When Tyler Smith and three fellow Tennessee Volunteers were caught with a handgun, a bag of marijuana, and an open container of alcohol on New Year's Day, Tennessee's season was supposed to be finished. Instead, the Volunteers rallied, recovering from the dismissal of Smith and the suspensions of Cameron Tatum, Brian Williams, and Melvin Goins by beating Kansas nine days later and eventually getting all the way to the Elite Eight in the NCAA tournament's toughest region. Smith's loss didn't hold the Volunteers back. In fact, it was easy to forget all about him.
Still, it's worth revisiting why exactly Smith and company had a handgun in the first place. After all, getting caught with marijuana and an open container of alcohol is already bad enough, especially if you're someone for whom criminal activity can become a public issue. But it's even worse to have a handgun with an altered serial number on your person. Why? That's the most confusing part. Why the gun?
Tyler Smith, Tennessee's top-rated basketball player, said he bought the gun that brought down his college career because someone had threatened to kill his 3-year-old son. He's never said that before now. And he still won't go to the police. Last November in Knoxville, Smith, who lived off campus, had much of his personal property stolen. The former Giles County High School star said he was about to call the police, but the threats came first.
He said the first text message threatened his life. The second promised to kill his son. Smith said he knows who did it, but he never called the police. Instead, two days later, he bought a Taurus pistol for protection. "I'm the one who put myself into that situation with the gun," Smith said recently, speaking publicly about the incident for the first time. "But a lot of people don't know the whole situation."
The story makes sense, and it fits in well with the refrain we often hear when a high-profile athlete is caught with a gun: I needed it to protect myself. And I get that. I really do. For professional athletes, it behooves one to hire a couple of bodyguards for personal protection rather than take the pistol into your elastic waistband, Plaxico Burress-style. That same opportunity isn't afforded to amateur athletes, who don't have the money to pay for guards. They have to go a different way.
Which is why Tyler Smith should have gone to the cops. Immediately. Why didn't he? Smith has a plausible explanation for that, too:
Smith said police asked why he hadn't reported them. Smith said he responded by saying the threats specifically stated for him not to go to police. "Two or three guys," Smith said last week, referring to the threat makers. "I knew them, I knew them, I knew them."
"I never even thought about using it," Smith. "I thought if word got around that I had protection, that would keep them away."
Again, I get it. Or maybe I don't get it -- I've never been threatened with violence -- but I at the very least can empathize. You're scared. You've got people threatening your life and the life of your loved ones. You've got stuff getting stolen from your house. They're telling you not to go to the cops. You might be slightly uncomfortable getting cops involved anyway. I know I would be. The walls are closing in.
So you take matters into your own hands, hoping the knowledge that you're capable of violence keeps your threat-makers from turning their threats into action. And what happens? You get caught, you get in trouble, and your alibi -- plausible though it may be -- has little on record to back it up.
There is a lesson to be learned here, especially for young athletes who feel threatened: Tell your coach. Tell your advisers. Tell the cops. Absolutely nothing good can come from thinking you can handle such threats on your own. Tyler Smith's story sounds all too familiar, and while it's easy to empathize, it's hard not to think Smith should have known better. Because closing walls or no, he should have.