Some of the best hunters and anglers in the world are to be found on the rosters of American professional sports teams. Some of the best hunters and anglers in the world are to be found enshrined in Cooperstown, Canton and Springfield. They are respected as both sportsmen and sportsmen.
Men like Chipper Jones and Nolan Ryan. Men like Brett Favre and Goose Gossage. Men like Bo Jackson, Larry Csonka, Bob Knight and Karl Malone. The list of these men is long, miles long. They are sportsmen in the athletic and in the outdoors sense.
Their hand-eye coordination is exceptional. Their love for the outdoors is deep. Their knowledge of guns and respect for gun safety is undeniable.
That's why I call on them today. That's why we should all call on them. They can help make a difference.
As well as anyone, these scores of high-profile sportsmen know the difference between a .270 Winchester single-shot rifle and the Bushmaster .223 semiautomatic Adam Lanza used in massacring six adults and 20 innocent children Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
As well as anyone, they know the difference between the skill of hunting deer with one distant shot and the sick, demented rampage of hunting down first-graders with a hundred rounds.
Yet better than most of us, they are in position to use their fame and their blessings to stand up and make a difference.
There was a time when athletes were less afraid, more willing to take a public stand for the greater good. We praise Muhammad Ali for refusing to participate in a misguided war in Vietnam. We praise Tommie Smith and John Carlos for raising gloves on the Olympic podium in a small yet powerful stand against racism.
Yet we also are too quick to shout down athletes of today when they do voice their beliefs. … Oh, go back to sports, you dumb jock. Go pick up a bat. Go shoot free throws. … In turn, athletes flush with millions of dollars they never saw 40-50 years ago often are reticent to risk that wealth by speaking out on something so trivial as war, drug use and the massacre of our children. As Mr. Nike, Michael Jordan once said in defending his ambivalence, "Republicans buy shoes, too."
Well, Democrats buy guns, too, and what happened at Sandy Hook can't be about Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. It shouldn't be about digging in and playing the old game of partisan politics. This cannot be about trying to ban every gun, nor can it be about trying to pretend semiautomatic weapons with 30-round magazines are necessary to protect our right to bear arms. If it is, nothing in the name of those innocent children will ever be done. There is a middle ground here, and in the name of God it must be found immediately.
In our grief and frustration, we ask ourselves what role can the powerful world of sports play after the continued massacres finally found themselves on our front doorstep in Sandy Hook? We ask ourselves what role can athletics play beyond providing a stage for a silent moment of reflection before the start of the next game?
How about these famous sportsmen speaking out for reinstituting the federal automatic assault weapon ban, weapons that have no other use than to kill humans? How about these sportsmen, many with rigid interpretations of the Second Amendment, using their knowledge of hunting and collective fame to lobby Congress, to appear in public-service spots and, in many cases, speak directly to their own constituencies that something must be done? Don't tell me America wouldn't listen to Bobby Knight or Chipper Jones argue for self-defense and hunting, yet against killing machines.
The only reasons for such a weapon, as Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News wrote, is if you're worried al-Qaida is coming down your chimney.
These sportsmen know the difference. They should have the courage to be this difference.
This would be public service of the highest order. No, we cannot stop every murder. No, we cannot stop every sick individual. No plan is foolproof. Yet if that madman wasn't carrying the killing machine he did, maybe half of those 26 are alive today. And this isn't merely playing with numbers, metrics for sports or business. Save one life. Save the world.
I demand public service from these sportsmen. We all should. I will take it a step further. We should demand a more mature, saner approach to gun ownership from so many young professional athletes. At least seven NFL players turned in guns recently to their teams after the murder-suicide involving Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher. It was an indication how some athletes do not trust themselves with weapons, and that's an important step.
We can try to pretend we're smarter or more emotionally grounded than to allow professional athletes to be our guiding force. We also would be lying to say they do not hold powerful influence with our youth. They do. And as long as carrying around guns is looked upon as cool, there is an invitation to tragedy. Or as Plaxico Burress once demonstrated, an invitation to stupidity.
We would be far less than honest if we didn't point out the colliding nature of guns in sports. Most of the athlete-outdoorsmen are rural whites. Much of the violence involving athletes and handguns has involved blacks. Among the latter, there is an understandable feeling of wanting protection in high-risk situations, yet ultimately a badass gun culture is not the solution.
The Second Amendment is fine. The Wild West is insane.
That's why I also call on high-profile athletes, especially high-profile African-American athletes, to band together and campaign loudly for safe and responsible, legal handgun use. More than that, I demand it. We all should. They carry enormous influence with our youth.
There are about 32,000 gun-related deaths in America each year — so many times more than other civilized nations — and about 18,000 are suicides. When Belcher shot his girlfriend, drove to the Chiefs facility and killed himself in front of his general manager and coach, it screamed of mental illness. Guns clearly are only part of a national epidemic of gun-related deaths. We need to adopt more secure certification of those dealing with mental problems. I, too, call on a high-profile athlete, one with a history of depression or mental illness, to speak out on this vital point. Knowing the stigma it can carry in a nation too callous to our mental health, we should all realize that person would be a hero. We need heroes.
In the meantime, it would take no particular heroism for some of our most famous athletes and coaches — sportsmen and sportsmen — to call for automatic weapons bans, reduced ammunition clips, to campaign for sensible use of guns. It would only demand a willingness to embrace the middle ground of common sense and decency and a decision to use their fame for the greatest good.