Will Smith, a former defensive end for the New Orleans Saints, was driving his SUV through the city’s Lower Garden District with his wife last weekend when a car rear-ended him. According to police, Smith and the other driver, Cardell Hayes, stepped out of their vehicles and an argument ensued. Hayes allegedly killed Smith, shooting him eight times with a .45-caliber handgun. Smith’s wife survived gunshots to each of her legs.
The NFL community and many sports fans were shocked by the murder of a beloved former player. Sadly, gun violence is an everyday reality in New Orleans: As of this Sunday, 32 people had been murdered in the city in 2016, nearly all of them gunshot victims. What made this incident stand out, aside from the prominence of the victim, were unusually strong remarks on guns and gun culture from Sean Payton, the Saints’ head coach, in the aftermath of the shooting.
“I hate guns,” he told USA Today. “I’ve heard people argue that everybody needs a gun. That’s madness.”
Referring to the murder weapon used to kill Smith, he said, “It was a large caliber gun. A .45. We could go online and get 10 of them, and have them shipped to our house tomorrow. I don’t believe that was the intention when they allowed for the right for citizens to bear arms.” Payton noted he didn’t care if his opinion is “super unpopular” in Louisiana, which Guns and Ammo ranks as the 17th best state for gun owners, thanks largely to its lax firearms laws. “I’m not an extreme liberal,” he added. “I find myself leaning to the right on some issues. But on this issue, I can’t wrap my brain around it.”
Peyton’s comments caused a stir. It is rare for an NFL coach to express an opinion on anything more controversial than the 3-4 defense. But while he isn’t the first NFL figure to comment on the issue of guns, his powerful statements might mark a pivot point in a discussion that has been brewing for a while in America’s most popular sport. Because like the country itself, the NFL has a gun problem.
Police said that both Hayes and Smith were carrying guns the night of the murder. In 2012, USA Today estimated that three quarters of NFL players owned guns. (By contrast, only 25 percent of Americans overall own a firearm, according to the General Social Survey.) Former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy recalls that he would ask players at the beginning of each season which of them had firearms, in order to remind them they would need to be registered in the state of Indiana. “I was always shocked at the number of guys who raised their hand,” Dungy told USA Today.“That was kind of eye-opening to me.”
Players often turn to guns to keep them safe. “You have to protect yourself,” Kansas City Chief defensive lineman Shaun Smith told the New York Daily News in 2012. “You work so hard to get to where you at, I’ll be damned if I’ll just let someone take it from me.” Former first-round pick Thomas Jones echoed those sentiments in an interview that same year with USA Today. “People will go to any length to take what you have,” he said. “If something happens to you,” he added, “you wish you had a firearm.”
The obsession with self defense among NFL players stems at least in small part from the 2007 murder of the Washington football team’s safety Sean Taylor, who was shot and killed in his Florida home during a break-in. But the most high-profile shooting incident in the league happened five years later. In December 2012, Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher shot himself in front of coach Romeo Crennel and team executives hours after killing his wife. The tragedy led several NFL players to turn in their guns.
The Belcher shooting also led to a brief, public debate about guns in the NFL. Several days after Belcher’s suicide, NBC’s Bob Costas criticized “gun culture” in a widely discussed Sunday night football telecast. At the league’s rookie symposium the following season — which famously features all sorts of lectures and “skits” about sexually transmitted diseases and people putting condoms on bananas — guns were a central topic. Former Bears defensive tackle Tank Johnson, who had been arrested for having a virtual arsenal of illegal weapons in his home, spoke at that year’s symposium, saying, “while you’re playing in the NFL, you do not need a gun for any reason.” But the topic of guns in the league lost its urgency. Johnson was not asked back to the rookie symposium the next season, and last week, the NFL canceled the event all together.
Until Payton’s comments, the NFL seemed more concerned with updating its policies on domestic violence than with the proliferation of guns among the league’s players.
Former Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy was the poster boy for domestic violence last season. He was suspended for 10 games after he was arrested for allegedly beating his girlfriend. Photos released later of his battered girlfriend caused outrage. Guns were central to the incident: Hardy threw his girlfriend onto a “couch full of guns” — he reportedly owned up to 30 firearms, including at least six military-style assault rifles. Upon his arrest, Hardy turned nine guns over to the police.
Yet Hardy’s case was never a gun story, because it didn’t have to be a gun story. In this way, the NFL is like any large, bureaucratic organization: It only reacts when it absolutely has to. Take former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice. The NFL was famously weak on the issue of domestic violence, until video surfaced of Rice decking his wife in a casino elevator. Then the NFL suddenly got religious on domestic violence and came down hard on Hardy. But it never said anything about Hardy’s stockpile of weapons.
Sean Payton’s words this week may not cause the NFL to suddenly turn its attention to guns. But that another prominent coach is speaking out against the prevalence of guns in the league, and the scourge of gun violence in particular, adds to the pressure on the league to take a stronger stance.
[Photo: AP/Gerald Herbert]