple women, that is an important discussion for another time after these particular details have been sorted out.

The N.F.L.'s Gun Culture

For all of McNair's athletic grit, intelligence and physical abilities that I so deeply admired, he was not without his faults off the field, which not surprisingly involved illegal gun possession. From an excellent 2003 article by Mike Freeman in the New York Times (bottom of webpage).

Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair was accused of driving while intoxicated and illegal possession of a handgun last May. McNair had a gun permit, but in Tennessee it is against the law for an intoxicated person to have a loaded weapon. Police say they found a loaded .40-caliber gun and extra ammunition in McNair's car when he was arrested.

Freeman's observation of McNair's incident was part of a larger article that not only documented other NFL players who had been in trouble for various weapons charges, but also investigated a pervasive gun culture that exists in the NFL. Freeman interviewed 19-year NFL veteran Lomas Brown who made the following comments:

"I think the vast majority of players in the N.F.L. have guns," said Brown, who retired at the end of last season. "Just about every guy I played with in the N.F.L. had a gun. Almost every player I knew had one. Guns are rampant in football. You have all these players packing guns wherever they go. It's a disaster waiting to happen."

Many people in the N.F.L. share Brown's view, according to interviews with more than 25 players, owners, team executives and agents in recent weeks. Weapons, including military-style assault rifles, can be found in players' homes and cars, and even sometimes in their lockers, the players, executives and owners said.

Due to the prevalence of N.F.L. players who carry firearms and the subsequent problems that have emerged, the league implemented an official gun policy for players.

Violence Breeds Violence

A policy, while obviously needed, will do little to challenge the underlying causes of this problem. Players claim they need guns in order to protect themselves while out socially from aggressive fans. Wrote Freeman, "The primary reason for the rise in gun ownership, many people said, is an increased concern among players that they are targets for everyone from aggressive fans to criminals and even terrorists."

However, in a violent, hyper-masculine athletic culture where physical prowess and domination is celebrated, it is far more likely that the prevalence of guns among N.F.L. players reflects their tendency to misinterpret an increase in violent potential as form of prevention. This concept is commonly adopted by youth who join gangs for protection, thinking that by joining a gang they will be protected from bullies and other gang members.

All the empirical data, however, show that violence, including victimization, increases with gang membership. Thus, it is hardly surprising that gun violence is so high among N.F.L. players, many of whom apparently carry firearms on a very regular basis while out and about in the broader community.

After Washington Redskins saftey, Sean Taylor, was fatally shot in his Miami home in November 2007, N.F.L. players expressed their fear of being targets. David Fleming's article, "Living Scared," provides some insight into N.F.L. players' reluctance to protect themselves via help from others.

…more than any other league's, the culture of the NFL—the wealth, fame, brutality and air of invincibility—makes its players vulnerable. Broncos security chief Dave Abrams, who was hired full-time shortly after Williams was shot, says the hardest part of his job is convincing players of their own mortality. To excel at such a violent sport, he explains, they must be fearless; they think of themselves as the kind of untouchable warrior who would never require the protection of a bodyguard, an alarm system or even a locked door.

But instead of taking true prevention measures that lessen violence – not putting oneself in combustible situations – players see prevention through the twisted logic of carrying firearms.

Gun Ownership in an already Hyper Masculine Context

Adding to this problem is that guns have become a behind the scenes symbol of hegemonic masculinity in the N.F.L. In a social context where the individuals are supremely gifted physically, one of the few ways to further physical stature and continue the one-upsmanship that so often exists between males is by adding lethal weaponry. More from Freeman:

Possessing a gun has also become a macho emblem, a status symbol among athletic, affluent young men, said Michael Huyghue, a former Jaguars general manager who is now an agent representing dozens of N.F.L. players. For players, Huyghue said, owning guns" is as basic to them as owning jewelry or fast cars."

"They have almost become tools of their trade," he said. "And every profession has something that the people in it identify with, just like the lawyer that must have his $600 briefcase or $1,000 cuff links. But the difference is the briefcase or cuff links won't kill you, and I have never heard of a situation where a gun saved a player."

Huyghue's final statement, above, is absolutely critical – carrying firearms does not prevent victimization. The more prevalent are guns, the more likely are lethal outcomes, especially when guns are mixed with masculine bravado, alcohol and late night partying. One of the more publicized examples of unintentional gun violence occurred when former New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress accidentally shot himself in the leg at a nightclub in November 2008.

And gun violence will also be more frequent when non-athletes feel they must up the ante, using guns in the case that they find themselves in confrontations with armed N.F.L. players. As Sports Illustrated writer, John Rolfe explains, the American culture not only provides for the right to bear arms, but celebrates gun ownership and lacks the willingness to impede illegal gun sales.

It's no small thing that, laws and rights of gun ownership aside, we as a culture view violence as a form of entertainment -- as movies, TV shows and video games attest. We don't flinch from using our knuckles to make a point and we pride ourselves on being a nation that builds bigger, better and smarter weaponry that we don't mind using when given the chance. Outlaw guns and we'll resort to knives.

The ready availability of guns makes it all the more likely that athletes -- their wealth widely known and often flaunted -- and their friends are going to pack heat for protection, and that some punk will be packing, too, when he decides to go after a slice of that wealth or simply to establish the size of his cohones during a nightclub beef.

Athletes are common targets in any sports-crazed culture such as our own, as much objects of scorn and loud condemnation from fans and media for their failures as they are the recipients of cheers and honors. After all, we have the right to make our feelings known, don't we? But as Billy Martin once said in the aftermath of yet another watering hole donnybrook, "Kooks seek me out." Lord knows, he wasn't the only sports figure to attract unwanted attention or respond to it forcefully. It's all a flammable mix.

Rather than critically rethink the "flammable mix" of variables that pervade when N.F.L. players choose to socialize in nightclubs late at night, players live under the false assumption that preventing violence means increasing one's violent capabilities.

Are N.F.L. Players Really Involved in Gun Violence That Frequently?

Ben Schrotenboer from the San Diego Union Tribune has done an excellent job of tracking N.F.L. players who have been arrested for various offenses, violent and non-violent. He notes that the one of the biggest problem areas is for drunk driving, especially among wide receivers. A fairly comprehensive list of N.F.L. players who have been arrested while active in the league can be found HERE. This work notwithstanding, Schrotenboer surmises that N.F.L. players are less criminogenic than society at large:

The NFL is better behaved than American society.

NFL: roughly one arrest per 47 players per year since 2000, including injured reserve lists, according to the database.

U.S. population: one arrest per 21 people per year (around 4,800 arrests per 100,000 inhabitants) and one arrest per 25 people age 18 and over, according to the FBI.

Schrotenboer acknowledges the limitations of his comparison – that comparing N.F.L. players to the entire U.S. population is flawed due to the major demographic differences in the comparison groups. Furthermore, it is common knowledge that professional athletes receive preferential treatment from bar/club owners, hospitals, and police after they are caught engaging in most criminal behaviors.

The more appropriate questions here would be (1) is the prevalence of gun violence – including victimization – among N.F.L. players significantly different from males in a comparable age/class/race group; and (2) building off of Michael Huyghue’s point, does carrying a firearm really prevent gun violence?

In September 2008, Jacksonville Jaguars offensive lineman, Richard Collier, was paralyzed from the waist down after being shot multiple times following a possible bar fight. Indianapolis Colts wide receiver, Marvin Harrison, was tangentially involved in a 2008 shooting in Philadelphia. Former Chicago Bears defensive lineman “Tank” Johnson dealt with multiple firearms charges just before playing in the 2007 Super Bowl.

The list of N.F.L. players muddled with gun controversy history goes on – wide receiver Chris Henry of the Cincinnati Bengals; defensive back Adam "Pacman" Jones once with the Dallas Cowboys; wide receiver Rae Carruth formerly of the Carolina Panthers; linebacker Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens (knife was the weapon involved).

Some scholars have argued athletes are not more criminogenic or prone to finding trouble than average members of society; it is simply that their cases command more media attention. In the case of gun violence, if in fact "the vast majority of players in the N.F.L. have guns," I'm not buying it.

Surprisingly, the official NFL Players Association website has a page dedicated to "Solutions to Gun Violence." Perhaps the passing of Steve McNair and Sahel Kazemi will serve as another wake up call. Prevention of gun violence means lessening the number of guns out there and changing hyper masculine patterns of behavior that lead to violent confrontations.

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1 comment:

  1. Police: McNair mistress knew gun seller for weeks