Gilbert Arenas says it was all a bad joke gone horribly wrong.
If it is, then nobody, including Arenas, is laughing.
The NBA all-star entered a guilty plea Friday on a felony charge of carrying a pistol, which carries a maximum five-year prison term, although a plea deal probably means he'll receive a sentence of about six months. How long he'll be absent from the NBA is to be determined by commissioner David Stern.
The initial inclination is to throw the book, and anything else handy, at Arenas for making the NBA look like something out of a Sopranos episode. His actions were irresponsible and dangerous. He deserves to be punished by the courts of law and public opinion and Stern must levy a suspension that sends other players the message that guns will not be tolerated. It is a message Stern has failed to deliver on past occasions.
The danger now is that Stern -- and the media -- are showing signs of wanting to make Arenas a scapegoat for the NBA and its reputation as a sorority of hoodlums. There have been calls from influential sources such as the New York Post's Peter Vecsey, and Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News that Stern must ban Arenas for life.
That feeling is understandable. It is also a flawed, emotional reaction.
Society loves scapegoats because it exonerates the rest of us from responsibility. So the Olympics didn't have a drug problem, Ben Johnson did. And baseball didn't have a steroid issue, Jose Canseco did. Truth was, they were manifestations of a rampant, deeper problem that was alternately ignored, covered up or excused.
Arenas does not deserve to be a scapegoat for the indiscretions of others. He deserves punishment for his crime, including a long suspension. But life? No way.
Why now? Why Arenas? He didn't actually discharge the firearms, unlike habitual nutbar Stephen Jackson who lit up the night outside a nightclub. Stern suspended him for seven games.
Arenas did not point a gun at anyone. Arena's guns, according to evidence at the plea bargain, were not loaded. Big difference.
Then there is the fact this wasn't the standoff at the OK Corral first portrayed in media reports, so evidently Arenas isn't the only one guilty of faulty judgment in this story, which unfolded from a dispute over card-playing debts between Arenas and Javaris Crittenton.
Arenas should be gone for the season, regardless of what happens in sentencing March 26.
But, more importantly than suspending Arenas or dumping him into jail, the league has an opportunity here to address the gun culture that permeates throughout North American society. And, no, this isn't a racially based observation vilifying black, inner-city populations. The gun culture goes back a lot further than an urban ghetto. It dates to a lot of white guys blasting away from Wounded Knee to the Plains of Abraham and a thousand saloon halls in between.
Rather than Stern talking about "substantial suspensions, and perhaps worse" what he should do is tell Arenas he can come back next year but only if he is seriously contrite and willing to headline a campaign by the league and players' association to get guns off city streets. Send him into schools, into community centres and let him talk to social workers and high-risk youth. Get him involved with the cops and gun campaigns in every NBA city.
This is no time to seek retribution for the sake of retribution. Pro sports has a chance to do something positive and, in this case, it shouldn't be that difficult. Arenas has a reputation for being public-minded, a polite kid who used to visit downtown parks -- without pandering posse in tow -- because he loved mingling with ordinary people. He raises more than $200,000 US each year for public school kids and anyone who is willing to strip down to aid People for Ethical Treatment of Animals obviously is not a man without empathy.
Stern can levy a lifetime suspension and the Wizards could void his contract on moral grounds but that would be a band-aid approach. On the other hand, if a campaign by Arenas and the NBA can convince even one young man not to pick up a gun, something good may come.