The recent headlines were chilling: NBA players allegedly brandishing guns in the Verizon Center locker room. Gang and youth violence plagues U.S. cities, and people constantly ask: What are young Americans thinking? Well, when we look at today's athletic and entertainment stars, we begin to see the answer.
Maybe young Americans are thinking like their role models: athletes or actors who, fairly or unfairly, have become the billboards of violent and destructive behavior.
The Washington Redskins' Sean Taylor was killed in 2007 by gun violence. Last year, Delonte West of the Cleveland Cavaliers was reportedly found carrying weapons after an arrest following a traffic stop. Before that, former NBA player Antoine Walker was at least twice held at gunpoint because of an alleged gambling incident. Investigations continue into what transpired between the Washington Wizards' Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton, but it has been established that guns were in the locker room - which Arenas called "a misguided effort to play a joke on a teammate." The NBA was right Wednesday to suspend Arenas. But the league cannot stop at addressing the symptoms of this sickness. It must deal with the issue of violence in sports and figure out ways to mentor the players who emerge from this culture.
Guns are not a joke. Violence and recklessness continue to be treated as acceptable and even heroic behavior by part of our society. When I was growing up in the ghettos of Brooklyn, my peers and I knew unemployment, bad schools and social marginalization, but our athletic and entertainment heroes inspired us to beat the odds. Our ambition was to not submit to a subculture that would confirm the worst depiction of who we were and what our destiny would be.
Suppose that the stars of past generations - Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Althea Gibson, Marian Anderson - had used the challenges of their day to justify dangerous actions. What if Bill Russell or Hank Aaron had used the wickedness of segregation as an excuse to brutalize their peers rather than raising an image of excellence to the world?
I have led vigils and rallies in almost 30 cities, all directed at getting young people to refrain from gang and youth violence. Some, such as the rapper T.I., have denounced the behavior that led them into trouble and have called on young people to refrain from similar actions. But this is not enough. When I talk to parents in the aftermath of a beating death at a school, or a mother whose 13-year-old son was killed by a stray bullet, I wonder how much the athletes and entertainment giants of our time could help change the atmosphere that led to these situations.
We have not seen the level of partnership that we should from record companies and sports associations, advertisers and sponsors (those that regulate and profit from sports and entertainment) with the community groups that work in modern war zones day in and day out, trying to create an atmosphere of civility.
I also feel a keen sense of guilt that black leaders have not raised our voices more dramatically. 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.
None of us - not the government, private industry, clergy, civil rights leaders or parents - has responded with the needed urgency. It is a crisis that youth today think they have more in common with Scarface than with Martin Luther King Jr., or look up to mobsters more than to Malcolm X. All of us must deal with the romanticizing of gunplay and denounce the idea that it is acceptable to resolve differences with destructive behavior. Our society cannot continue to reward commercial success while telling people that their private misdeeds have nothing to do with their public images. We must have and enforce a standard for American heroes.
The writer is president of National Action Network.