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No get out of jail free card


Gilbert Arenas isn't going to jail and Gilbert Arenas didn't need to go to jail.

Jail is for people who have inflicted great damage on others or pose a serious threat to do so. There's no reason for Arenas to be housed at taxpayer expense, taking up space that would be better used for more severe criminals. The nation's capital is no more or less a safe place now that Arenas is free to roam it. Stupidity should not be a jailable offense.

People wonder what would happen if Arenas were a typical person instead of a famous and wealthy athlete. Here's what would NOT happen to the typical person: He wouldn't lose $7 million in salary and millions more in endorsements now and in the future. He wouldn't have 5 to 10 percent of his already time-constrained career taken away by a 50-game suspension.

Arenas has been punished severely by the NBA and will face further discipline by the law, after a District of Columbia Superior Court judge on Friday suspended an 18-month jail term for Arenas and sentenced him to 30 days in a halfway house and two years on probation, in addition to ordering him to serve 400 hours of community service and give $5,000 to a fund for victims of violent crimes.

It's important to note that this is the first time we've seen the word "victim" associated with any part of this story, which began when Arenas got into an argument with Washington Wizards teammate Javaris Crittenton on a flight, then escalated into the realm of criminal activity when Arenas brought four apparently unloaded guns into the Wizards' locker room on Dec. 21 and, in what Arenas maintained was a joke, left a note telling Crittenton to "PICK 1."

Arenas was never accused of firing a weapon at Crittenton or even aiming one at him. This was essentially a mistake that strayed into the realm of a crime because it violated D.C.'s strict gun laws in addition to the NBA's ban on weapons in the workplace. Arenas was considered a candidate for jail time primarily because he had a prior weapons conviction in California. That made this more about protocol than protecting the public, turned this into a chance for someone to use Arenas as a lesson about respecting the law. As a member of the Wizards organization told me, Arenas' biggest offense might have been the location for his prank gone wrong. On NBA property, specifically the Verizon Center on 601 F Street NW, Washington, D.C.

Save the outrage or concern about our nation's justice system. We need to focus on what happens next because all along this has been about what happened next, not the actual incident itself. The suspension by the NBA and the severity of punishment sought by the prosecutors were both reactions to the reaction.

NBA commissioner David Stern was content to follow his "innocent until proven guilty" guidelines and withhold action until the legal process played out. But then Arenas made light of the situation on Twitter, and then made his infamous shoot-em-up pregame routine with his teammates, forming imaginary guns with his hands. That brought on an indefinite suspension for Arenas, which officially became a suspension through the rest of the season two weeks after Arenas pleaded guilty to a charge of carrying a pistol in the District without a license.

The prosecutors spent much of their sentencing memo focusing on what Arenas did after the incident, using that as a basis for why he should be imprisoned. They said he changed his story and attempted to get teammates to cover for him, that he said he believed he could bring a gun into the locker room with the team's permission, when he (A) never asked for permission and (B) had attended a meeting in which league officials clearly explained that would not be the case.

The judge cited a belief that Arenas had genuine remorse in explaining the lack of prison time. Arenas has lost money, endorsements for now and the future, a part of his prime athletic years and his cult status as a lovable goofball. I believe he's sorry.

Can he be a viable part of the Washington Wizards again? Yes. There is no indication the Wizards will attempt to void his contract -- an apparently unwinnable legal play that would only antagonize the player/management dynamic if it failed. There's no indication the Wizards will attempt to buy out the bulk of the $80 million left on his contract. Good luck trying to trade him. And it doesn't matter if Arenas felt betrayed by the Wizards for turning him in and then failing to publicly stand by him throughout the ordeal. If he wants to play basketball in the NBA next season, he'll have to do it in a Wizards uniform.

One Wizards insider described the relationship as "somewhere between an arranged marriage and a really bad blind date." In other words, they're stuck with each other for a while.

Their ability to integrate Arenas back into the team is what the story is ultimately about. The fans, sports media and legal analysts can sit here and debate the judge's decision as if we were talking about NCAA seeding and snubs after Selection Sunday. As of Friday, when Arenas' availability come training camp was assured, the question became: How can his teammates accept him? They're the ones whose safety was allegedly threatened when he brought weapons into the locker room, they're the ones whose season he disrupted with the December incident.

Before a recent game I asked Wizards forward Mike Miller how the players could welcome Arenas back.

"I think if winning is your No. 1 option and that's what you care about, it's easy," Miller said. "You feel bad for him, you feel bad for everyone that went through it. At the same time, we know he can help us win games. Winning's the most important thing."

We forget that Arenas was averaging 22.6 points per game this season before Stern told him to sit down, that even coming off two virtually lost seasons because of knee injuries he can still get you 20.

Arenas didn't need jail time to learn his lesson, and we shouldn't have needed this case to remind us of one of the primary rules of the NBA. It's not about what you did off the court, it's what you can do on it.