Burress' punishment seems a crime

Former Giants receiver Plaxico Burress will serve a longer sentence than either Michael Vick or Donté Stallworth.
Former Giants receiver Plaxico Burress will serve a longer sentence than either Michael Vick or Donté Stallworth.
Posted: August 21, 2009

The NFL turns out to be the wrong place if you're looking for justice, and we're not talking about Winston Justice.

Plaxico Burress is facing two years in prison for shooting himself in the leg. You can bet there is a pretty long list of people who have served considerably less time for shooting someone else.

Earlier this year, another NFL wide receiver, Donté Stallworth, served 24 days in jail for striking and killing a man while driving under the influence. That's one day for every month Burress is facing.

Throw in Michael Vick - the Eagles' new quarterback and spiritual reclamation project - and you can cause serious synaptic damage trying to get it all to make sense: Stallworth's 24 days compared with Vick's 18 months in prison compared with the term Burress is facing.

There are practical answers, of course, starting with jurisdiction. Stallworth's accident occurred in Florida. The victim ran directly in front of his car while rushing to make a bus. The victim's family accepted a sum of money from Stallworth and signed off on the plea deal.

Vick's was a federal case, as much about the organized illegal gambling operation as it was about cruelty to animals.

Burress' biggest mistake wasn't carrying an illegal and loaded Glock into a crowded nightclub. It was carrying that gun in Manhattan, which has tough laws that include mandatory minimum sentences. The two-year sentence is actually the result of a plea bargain. Burress took the two years rather than risk 31/2 years or more if convicted by a jury.

And what of Antonio Pierce? The Giants linebacker was with Burress on the night of the shooting. He admitted taking the gun home with him and then dropping it off at Burress' house. Somehow, that wasn't possession of a firearm according to the New York District Attorney's Office. Pierce wasn't charged with a crime. Pierce faces no consequences from NFL commissioner and hanging judge Roger Goodell.

So we're making no apologies for Burress. What he did was stupid and thoughtless. The bullet that struck his thigh almost hit a security guard at the club. It could easily have killed any one of the patrons nearby. He deserves some kind of punishment - even though a bullet through the leg seems worse than a slap on the wrist.

But two years? Something feels wrong here.

There were stories this week about protesters carrying guns outside venues where President Obama was appearing. Presumably, these are legally registered guns. But there's really no chance one of them could accidentally discharge? Does that mean Burress' gun went off because his Florida permit had expired?

The point isn't political. The point is that a gun is a gun. A lot of professional athletes and other celebrities feel they are targets when they go out in public. They stand out and people know they're likely to have money. The shooting deaths of Sean Taylor in 2007 and Darrent Williams in 2008 fueled this widespread fear.

Many players keep guns in their homes, and Taylor might be alive if he'd had one at hand. But others go a step further and carry a gun with them. As the Burress incident illustrates, it's a better idea to avoid places where you feel you need a gun.

Maybe the Burress situation feels so out of whack because of all the recent conversation about Vick and paying debts to society and second chances. Burress really did make a mistake - a single error in judgment - while the most disturbing of Vick's actions were perpetrated over a period of years. And while Stallworth also made a mistake, the consequences of his actions were much graver. Another human being died, while Burress merely shot himself.

The nagging question in all these cases: Why? Vick had a $130 million contract with the Atlanta Falcons and had established himself as one of the most exciting players in the NFL. Why risk all that to fight dogs? Burress caught the winning touchdown pass in the Super Bowl in February, signed a $35 million contract extension in September, and blasted the whole thing to bits in November. Stallworth isn't as big a star, but he blew his career and ended a life instead of paying $50 for a taxi.

In a couple of years, Burress will be out of jail. He'll be 34 years old. He'll follow the trail blazed this week by Vick and surely worn down by another felon or two. Burress will talk to youth groups, confide in The Player Whisperer, Tony Dungy, and go on 60 Minutes or ESPN and ask for a second chance.

The thing of it is, he'll really deserve one.


Contact columnist Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com.

Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.

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