Bloomberg goes gunning for icon Burress


AMERICA AT LARGE:TEN MONTHS ago Plaxico Burress's picture was splashed across the front page of every newspaper in the country, and not a few around the world, after he caught a game-winning touchdown pass from Eli Manning with just 35 seconds left on the clock to give the New York Giants a 17-14 victory in Super Bowl XLII.

Most of the same newspapers carried another photograph of Burress yesterday morning. This time he was being hustled out of a NYPD station house, his hands cuffed behind his back, in a deliberately staged prep walk on his way to a courtroom, where he would be arraigned on weapons charges and released on $100,000 bail.

When the career of one of our pampered sporting icons winds up in tatters we are oftentimes wont to describe the damage as "self-inflicted", but in the case of Plaxico's most recent adventure that is literally the case.

In the wee hours of Saturday morning, a day before the Giants were to play the Redskins, the normally sure-fingered Burress shot himself in the leg when the unregistered 40-calibre Glock he had tucked in his waistband accidentally discharged in the VIP corral of a night club.

By the time the Giants took the field in Washington on Sunday afternoon, details of the episode had begun to leak out, and on Tuesday morning Burress's attorney had made arrangements for his client to voluntarily surrender himself at the 17th Precinct in Midtown Manhattan, three short blocks up Lexington Avenue from the site of the Gunfight at the Latin Quarter Corral.

Two days ago the Giants placed Burress on the "non-football injury" list and suspended him for the remainder of the season. The suspension alone will cost him four game cheques, or roughly $825,000.

The team levied an additional $200,000 fine for "conduct detrimental to the team" and will reportedly also attempt to withhold a $1 million payment from a signing bonus Burress was due to receive next Wednesday.

Burress also faces further disciplinary action from the National Football League, which can tack on additional fines and/or suspensions for violations of its player conduct policy, but the sanctions imposed by the team and the league may be the least of his worries.

Mere possession of an unregistered handgun in New York carries a mandatory 3½-year prison sentence, and if Mayor Michael Bloomberg has anything to say about it, Plax could be watching the next four Super Bowls on a jailhouse television.

Since taking office in the aftermath of 9/11 six years ago, Bloomberg has nurtured dual obsessions, and has been almost as zealous in enforcing gun laws as in prosecuting smokers.

Under draconian regulations imposed shortly after Bloomberg took office, it is now illegal to light up a cigarette indoors just about anywhere in New York save the sanctity of one's own home - and in some places, even that is against the law.

In 2003, his second year in office, Bloomberg received a report from someone watching the live telecast of a Rolling Stones concert at Madison Square Garden that Keith Richards was smoking a cigarette during the performance. The mayor got on the telephone and ordered the constabulary to intervene.

According to the cops, Bloomberg actually wanted them to march onstage and arrest Richards, in mid-guitar lick, for felonious smoking. Instead, the police, anticipating what the reaction of the crowd might be, wisely waited in the wings, prepared to slap the cuffs on Keith after the encore.

Forewarned, the Stones beat a retreat from the opposite side of the stage and made their escape in a waiting limousine. Bloomberg was enraged, and several cops were reprimanded.

Apart from putting scores of neighbourhood saloons out of business it is difficult to gauge the precise impact of Bloomberg's anti-smoking crusade, but when it comes to his other pet peeve, the evidence is clear. Since the crackdown on guns, New York's crime rate has become statistically the lowest among America's 25 largest cities. Last year New York's homicide total dropped below 500 for the first time since 1963, the first in which they started keeping records of these things.

In a nation in which most politicians feel obligated to coddle the gun lobby (remember Barak Obama's campaign promise, "No one wants to take away your guns"?), Bloomberg has emerged as its most visible enemy. Vilified by the National Rifle Association as "a national gun-control vigilante", he is the founder and co-chairman of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a coalition of 210 big-city government heads.

He credits a zero-tolerance handgun policy for the strides New York has made in the war against crime, and seems determined to make an example of Plaxico Burress.

"The law is the law and it has nothing to do with sports," Bloomberg addressed reporters on Tuesday, reminding them that Burress, as a perceived role model, should be held even more strictly accountable.

Burress played his first five NFL seasons in Pittsburgh, who selected him in the first round of the 2000 draft. He signed as a free agent with the Giants in 2005, just in time to watch his old team win the Super Bowl without him.

Last year he preceded his Super Bowl heroics by catching a team-leading 70 passes for 1,025 yards, despite an ankle injury that limited his workout regimen to game days only. In the NFC championship game against Green Bay he set a franchise play-off record with 11 receptions for 154 yards, paving the way for what may have been the most celebrated touchdown catch in the Giants' 84-year history. His troubled 2008, on the other hand, already represented a litany of missteps even before he started fiddling with his Glock at the Latin Quarter.

Back in June, Plaxico disrupted the first day of minicamp by announcing he wouldn't step on the practice field unless the Giants extended his contract. In September he was suspended and fined for an unauthorized absence from a team practice session.

That same month, police responded to two separate reports of domestic violence at his New Jersey home.

In October the NFL fined him $45,000 for criticizing officials and throwing a ball into the stands during a win over the 49rs. A week later, coach Tom Coughlin benched him for the first quarter of a game against the Steelers following another missed practice session.

In November he had injured and then re-aggravated a hamstring injury, and had already been declared out of last Sunday's Washington game even before he showed up, strapped, at the Latin Quarter with two team-mates in tow.

According to reports, Burress had been at the nightclub for less than 10 minutes when he was seen uncomfortably fidgeting with an object tucked into his trousers. Next thing anybody knew, a shot rang out and Plax was on the floor, pleading "Get me to a hospital!" As luck would have it, the bullet passed through his thigh and lodged in the floor. Given the positioning of the weapon, he could just as easily have blown his balls off.

The fact that Burress's gun was registered in Florida seems unlikely to cut any ice with Bloomberg, who pointed out that most illegal guns in New York were legally purchased in southern states. And with the mayor, probably correctly, charging an attempted cover-up, Plaxico could soon have company in the sneezer.

Team-mate Antonio Pierce, who allegedly unloaded the Glock, stashed it in the glove compartment of his SUV, and returned it to Burress's home in New Jersey, will have some explaining to do.

The State Liquor Authority wants to know how Plax slipped a gun past security at a nightclub that customarily wands patrons, and the doctor who attended Burress at New York Presbyterian Hospital without notifying police that she had treated a gunshot wound has already been suspended.

The lengthy delay in reporting the particulars could even implicate the NYPD. Daily Newscolumnist Michael Daly was at the 17th Precinct when Burress surrendered on Tuesday, and his recitation of the process suggests the booking officer may have been at least a kindred spirit of those cops who let Keith Richards slip through their fingers five years ago: "You better get back, bro," the detective said. "We need you for the play-offs."