Athletes and guns: a dangerous combination

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Police remove a body from the apartment where Steve McNair was shot on Saturday (AP Photo/Ed Rode)

Say whatever you want about the Independence Day shooting that snuffed out the lives of former NFL quarterback Steve McNair and a 20-year-old companion (and God knows there has been plenty said to this point).

Two things have drawn the most public comment: McNair’s playing career and the affair he was supposedly having with Sahel Kazemi.

In the case of the first, no comment is necessary. McNair, a 13-year NFL veteran, was a brilliant athlete who combined the skills of throwing and running as well as any quarterback of the last 30 years, and should be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

And in the case of the second, simply put, it’s none of our business. McNair’s widow, Mechelle, their four sons, Junior, Steven, Tyler and Trenton, and the rest of their family will have enough sorrow to cope with now and into the future without a prurient public playing Peeping Tom into their lives.

But the one aspect of this sorry spectacle that has, to date, flown under the public radar is the one that should have the lasting impact, namely that another high-profile African-American athlete has been injured (or worse) thanks to a connection with guns.

Nashville police have disclosed that Kazemi purchased the semi-automatic handgun found at the scene just days before her death and just after she was arrested on driving under the influence charges. McNair was registered to own and carry a handgun in Tennessee.

Just a partial list of Black sports figures, almost exclusively from football and basketball, who have either been shot or been involved in gun incidents in recent years is alternately breath-taking and depressing.

In October, 2006, Stephen Jackson, then with the Indiana Pacers, emptied his gun during a fracas outside an Indianapolis strip club. McNair’s former Tennessee Titans teammate, Adam “Pac Man” Jones, was arrested in Las Vegas in February, 2007, after one of his posse allegedly shot and paralyzed a night manager at a gentleman’s club.

Basketball player Sebastian Telfair was robbed of a $50,000 chain outside a New York restaurant in the fall of 2006. Six months later, Telfair was charged with felony weapon possession. And, of course, there’s the celebrated case of New York Giants receiver Plaxico Burress, who accidentally shot himself in the thigh while seated at a New York nightclub.

At least those men are alive to tell the tale of their encounters. Former Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor was shot to death in his Florida home by intruders – two years after he was charged with felony aggravated assault with a firearm. Earlier that year, Denver Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams was killed in a drive-by shooting.

Today’s Black athlete contends that his fame and his wealth have increasingly made him a target of violence, so much so that firearms are a part of the price they must pay to remain safe.

Perhaps that’s so, but you can’t help wonder if the ostentatious opulence — the copious amounts of bling, the wads of cash, the flashy vehicles — that is increasingly a part of the modern African-American athlete’s world, don’t make him more of a target than he might otherwise be if he kept displays of jewelry, money and cars to a minimum.

There are those who say things may change. They hope that Steve McNair’s death may spur some awakening in the minds of Black athletes about the wisdom of having firearms so close at hand.

To them, I invoke the name of Len Bias, perhaps the greatest college basketball player I ever saw. When Bias died of a cocaine overdose 23 years ago – mere hours after he was taken second overall in the NBA draft by the Boston Celtics – we were all supposed to take the harsh lesson of the ills of drug use from his passing.

How did that work out?