As the United States grapples with the very American problem of rampant gun violence, the issue of gun safety has touched the N.B.A. through one of its brightest young stars, Ja Morant of the Memphis Grizzlies, who was suspended for 25 games on Friday after recklessly waving a gun around in a social media video for a second time.
Morant, 23, is a small but electrifying point guard with one of the most popular jerseys in the N.B.A. and 12.5 million followers across Twitter and Instagram. But against a backdrop of frequent mass shootings, and as he plays 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 N.B.A. has endeavored to be seen as progressive, particularly 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 officials at the White House for a panel on the issue in January. Though it does not appear that 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 efforts.
“The potential for other young people to emulate Ja’s conduct is particularly concerning,” N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. He added that the length of the suspension — about a third of the season — was meant to show that “engaging in reckless and irresponsible behavior with guns will not be tolerated.”
Tamika Tremaglio, the executive director of the N.B.A. players’ union, said in a statement Friday that Morant had shown remorse and that the punishment was “excessive and inappropriate.” She added that the union would “explore with Ja all options and next steps.” The N.B.A. said it had suspended Morant for conduct detrimental to the league.
In early March, the N.B.A. suspended Morant for eight games after he live-streamed video on Instagram as he laughed and brandished a firearm in a nightclub near Denver after a game. Morant apologized and said he had checked into a health facility in Florida to better deal with stress. Then, on May 13, one of Morant’s friends streamed video of him waving a gun as he rode 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 found it “appropriate” that the N.B.A. had taken action to penalize Morant.
“Firearms may be a tool in some instances, 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 on these kinds of life-and-death issues. It’s not a small thing. People could die if they handle firearms in such a cavalier way, and they do every day.”
In 2015, the N.B.A. worked with Everytown for Gun Safety, a group that supports gun safety legislation, to create commercials with star players and shooting survivors discussing gun violence. The ads were timed to air during the league’s marquee Christmas Day slate of games.
Last May, after 19 students and two teachers were killed in a shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, N.B.A. teams in the playoffs displayed messages at their arenas asking fans to urge their political representatives to pass “common sense” gun safety legislation.
But even as the N.B.A. has adopted an outwardly progressive stance on gun safety, its comments have not been in line with the actions of several of its team owners. Among others, the 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 N.B.A.’s collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union prohibits players from carrying firearms in any league- or team-operated facility, which includes team planes.
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 games more than Crittenton, because he made light of the situation with gun gestures during a game while the incident was being investigated.
“I think it affected — I don’t even want to say legacy — my name,” Arenas told The New York Times last month. “It affected it really bad. I said it back then, where the most disappointing part of it all is 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 penalties. Raymond Felton was suspended for four games in 2014 after he pleaded guilty to felony gun possession. In 2007, Stephen Jackson was suspended for seven games after he pleaded guilty to a felony count of criminal recklessness. Months before, he had fired a gun outside a strip club in Indianapolis.
Tremaglio, the union’s executive director, said in her statement Friday that Morant’s punishment was “not fair and consistent with past discipline.” In addition to the 25-game suspension, Morant will have to meet certain unspecified conditions and, Silver said, “formulate and fulfill a program with the league that directly addresses the circumstances that led him to repeat this destructive behavior.”
The N.B.A. had been investigating the second video since the middle of May but had delayed releasing the findings until after the N.B.A. 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 N.B.A. finals on June 1, Silver said it would be “unfair” to the Nuggets and the Heat to announce the Morant results while they were still competing.
There was also a business reason to wait: The N.B.A. finals are as much an advertisement for the league as they are a clash of two conference champions.
“You don’t want it to be the story that gets talked about during the finals,” said Lawrence Parnell, the director of the strategic public relations program at George Washington University. He added, “It’s all about shaping the narrative to be about the players and about the game and not about someone who’s not even there.”
Contrast that with this week at the U.S. Open in golf, where much of the conversation has been about the pending, 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 fixture on highlight shows, and he has led the Grizzlies to the playoffs three times. Morant will be entering his fifth season, having already made two All-Star teams. This spring, Nike released his first signature sneaker — typically a signifier of true N.B.A. stardom.
For the moment, Nike appears to be standing by him, just as it did as he faced an avalanche of criticism after the first video.
“We are pleased that Ja is taking accountability and prioritizing his well-being,” Nike said in a statement on Friday. “We will continue to support him on and off the court.”
Morant seemed to be aware of his celebrity platform as he apologized in a statement Friday.
“To the kids who look up to me, I’m sorry for failing you as a role model,” he said. “I promise I’m going to be better. To all of my sponsors, I’m going to be a better representation of our brands. And to all of my fans, I’m going to 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 about his suspension.
The Grizzlies said in a statement that they respected the N.B.A.’s decision to suspend Morant. “Our standards as a league and team are clear, and we expect that all team personnel will adhere to them,” the team said.
Morant, in his apology, asked for a chance to prove that “I’m a better man than I’ve been showing you.” But it may be difficult.
“I think there’s an opportunity to have a positive story come out of this for the league and for Ja Morant,” Parnell said. “But going to counseling and doing a mea culpa is not going to make any difference in his reputation.”