The last 12 months of American history have been stained by a seemingly endless series of fatal shootings. From the mass shootings in North Carolina and Orlando, to the murder of young black men by police in Minnesota and Alabama and the retaliation against police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, the common denominator is a nation utterly saturated with firearms. Whilst it has been hugely depressing to constantly read about these atrocities from a far, it has also been hugely inspiring to see so many NBA players past and present, as well as other American athletes, really begin to affect serious change in what is one of America’s defining issues.
For many living in America and the vast majority of us observing from Europe the answer is simple. Make guns much much harder to access. If gang violence, racial tension and police brutality are the spark then the availability of guns is the kerosene soaked tinder which has allowed this violence to burn out of control for so long. That is not to say that the social issues are not important, they must be combated if American society is to heal the deep wounds created over the last 30 years, but if guns are less ubiquitous then these issues become less deadly. If less people are dying as a result of gang violence, racism and clashes with police then the issues become less emotionally charged and can be looked at in a more balanced way.
The societal problems that have caused the vast loss of life in America are not unique to the United States. Guns, however, amongst other developed countries are. I was a teenager at a time when knife crime amongst teens was a serious problem in London, a mixture of gang violence and young people feeling like they had few prospects meant that stabbings, some of them fatal, seemed common. But to put this into context in 2008, the year in which knife crime reached its’ peak, 22 teenagers lost their lives in the capital. By comparison Chicago, a city with a third of the population of London, had 443 fatal shootings in 2012 with the overwhelming majority affecting the young, poor and black cross sections of society. Guns simply amplify problems within an urban society making them so much harder to solve.
In the past American athletes have been guilty of becoming disconnected from their communities once they have achieved fame and wealth. Charles Barkley famously stated that he thought athletes had no obligation to be role models and Michael Jordan always seemed more concerned about his personal brand. However, the current generation of NBA stars have been much more involved. LeBron James spends tens of millions of dollars each year sending kids from the Akron area to college. Chris Paul and Joakim Noah have both spoken passionately about their foundations which help provide young people with an outlet away from gangs and violence, be that through basketball, art or any number of other activities. Carmelo Anthony posted an emotional message on Instagram last week encouraging his fellow athletes to not think about the endorsements they will loose by speaking out against gun violence.
American politicians should be doing the same.
Kenny Smith, former Houston Rockets point guard and TNT analyst, gave an address to NBA players suggesting that they should be giving 10% of their salary back to the communities that raised them. This money would help combat mistrust between police and poor black communities, it would go towards educating young people in these communities and it would help ease the economic problems from which issues like gang violence and crime amongst young people emanate. Black athletes represent 74% of the NBA and black athletes are also some of the most prominent members of the African American community. Smith’s point is that many NBA players are uniquely placed to make a serious impact regarding the violence that had swept the US and it is up to many of them to do more.
For me though it all comes back to the guns. This is the most pressing and the most fixable issue. If the population of the United States becomes less heavily armed as a result the police force required to protect the population will not have to be armed to the teeth as well. This means clashes between police and citizens will become less deadly and the relevant parties can began to work on easing tensions. In relation to the issue on gun ownership it is clear that athletes can do more. Aqib Talib, the NFL cornerback, shot himself in the leg in a Dallas club at the beginning of the summer. Plaxico Buress another NFL star was involved in a similar incident in 2008. Allen Iverson was constantly in trouble regarding to gun possession charges throughout his career. Whether they like it or not the men are role models for millions of young Americans. The first step in combating gun violence is to make gun ownership outside of the norm and in this respect athletes can have a huge role to play. Leagues such as the NBA and NFL can also play a bigger part by imposing harsher penalties for gun related charges. The end goal surely has to be for a young person in America to think that owning a gun is something completely out of the ordinary, not part of their right as an American.
Sports and their respective stars can do a lot to help achieve this goal.
Shoot threes not nines,