It is February and Gilbert Arenas is still looking for a job in the NBA. While rumors swirl about his potentially joining the Los Angeles Lakers, "Agent Zero" remains a free agent. The lack of interest, whether it be from the many teams requiring greater depth in this injury plagued, compressed season, or those bottom dwelling franchises whose seasons’ are on life support (see: Michael Jordan's Bobcats), makes one wonder if Arenas has been declared unemployable by both the media and the teams throughout the league.
The one-time NBA All-Star has had a few rocky years. Between 2007-2010, Arenas played only 47 games because of injuries and a suspension for bringing a gun into the Washington Wizards' locker room. The 2010-2011 season was his first close-to-full season (with two teams), but his career low averages in points and shooting percentage while playing with the Orlando Magic has led commentators to question his ability. Ignoring the impact of injuries and suspensions and the fact that his numbers were fine while he was playing substantial minutes with the Wizards in 2010 (17.3 on almost 40% and close to 6 assists per game), the media and teams themselves appear to be written Arenas off.
Even Stan Van Gundy, the Magic’s coach, cautioned against selling Arenas short because of his performance with the Magic, prior to their releasing him by using their amnesty provision: "I don’t think it’s fair to judge Gilbert’s time here. If anything, if people are unhappy with the way Gilbert performed here, you got to lay that on me and the role I gave him. I don’t think you can lay that on Gilbert. I don’t think Gilbert really had much of a chance to play well consistently, with what happened."
Fair or not, the lack of opportunities afforded to Arenas illustrate how he continues to be judged, although maybe not for on-court reasons alone.
It is hard not to think that Arenas has been unable to change his reputation and the widespread demonization he has experienced over his career. No amount of apologies, efforts to redeem himself, or even time has allowed Arenas to shake the "bad boy" label like he use to shake defenders.
In the aftermath of Arenas and then-teammate Javaris Crittendon bringing guns into the Wizards locker room and pulling them on one another, and Arenas later making light of the issue with a myriad of tweets and his decision to simulate holding a gun during pregame warm-ups, the media denounced him not only as someone who made a bad decision, but as a bad person that deserves to be in prison for a significant amount of time. He was part of a generation of arrogant, entitled, uneducated, and otherwise despicable hip-hop ballers who lacked respect for the game, the fans, and basic civility. For example, Ed Berlinger, in “Next Stop for Gilbert Arenas? Prison Basketball team,” defined Arenas in relationship to a criminal (Black) underclass, all while depicting Arenas as representative of the pathological and destructive culture of today’s (black) athletes.
Praising David Stern for his giving these players 1-year suspensions, Berlinger offered the following: "Nothing could be more necessary in teaching our generation of spoiled, morally inept, law breaking athletic sycophants that they can no longer fall back on the “my dog ate my homework” excuse…He's a common, street level criminal. One who just happens to wear tailored suits. A convict in the making who may luckily have been revealed before he truly decided to take a life with what would have been spun as an "accident"…His complete disregard for human life and a simple level of societal behavior puts him just above the gang-bangers who revel in their ability to shovel guns in the face of anyone who dare to question their superiority."
Evident here, much of the media saw Arenas a symptom of a larger problem within the NBA, one that needed correction if the league had any chance of prospering into the future. Not surprisingly, Jason Whitlock seized upon the opportunity to denounce Arenas as an example of what happens when professional athletes do not go to college: "Singling out Arenas as the NBA’s lone idiot gunman is as naive as believing Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone…Harsh sanction is not the cure for ignorance. Education is…Gilbert Arenas can’t think critically. Like most elite athletes, no one has ever tried to teach him to think in a language and field he enjoys."
The continued penalization (or ostracizing) of Arenas, who like so many others confined to the criminalized class has not been given a second chance, illustrates the ways that his mere presence in the league was seen as a threat. The efforts to imagine Arenas as pathological, uneducated, and unredeemable highlight the context of his difficult employment prospects within the NBA.
Like so many other African-Americans who must “check the box” and suffer because of the widespread criminalization of Black bodies, Arenas is surely experiencing the consequences of a culture of discrimination. “You know, when people are released from prison and have a criminal record, they are discriminated against for the rest of their life in employment,” notes Michelle Alexander. “For the rest of their life, they’ve got to check that box on employment applications, knowing that application is likely going straight to the trash.”
Given his contrition and his efforts to walk the path of redemption, one can only hoping that Gilbert Arenasgets that opportunity and as a Lakers’ fan, I am hoping it is with the Purple and Gold.
David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He is author of After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press, spring 2012).