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Experts: Athletes and gun violence not endemic, more a function of society

By Greg Botelho, CNN
updated 10:30 PM EST, Tue February 25, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The NBA's Raymond Felton is the latest pro athlete to face charges related to guns
  • Experts say such stories get so much attention because athletes are celebrities
  • But they aren't any more prone than any other person to crimes or violence, they say
  • "Sports are a microcosm of society, and we live in a violent society," one expert says

(CNN) -- Raymond Felton: New York Knicks point guard, charged with criminal weapons possession over a high-powered semiautomatic handgun.

Aaron Hernandez: New England Patriots tight end, awaiting trial on first-degree murder in the execution-style killing of Odin Lloyd.

Plaxico Burress: New York Giant star receiver, imprisoned after pleading guilty on weapons charges for having a gun inside a Manhattan nightclub.

These three are among the examples of high-quality, high-profile professional players accused of crossing a line -- in these cases while using firearms. Every week, in fact, it seems there's another athlete accused of some heinous crime.

Are sports stars more prone to dangerous, criminal behavior -- including those involving guns -- than your everyday Joe? Will they more likely carry guns and use them? And are more and more of them breaking the law and spiraling out of control?

"Statistically, absolutely not," said Mitch Abrams, a sport psychologist and clinical assistant professor at Rutgers' Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. "But nobody gives a hoot. ... These athletes are more celebrities than anything else."

Sports stars have been hailed for decades in American society, and with that comes extra attention and scrutiny. Still, in today's 24-hour news cycle -- in a media world with the NFL and NHL and NBA and MLB networks, not to mention the ESPNs of the world -- that spotlight has gotten brighter.

And when someone such as Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens is accused of knocking his wife unconscious or former NFL standout turned analyst Darren Sharper is charged in multiple date rapes, people take notice because: 1) their alleged crimes are egregious, and 2) they are known to millions of Americans.

That celebrity aspect is critical when you're trying to put such stories into perspective, according to Dan Lebowitz, the executive director for the Sports in Society center at Boston's Northeastern University.

Because "celebrity culture drives the news cycle" and because star athletes are celebrities, he says, these kinds of stories are read and spread everywhere. Yet even if it might seem that way, it doesn't change the fact that -- when compared with crime rates for all adult males -- professional athletes are no more likely to kill someone, get arrested for a gun crime or be convicted of domestic violence.

"It's upsetting, and it stands out," Lebowitz says of news about alleged killings, rapes, abuse and other horrific acts involving athletes. "But that doesn't mean it's (endemic)."

There have been examples in which that ubiquitous celebrity seemingly has come at a steep price.

Take Sean Taylor, a Washington Redskins star defender shot dead inside his Florida home during what appeared to be a botched burglary. There's also Washington Nationals' catcher Wilson Ramos, who was kidnapped in Venezuela. And it's not just players who are targeted, as seen in the kidnapping of the mother of iconic Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr.

For that reason, Abrams says, many athletes legitimately "fear that they are going to be in danger."

"The problem is, they don't know what they're doing with their guns."

Burress could be exhibit No. 1: He inadvertently shot himself, having never threatened anyone else. Gilbert Arenas, then a standout with the Washington Wizards, was charged with a felony gun violation after drawing guns in the locker room -- something he insisted was a joke.

Lebowitz said such cases reflect more on America's "gun culture" than its sports culture. While Department of Justice statistics show the number of purposeful and accidental shootings have fallen in recent decades, "There is (still) an inordinate amount of kids being killed on a daily basis."

Yes, Abrams admits, sometimes an intense, hypermasculine pro athlete who acts like a warrior on the field has a fragile ego off it, unsure what to do when someone (particularly a woman) challenges him.

"He feels insecure, he feels hurt," said Abrams, the author of "Anger Management in Sport." "As things escalate, maybe it becomes physical."

This isn't the norm, though. Most past and present athletes carry themselves well or at least don't commit crimes.

When some of them do go down the wrong path, that's more a function of the fact they are human, not that they are athletes.

Lebowitz calls "sports ... the ultimate common denominator," because any given roster can represent society as a whole -- all colors, races, classes and creeds.

Some of these athletes commit crimes, just like some nonathletes do.

As Abrams says, "Sports are a microcosm of society. And we live in a violent society."

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