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Tuesday, March 23, 2010
The punishment of Gilbert Arenas

By Henry Abbott

Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas is scheduled to be sentenced on Friday for bringing guns into Washington D.C. as part of a dispute with teammate Javaris Crittenton.

Prosecutors are now calling for Arenas to serve three months in jail, three years' probation and 300 hours of community service.

The judge is scheduled to make a decision on Friday. It will be a tricky one.

Prosecutors outline their views in a new memo. They call for Arenas to be treated like anyone else in the D.C. legal system. Who could disagree? Misbehaving with guns is serious business, and should be treated seriously. For that reason, prosecutors are asking for three months in jail. The prosecutor points out that if any regular person brought four guns into the city for the purposes of confrontation, they would almost certainly be locked up. The right and true point is: Why should celebrities be any different?

It turns my stomach to see that those fortunate enough to afford the best attorneys so often seem to get more lenient treatment than the rest of us. Of course that's not how it should be.

The obvious answer is that celebrities should not get special treatment.

But they do get it -- both in a good way and in a bad way, and judges must factor that complex reality of the situation into their decision making.

The $8 million dollar question is: What will deter Gilbert Arenas from doing this kind of thing again? Jail time sends a powerful message. But for an aging NBA player, is anything more powerful than being kept off the court? Athletes live as long as the rest of us, but earn their reputations, their fun, and their millions in the precious few years they are in their athletic primes. At age 28, and having already lost significant time to injury, Arenas has watched a lot of his precious peak slip away. He is now likely venturing into the long downward slope of his career.

Holding him off the court for most of this season, when he was at last healthy ... that was wholly understandable. But it was also a massive punishment. Not to mention, his suspension will cost him about $8 million in lost NBA income, plus whatever endorsements and the like he has lost.

So, ask yourself this: Is Arenas going to horse around with guns again? I don't know. But I would assume not, knowing that if he were ever caught doing that again he'd be:

I don't know if those two deterrents are more powerful than jail time. But I'm pretty certain that if deterrents work on Arenas, those two are powerful enough to do the trick.

Which gets to the question of: What is the point of Arenas' sentence (or, for that matter, the entire criminal justice system)? Is it to keep Arenas from doing something like this again? In that case, they could let him off with probation, community service and more of the same kinds of public shaming he has already been enduring.

But is the point to just flat-out punish him, so that he feels the sting of the legal system, if nothing else to serve as an example to others? That's trickier. Ordinarily, that kind of approach would be described as a solution that serves the victims. Thankfully, other than Wizards employees who were briefly endangered by the presence of guns that went unfired, it's hard to identify victims.

So, not being a legal scholar, I'm open to the idea that Arenas may need to be jailed. But if the judge decides to do so, I think it's worth understanding that any serious punishment would be serving a point beyond deterring a repeat offense -- because David Stern already has those deterrents well in place.