As the United States grapples with the very American problem of widespread gun violence, the issue of gun safety has touched the NBA through one of its brightest young stars, Ja Morant of the Memphis Grizzlies, who on Friday was suspended for 25 games after recklessly waving. a gun around in a social media video for the second time.
Morant, 23, is a small but electrifying point guard with one of the most popular jerseys in the NBA and 12.5 million followers across Twitter and Instagram. But against a backdrop of frequent mass shootings and while playing in a city that has struggled with gun violence, Morant has used his growing sphere of influence to model behavior that even he has acknowledged was harmful.
For years, the image-conscious NBA has striven to be seen as progressive, especially on the fraught topic of gun violence. Many coaches and stars, like LeBron James and Stephen Curry, have spoken out about gun safety. The Golden State Warriors, last season’s champions, met with White House officials for a panel on the issue in January. While it doesn’t appear Morant broke any of the league’s firearms rules with his videos — he didn’t bring a gun into a locker room, as two players were suspended for doing in 2010 — his carelessness has threatened to undermine the league’s effort.
“The potential for other youth to emulate Ja’s behavior is particularly troubling,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. He added that the length of the suspension — about a third of the season — was intended to show that “engaging in reckless and irresponsible behavior with weapons will not be tolerated.”
Tamika Tremaglio, the executive director of the NBA Players Association, said in a statement Friday that Morant had shown remorse and that the punishment was “excessive and inappropriate.” She added that the union would “together with Ja explore all options and next steps.” The NBA said it had suspended Morant for conduct prejudicial to the league.
In early March, the NBA suspended Morant for eight games after he live-streamed video on Instagram of himself laughing and brandishing a firearm in a nightclub near Denver after a game. Morant apologized and said he had checked into a health center in Florida to better manage stress. Then, on May 13, one of Morant’s friends streamed video of him brandishing a gun while riding in a vehicle. The Grizzlies suspended him indefinitely, and Silver told ESPN he was “shocked.”
Kris Brown, the president of Brady, a nonprofit that works to curb gun violence, said she thought it was “appropriate” that the NBA had taken steps to punish Morant.
“Firearms can be a tool in some situations, but they can also kill, maim and injure other people if not handled and stored properly,” Brown said. She added: “Public figures have a responsibility to be held accountable for how they engage in these kinds of life-and-death matters. It’s not a small thing. People could die if they handle firearms in such a cavalier manner way, and they do it every day.”
In 2015, the NBA partnered with Everytown for Gun Safety, a group that supports gun safety legislation, to create commercials featuring star players and shooting survivors discussing gun violence. The ads were timed to run during the league’s Christmas Day fixture.
Last May, after 19 students and two teachers were killed in a shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, NBA playoff teams displayed messages in their arenas asking fans to urge their political representatives to adopt “healthy common sense” gun safety legislation.
But while the NBA has taken an outwardly progressive stance on gun safety, its comments have not been consistent with the actions of several of its team owners. Among others, Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, the Knicks’ James Dolan and the DeVos family, which owns the Orlando Magic, have all donated to prominent Republican politicians who have opposed tighter gun restrictions.
The NBA’s collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union prohibits players from carrying firearms in any league- or team-operated facility, which includes team aircraft.
The most significant gun-related suspension came in 2010 after Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton, who played for the Washington Wizards, threatened each other with guns in the team’s locker room. (Arenas has said he was joking.) Arenas was suspended for 50 games, 12 more than Crittenton, for making light of the gun movement situation during a game while the incident was investigated.
“I think it influenced — I won’t even say legacy — my name,” Arenas told The New York Times last month. “It affected it really badly. I said it at the time, the most disappointing part of it all is that I did 100 things right. I did one wrong thing and that’s all everyone remembers. That’s what really hurts you the most.”
Other gun-related incidents have earned much lighter sentences. Raymond Felton was suspended for four games in 2014 after pleading guilty to weapons possession. In 2007, Stephen Jackson was suspended for seven games after he pleaded guilty to a felony count of criminal recklessness. Months earlier, he had fired a gun outside an Indianapolis strip club.
Tremaglio, the union’s executive director, said in his statement Friday that Morant’s punishment was “not fair and consistent with past discipline.” In addition to the 25-game suspension, Morant must meet certain unspecified conditions and, Silver said, “formulate and fulfill a program with the league that directly addresses the circumstances that caused him to repeat this destructive behavior.”
The NBA had been investigating the second video since mid-May, but had delayed releasing the results until after the NBA Finals. The Denver Nuggets won their first championship on Monday by defeating the Miami Heat in five games. Morant’s Grizzlies had been eliminated from the playoffs at the end of April.
Before Game 1 of the NBA Finals on June 1, Silver said it would be “unfair” to the Nuggets and Heat to announce the Morant results while they were still competing.
There was also a business reason for waiting: The NBA Finals are as much an advertisement for the league as they are a clash between two conference champions.
“You don’t want that to be the story being talked about during the finals,” said Lawrence Parnell, the director of the strategic public relations program at George Washington University. He added: “It’s about shaping the narrative to be about the players and about the game and not about someone who isn’t even there.”
Compare that to this week at the US Open in golf, where much of the conversation has been about the impending and heavily criticized merger of the PGA Tour and the Saudi-backed LIV Golf.
But Morant is not easily forgotten, and neither is gun safety.
Morant’s dynamic play made him a highlight reel fixture, and he has led the Grizzlies to the playoffs three times. Morant enters his fifth season having already made two All-Star teams. This spring, Nike released its first signature sneaker — typically a sign of true NBA stardom.
For now, it seems Nike is standing by him, just as it did when he faced an avalanche of criticism after the first video.
“We are pleased that Ja is taking responsibility and prioritizing her well-being,” Nike said in a statement Friday. “We will continue to support him on and off the pitch.”
Morant appeared to be mindful of his celebrity platform when he apologized in a statement Friday.
“To the kids who look up to me, I’m sorry to have failed you as a role model,” he said. “I promise I will get better. To all my sponsors, I will be a better representation of our brands. And to all my fans, I will make it up to you, I promise.”
Powerade, which had announced Morant as a new endorser in March, did not respond to a request for comment on his suspension.
The Grizzlies said in a statement that they respected the NBA’s decision to suspend Morant. “Our standards as a league and team are clear and we expect all team personnel to adhere to them,” the team said.
In his apology, Morant asked for a chance to prove that “I am a better man than I have shown you.” But it can be difficult.
“I think there’s an opportunity to get a positive story out of this for the league and for Ja Morant,” Parnell said. “But going to counseling and doing a mea culpa won’t make any difference to his reputation.”