No matter your personal opinion on the plight of former New York Giants star receiver Plaxico Burress, his downfall is another tragic tale of opportunity and talent wasted. The sight of a tearful Burress saying goodbye to his wife and child before being sentenced on a criminal gun charge was heartbreaking. While it is fair to say that Burress should have known better when he carried a loaded gun into a nightclub, there is no crime in being stupid and careless. At least I think there should not be in this instance given that he inadvertently shot himself when the gun discharged after dropping down his pant leg. Yet, he was sentenced to two years in prison and will likely never regain his star status in the National Football League.
This is a tragedy that could have been averted but one that plays out every day in the Black community, and particularly among young men. The need for protection, borne out of a fear of being confronted by criminal elements, is real. It is particularly on the minds of professional athletes who are constantly being challenged by those who are fixated on proving their manhood. The fear of encountering an unstable individual is one reason why some athletes maintain bodyguards despite their imposing physical stature, and limit their interaction with fans despite their appearance in pubic settings. It is a byproduct of an environment in which people have obliterated any sense of privacy.
Seeing Burress escorted out of the courtroom reminded me of the precariousness of being Black and male. Here we had a talented professional athlete, a Super Bowl star and champion, who felt compelled to carry a firearm to protect himself. I don’t buy the argument of some critics who have suggested he was simply channeling his “inner thug.” His defense lawyer was correct in describing Burress’ behavior as an aberration. There appears nothing to suggest that what occurred was part of Burress’ DNA. He made a mistake and is now bearing the consequences of his actions. Still, there was something terribly wrong with seeing this man escorted by court officers for processing to start his sentence on Rikers Island.
It also reminded me of just how difficult the last several years have been for some pretty high profile Black athletes. We have witnessed the tragic downfall of former NBA player Jason Williams and how his personal challenges have affected his professional career. Being a superstar on the court did not save Los Angeles Laker star Kobe Bryant from nearly throwing his career down the toilet. The tale of NFL quarterback Michael Vick is still playing out after serving a federal prison sentence for his role in a dog fighting ring. No doubt, each of these players had a chance to avoid their downfall if they had made better choices. That, of course, is easier said than done. What strikes me most about these celebrity flameouts is that if these privileged Black men cannot escape the net of criminality, what chance do young Black men in general have in evading a similar fate?
I don’t condone the actions of any of the athletes I mentioned. What does concern me is how so many fall prey to bad decision making and how, once confronted, they all seem to be painted in the worst possible light and subjected to extraordinary venom. Often the very people who were cheering these players’ athleticism end up being the most extreme in their reactions when these stars stumble. If you listened to the criticism of Michael Vick unaware of his crime, you would think that the former Atlanta Falcon star was a mass murderer – of humans. Fans in opposing team arenas took delight in baiting Bryant but the anger dissipated after the incident was settled, a sign of just how fickle fandom can be.
Juxtaposed against how Black men, and young men in general, are faring these days, incidents like those involving Plaxico Burress reveal just how vulnerable we all are. The slippery slope is not just confined to athletes either. We have seen our elected officials and figures such as Dr. Henry Louis Gates encounter a system that is unforgiving in how it metes out punishment to Black men who appear to have crossed the line. There is no income level, neighborhood, academic credential or profession that shields us from being at risk of a similar fate as some of the fallen famous. The lesson these incidents provide is that we must continually be on guard lest we one day too find ourselves on the inside looking out.