Basketball: Bullets over the court

The revelation that one of the NBA's star players brought guns into his team's changing room has exposed the uncomfortable links between the sport and gang culture

"First in peace, first in war, and last in the American League." That old joke has long summed up the habitual indifference to the capital's habitually inept sports teams. Not any more. For once a Washington team, and one Washington player in particular, are among the hottest talking points in the US. Not however on account of any newly discovered athletic prowess – but because on Christmas Eve, Gilbert Arenas brought a bunch of guns into the changing room at the Verizon Centre, the indoor sports arena that has rejuvenated a swathe of decaying DC downtown.

Arenas is the best player of the Washington Wizards, indeed one of the best players in the National Basketball Association, a three-time All-Star in the midst of a six year $111m contract that earns him approximately $150,000 (£93,000) per game. Now all that, and more, is at risk. Arenas has been indefinitely suspended by the NBA. He is under criminal investigation by city and federal authorities. Like pictures of Trotsky in the former Soviet Union, his image has been banished; a giant banner of him outside the Verizon Centre was taken down one night, leaving a gaping void.

What the player describes as a harmless piece of fun has re-ignited a national debate on sport and the macho culture that underpins it, and turned the spotlight on the anguished history of guns, murder and Washington DC. Making matters worse, another player who was said to be in a dispute over gambling debts with Arenas also brought a gun into the locker room that evening.

Naturally, late night TV has had a field day. On CBS, David Letterman produced his own list of reasons for Arenas' behaviour, among them "Team recently signed an exclusive endorsement deal with Smith and Wesson," and "Sick of Tiger getting all the attention". The sort of attention, in short, that a city always sensitive to its image needs like a hole in the head.

Popular among other players, Arenas has long had the reputation of an oddball, fond of pranks like filling a teammate's bath tub with coffee. One of them, Baron Davis, told USA Today that the angry public reaction was "a total misunderstanding of who he is inside". But sympathy on that score evaporated when courtside photos in the game after the affair became public showed a grinning Arenas pointing his finger like a gun at his colleagues. How stupid can you get?

Yesterday, as it so happened, figures were announced showing that Washington's homicide rate dropped by 25 per cent in 2009 to the lowest level since the mid-1960s. But memories are still raw of the bad old days of 1991, when 479 people were killed in a city of barely 600,000 people, and the capital of the free world became the murder capital of the USA, thanks to the gang wars raging on its streets.

As a result, Washington introduced some of the toughest gun laws in the US, including a ban on handgun ownership that was only reversed last year when the Supreme Court ruled that it violated the second amendment of the constitution enshrining the citizen's right to bear arms.

The rampant crime also led to a change in the name of the local basketball team, until 1997 known as the Washington Bullets. But Abe Pollin, the owner, understandably felt that enough real bullets were flying with deadly effect without seeming to glorify the mayhem in a local sports franchise. The last straw came in 1995, when a religious fanatic shot dead Pollin's friend Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister. And so the Bullets became the Wizards.

But now, thanks to Arenas' latest prank, the Bullets are back, in spirit if not flesh. The guns he took to the Verizon Centre were apparently empty. Not so however the weapon brought by Javaris Crittenton, another Wizard, according to the Washington Post; that one was loaded.

Arenas insists the whole thing was just another prank. But it has focussed attention on the undertows of crime and violence that haunt US sport, especially basketball and American football. The link is obvious; many NBA and NFL players come from poor inner city backgrounds, where guns are part of the culture; some of these players become very rich, very quickly. Not surprisingly, they may feel the need to protect themselves.

One NBA player is on record as saying that three-quarters of his colleagues own guns. True or not, unpleasant things have been happening in the last few years. A couple of NBA players were robbed at home at gunpoint in 2007. A Washington Redskins football player was shot dead at his Florida home; Plaxico Burress, a star of the New York Giants football team, is serving a two-year jail sentence after accidentally firing a gun he had brought to a New York nightclub in 2008. No wonder then that the Arenas affair has struck a raw nerve – and not only in Washington.

Armchair moralists voice outrage over overpaid sports stars who consider themselves above the law. For them, this is just another example of the hyper-macho culture that sets exactly the wrong example for the millions of kids who idolise Arenas and his ilk. For the black community, the affair has been a huge embarrassment. Why hadn't black leaders spoken out about the culture of violence in professional sport, asked Al Sharpton the civil rights leader and some-time presidential candidate. "It's almost as if we are saying, we don't expect anything better from our black athletes."