I was sprawled, bored, on a floral twin bed at my parents’ house when I first heard the news on sports radio. (Some things never change.) It was Thanksgiving weekend of 2008, and New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress—a player whose touchdown reception had won the team a Super Bowl not 10 months earlier; a guy with a brand-new five-year, $35 million contract—had apparently shot himself in the leg. With the shameless selfishness of any true fan, I began fixating on how this grave mistake by a stranger would affect my life. I cycled between confusion and denial. I pecked a few angsty messages to like-minded friends on my BlackBerry Wireless Handheld and tried to ignore the grim well of accumulating work emails, knowing that they’d only make me feel worse.
Just over a week earlier, the S&P 500 had plummeted to its lowest levels since April 1997 as Wall Street reckoned with the true scope of the unfolding financial crisis it had caused. A surname stew of once-mighty investment banks, from Bear Stearns to Lehman Brothers to Merrill Lynch, had been boiled down to little more than a leftover sludge of toxic, illiquid assets. My job at the time was to help “ultra-high-net-worth individuals,” as we called them, grow and diversify their vast stores of personal wealth; instead, these clients were losing millions by the day. Camera crews loitered outside reeling businesses like my own, hoping to capture B-roll footage of freshly unemployed bankers carrying Iron Mountain file boxes filled with their belongings out through the revolving doors and into oblivion.
Against this backdrop, the New York Football Giants had somehow become an unexpected constant in my increasingly unsettled life. By that point in 2008, the Giants were not only defending Super Bowl champions; they’d also won it all by securing dramatic victories over Brett Favre’s Packers and the previously unbeaten New England Patriots. When they returned to the field in the fall, the Giants seemed neither overly fatigued from their championship run nor noticeably hampered by the retirement of star defensive end Michael Strahan. Instead, they rolled to a 10-1 record by Thanksgiving. It felt too good to last.
And it was. On the night after Thanksgiving, Burress and two of his teammates were being escorted up a stairwell toward the VIP lounge at a Manhattan club called Latin Quarter, capping an evening that had included stops at an Applebee’s in New Jersey and a strip club near the Javits Center. Burress stumbled on the dark steps, and the unholstered, unlicensed, loaded weapon he was carrying in the waist of his pants slipped and discharged into his thigh, barely missing his femoral artery. In the hours that followed, a security guard retrieved the gun and Burress checked into New York–Presbyterian/Weill Cornell hospital under the alias Harris Smith, but these measures only delayed the inevitable. Burress would ultimately be arrested on gun charges and serve 20 months in prison; he would never suit up for the Giants again.
In the weeks that followed the accident, his team wilted. After averaging 31.8 points in the five games before Thanksgiving weekend, the Giants averaged 19.6 without Burress in their final five, going 2-3 to close out the year. Worse, they lost at home to the rival Eagles in the playoffs, and a season that had once seemed poised to go down as a definitive triumph instead turned into a wistful hypothetical. When ESPN.com compiled a list of the best teams from each franchise that didn’t win Super Bowls, the 12-4 2008 Giants came in at no. 29. (The Patriots team they beat in Super Bowl XLII was ranked second.) Years later, when former coach Tom Coughlin was asked to reflect on that season in a YES Network interview, his answer was simple. “We were the best team in the NFL at the time of the shooting,” he said.
Considering all of this, I ought to have been incensed at Burress. But that isn’t what happened. Perhaps these long months of market chaos had recalibrated my emotions, or perhaps some combination of familiarity, empathy, and happy memories had worked to deaden my knee-jerk reflex. The way fans feel about athletes has always been like something out of a behavioral economics case study: So much seems irrational until you grow familiar with all the idiosyncratic variables involved.
On the first day of December, the Monday after the shooting, Mayor Michael Bloomberg was furious. In a press conference, he slammed the hospital physician who had neglected to report a gunshot wound to authorities as required by law (the doctor was, for a time, suspended); the Giants, for failing to proactively speak up about what had happened (Bloomberg said that the NYPD had learned of the incident through the media); and Burress, whose reckless handling of his loaded weapon had endangered everyone around him, even if he had been the only one injured. “Our children are getting killed with guns in the streets,” Bloomberg told reporters. “Our police officers are getting killed with guns in the hands of criminals.” He went on to make note of New York City’s strict gun sentencing laws. “I don’t think that anybody should be exempt from that,” he said, “and I think it’d be an outrage if we didn’t prosecute to the fullest extent of the law.”
Following Burress’s arraignment hearing that same day, his attorney Benjamin Brafman, who had gotten Sean Combs acquitted of gun and bribery charges after a 1999 nightclub brawl, told Burress about the mayor’s comments. But Burress didn’t immediately grasp the gravity of the situation. He didn’t know that one of Bloomberg’s most passionate causes was gun control; in fact, the name “Bloomberg” meant nothing to him at all.
In a piece he contributed last year to The Players’ Tribune titled “Letter to the NFL Draft Class,” Burress recalled his reaction to Brafman’s news. “I swear I said, ‘Who’s Mayor Bloomberg?’” Burress wrote. (He told the same story to Men’s Journal in 2012.) “That’s how little I knew about everything that was going on. Turns out he was the mayor of New York City, and he had zero tolerance for guns. He didn’t care about touchdowns or Super Bowl rings. He didn’t care who I was. He wanted to bring the hammer down on me.”
I’ll admit I resented that hammer. Earlier that fall, as Bloomberg came up on his final year in office, he had successfully lobbied to extend the term limits for elected city officials from two to three, citing the financial market chaos and the nascent recession as extraordinary catalysts for why he needed the chance to run again. Talking this tough with respect to Burress seemed like a too-easy way to project strength and earn low-hanging political points. So rather than respect a politician willing to stand by his convictions, I instead felt defensive of Burress, a man with no one to blame but himself. But why?
Because a year earlier, playing on an ankle so shredded that it almost kept him off the practice field, Burress nevertheless used his 6-foot-5 height, week after week, to snag even Eli Manning’s more imprecise passes. Because he tallied more than 1,000 receiving yards that year and hauled in 12 touchdowns, including two in the Giants’ Week 17 moral (if not actual) victory over New England. Because I had once read a whimsical article about how he and Manning liked to prank each other by stealing socks and hiding grapes in shoes.
Because while the classic image of Super Bowl XLII will always be David Tyree’s helmet catch, that miracle would have been lost to the sands of time had it not been for the way that 12-play, 83-yard drive concluded: with Manning finding Burress with separation in the end zone on a 13-yard slant. Because Burress’s only touchdown of that postseason turned out to be the one that won the Super Bowl, 17-14. Because it was an unseasonably warm night in New York City, and I watched the game snuggled under a blanket on a lawn chair atop my friend’s Upper East Side roof, and when it ended the building trembled, and the sounds of happy car horns below filled the February sky.
In other words, because I was the least impartial and most compromised judge of anything; because I was a fan.
The trajectory of Burress’s final year with the Giants was so eerily synced up with the state of the global economy that it’s impossible for me to look back on it without conjuring up visceral, frazzled memories of margin calls and Bernie Madoff and emergency loans and Jim Cramer losing his shit. Burress had his best days right around the top of the market, though in both cases there were various warning signs about the troubles that loomed. The fall of 2008 is when everything, everywhere, began to fall apart.
In Week 3 of the 2008 NFL season, the Giants beat the Bengals in overtime to improve to 3-0; two days later, Warren Buffett announced that he’d be investing $5 billion to shore up Goldman Sachs. An editor’s note that was later appended to a New York Times article about the deal explained that the newspaper had erred in referring to the bank as “ailing” on the front page, and that “‘embattled’ would have been a more accurate headline description of Goldman’s state.” (Reading it, you could just hear the angry phone call that must have preceded this correction; the question is whether that call came from Goldman, or from the government, or whether there was any meaningful difference.)
On the day after the Buffett announcement, the Giants suspended Burress for one game and their bye week for failing to show up for a team meeting. Around the same time, NorthJersey.com reported that Burress’s wife, Tiffany, had called the police to the couple’s Totowa, New Jersey, residence on two separate occasions over the summer, once related to a physical scuffle and once because Plaxico was playing music too loud. (No charges were filed, and temporary restraining orders obtained by Tiffany were dismissed.) When Burress rejoined the team October 6, he was not exactly contrite over his absence. “I haven’t lost any sleep,” he told reporters. “I am in great spirits. I enjoyed my week off. My team went out and played great yesterday without me.” He caught touchdown passes in the Giants’ next two games.
On November 4, I watched Barack Obama win the 2008 presidential election on a tiny, tinny, rabbit-eared TV set up in a subterranean bar called Botanica that was steps from my apartment. Once more, whoops and honks rang out up and down the city streets. I didn’t know yet that my roommate at the time would become a victim of downsizing and bolt abruptly to live with her parents, or that out of subsequent desperation, I would wind up living with a wantrepreneur friend-of-a-friend who, whenever asked what he did for a living, replied, “I’m a CEO.” It had been a difficult few months, with the market in constant free fall, and it was a fleeting relief to forget about it for a bit.
I was hungover the next morning and about an hour late to work; I rode up in the elevator with a colleague who had spent the previous day and night volunteering for the Obama campaign in swing-state Pennsylvania. He had taken a train from Philly that morning and hadn’t slept a wink. His eyes were wild, and his enthusiasm was genuinely moving. Thirty minutes later, he was giving me a rueful, can you believe this shit goodbye wave over his cubicle wall. He had walked in to discover he’d been laid off, and he wasn’t alone. People were being raptured by human resources left and right; every time the phone rang, we leftovers eyed the caller ID warily, not sure what was worse: hearing from HR or having to talk to our clients.
That weekend, in a 36-31 win over the Eagles, Burress caught a 17-yard touchdown pass. I didn’t know that it would be his last as a Giant.
Ten years later, it’s striking how little has changed—and not just because it is starting to feel like our society has leveraged, refinanced, and even straight-up scammed our way to another mangled iteration of prosperity that cannot possibly endure. It’s also that, when it comes to our conflicted entanglement with professional athletes, we remain as irrational and tribal as ever.
Sports fans are quite possibly the worst arbiters of right and wrong. Yet time and again we hastily jump to conclusions in high-profile cases involving athletes then act as though our overreactions or glib dismissals ought to constitute some sort of precedent, even though so much of the negotiating was done in bad faith. We are so good at assigning blame and so bad at aiming it; we have unlimited stores of forgiveness but have struggled to develop a system of distribution more nuanced than “that guy plays on my team.” We have so much experience at facing ugly, complicated scenarios like the Ray Rice video or the Ezekiel Elliott saga, but it seems like we make no lasting progress in grappling with them, and besides, our motivations are rarely pure. Really, our very celebration of a sport like football, with its many lasting and even deadly consequences for its participants, probably ought to disqualify us from weighing in on these cases at all, demonstrating as it does our prioritization of personal entertainment above whatever else.
For a long time, I tried to semi-defend Burress in a galaxy brain sort of way, always laying out circumstantial context for what had happened, making sure to point out that three days beforehand, his teammate Steve Smith had been held up at gunpoint outside Smith’s home; that the one-year anniversary of Burress’s friend Sean Taylor’s death in an armed robbery had just passed; and that Burress said he believed his weapon was registered in Florida. I noted that both Michael Vick and Donte Stallworth got shorter sentences than Burress did. I quoted Jemele Hill: “Why wasn’t the mayor as willing to stand on his soapbox when New York City police officers shot and killed Sean Bell?” she wrote a few days after Bloomberg’s remarks. “I also wonder,” she added, “why Bloomberg didn’t act this outraged after the American people were forced to bail out some of his Wall Street buddies because of their bad decisions?”
The more I think about it, though, I’m not so sure whether I ever actually had Burress’s interests in mind, or simply my own. I’m not proud at how quickly I wanted to find a loophole in the zero-tolerance gun laws I profess to support as soon as sweet, sweet touchdown catches were involved, though I’d hope to react differently now, a decade later. We live in an era when we constantly reckon with the acceptable parameters of separating proverbial artists from their art. But there’s no consistent rubric, and probably can never be, for processing the wrongdoings of the people we love, those with the gifts of writing perfect melodies or throwing perfect spirals, the ones who have, over the years, enthralled, inspired, and disappointed their fans.