Clarence Page

Over the years I have often had the pleasure of introducing my son to significant people as politically diverse as Barack Obama and Pat Buchanan. (Welcome to my world, kid.) He turned the tables on me one day in his early teens when he rushed across Washington's Reagan National Airport to introduce himself to basketball star Gilbert Arenas.

Years later I am still grateful to the rising Washington Wizards star for generously giving my son, whom he did not know, a few moments of encouragement amid the crush of airport hell. Yet memories of that pleasant moment, plus other reports I have heard of his charity work and mentoring of underprivileged kids, make it hard for me to understand Arenas' recent slide from role model to butt of late-night jokes.

The slide came when Arenas was indefinitely suspended and put under a criminal investigation for allegedly bringing as many as four handguns into his team's locker room. The pre-Christmas incident was part of what Arenas called a prank that grew out of a dispute over a gambling debt with teammate Javaris Crittenton, who according to various reports, responded by pulling out a gun of his own.

Sounds like the O.K. Corral? No, it's the National Basketball Association, where there has been a gun-related player suspension almost every year in the past decade.

Arenas made matters worse for himself at a game last week (Tuesday, Jan. 5) by mocking his own pending criminal investigation in front of the crowd and news cameras by flamboyantly firing his fingers like guns at his teammates. Cute.

That little high-profile antic appears to have been the last straw for NBA Commissioner David Stern, who already was under pressure from the Rev. Al Sharpton to show Arenas no mercy.

Yes, I know. A scolding from Sharpton for flamboyant recklessness is about as credible as a lecture on loyalty from Tiger Woods. Since his rise to fame in the 1980s as a promoter of Tawana Brawley's racially charged rape case that turned out to be a hoax, Sharpton has been known for rattling more social and political bridges than he's built.

But, as President Barack Obama dominates America's left, Sharpton has shifted to the right. He recently appeared, for example, on NBC's "Meet the Press" and other venues with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, still a conservative icon, to promote common-ground "common sense" school reforms. More recently, the reverend is righteously steamed at wayward black athletes like Arenas, he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed, for becoming "billboards of violent and destructive behavior."

I understand. There's no question that Arenas' recklessness deserves to be penalized. But, I also have to ask, penalized for what? The NBA and various media commentators, including Sharpton, seem to be falling over themselves to punish Arenas not only for his mistakes but also as a scapegoat for other problems for which remedial action is long overdue.

Arenas' reputation resembles Michael Jordan's more than Michael Vick's. He's a prankster, not a gangster. Yet he appears to be catching more punishment from Stern than others have received for worse offenses.

In September, for example, Cleveland Cavaliers guard Delonte West was arrested for three loaded weapons that were found in his vehicle during a traffic stop for reckless driving in Maryland. Yet, Stern did not suspend West. Where was Sharpton? He expresses "a keen sense of guilt that black leaders have not raised our voices more dramatically," he wrote. "If the assailants in these incidents had been white, we would have been marching, but because this is same-race behavior, we shake our heads, say a few words and allow it to continue."

Other voices, like Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation, question whether black athletes deserve to be singled out. White athletes like Jared Allen, a Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman and noted gun enthusiast who "kills and eats things that would make a billy goat sick," says Zirin, are praised as great sportsmen. True, but Allen also hasn't been caught bringing his weapons into a locker room.

Maybe we ask too much of athletes when we expect them to be models of good behavior, but at least they should try to avoid bad behavior.