The Gilbert Arenas Fiasco: How the Washington Wizards and NBA tried to handle the situation

I’ve opened up the vault again and pulling out one that would be funny if it wasn’t so sad. The Gilbert Arenas fiasco from December of 2009. This was one of those seminal moments in Twitter where people following Gilbert Arenas saw him go crazy online. Here is the paper I wrote that talks about how the Wizards and the NBA tried to handle the situation.

The Gilbert Arenas Fiasco: How the Washington Wizards and NBA tried to handle the situation

             As the calendar was flipping from 2009 to 2010 Gilbert Arenas gave the Washington Wizards and the National Basketball Association a public relations nightmare as a bad incident that could have been rectified in the eyes of the public fairly easily was made worse and worse by following actions by Gilbert Arenas.

                Gilbert Arenas brought a gun to practice in December of 2009. If that’s where it would have stopped this wouldn’t be that big of a story.  Arenas then apologized in a statement that was clearly not written by him. A few days after it was reported, it was discovered that Arenas was involved in an armed standoff with teammate Javaris Crittenton a few days prior to the gun being discover Arenas’ locker in the Verizon Center. Arenas proceeded to create a Twitter account and started telling jokes on it while tweeting almost constantly rather than lying low. Arenas then retracted his apology. Finally during a pregame huddle on the court before playing the Philadelphia 76ers, Arenas did a mock “stick-up” of his teammates with his fingers as weapons. Then he responded with a non-apology on Twitter (Berger, 2009).

Story, History and Issue

On Thursday, December 24, 2009 Ken Berger of reported that the NBA and the Washington Wizards were investigating an incident claiming Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas had firearms stored in his locker at the Verizon Center which would be a direct violation of league rules. Arenas was suspended for a game during the 2004-05 season for breaking a similar rule (Steinberg, 2010). The Washington Wizards had recently suffered the loss of their longtime owner Abe Pollin who died a month earlier. Pollin, possibly best known for firing Michael Jordan in 2003, moved his basketball team and hockey team, the Washington Capitals, to a new arena he built with his own money in downtown Washington when a lot of people feared the area because of the gun violence. He also changed the name of his basketball team from the “Bullets” to the “Wizards” to shy away from the association Washington had with gun violence (Blackistone, 2009).

A few days later it was released that the gun had become known when Arenas pulled a prank on his teammate Javaris Crittenton, on December 21. The details got murkier when the witnesses to the incident said Crittenton also pulled a gun and it appeared Arenas was lying to investigators (Wojnarowski, 2010).

Arenas issued an apology from his lawyers that while it sounded good as an apology, it was very apparent that Arenas didn’t write it (Lee, Arenas statement on gun incident, 2010). This apology looked even worse when Gilbert Arenas opened up a Twitter account that exploded in the number of followers in a few days.  Arenas claimed the incident was a joke on Twitter and also started telling other jokes (Talmazan, 2010).

As the apology started to look more and more insincere as the investigation was still ongoing, Arenas used his hand to simulate sticking up teammates before a game against the Philadelphia 76ers. The image was released to the media and Arenas proceeded to joke about the incident on Twitter saying, “I know everybody seen the pre game teammate thought to break the tention we should do that..but this is gettn way to much,” followed by, “I wanna say sorry if I pissed any body off by us havin fun…I’m sorry for anything u need to blame for for right now..” (Steinberg, 2010). At this point the NBA decided to suspend Gilbert Arenas indefinitely about 15 days after the story broke that Gilbert Arenas had guns in the locker room.

The issue of an athlete having firearms in the locker room isn’t foreign. The National Basketball Association has a rule against athletes bringing firearms to the arena. There are two things that make this instance stand out more than others including Gilbert Arenas previous gun charge in California in 2003. One, Gilbert Arenas behavior after the incident while the investigation was going on was nothing short than a complete and total nightmare for the Washington Wizards and the NBA. Arenas did just about everything the public relations teams would not want him doing in this situation. Two, the city it happened in and the organization it happened to. Washington is notorious for gun violence.  A few weeks prior to this incident the Supreme Court struck down the strictest gun control law in the nation that was being used in Washington D.C. The Wizards owner, as mentioned earlier tried to shy away from gun violence by changing the name of the team in the mid-1990s.

Issue Management

The Washington Wizards were most likely prepared for this type of incident. Gilbert Arenas plead no contest for failing to properly register a hand gun in 2003 while he was with the Golden State Warriors (Lee, Wizards’ Arenas investigated for gun possession, 2009).

Knowing this, the Wizards had to have anticipated this type of situation. They also appeared to analyze the situation thoroughly as they were not hasty in their decision making releasing statements with false accusations in them.

The Wizards appeared to have a united front on the situation. After the first statement from the organization was released on Christmas no one in the organization would comment further on it. This move led to a successful suppression of rumors. While rumors still circulated the source was not coming from the Wizards organization. They were also united with the NBA who decided not to punish Arenas until the investigation was complete; this was until the Arenas circus act went too far.

Both the Wizards and the NBA wanted the focus of the public to be on the games and the athletes on the court, not the athletes off of it. In this regard there were few statements from both and the hope was to keep the public occupied by the play on the floor. The allowing of a marquee player like Gilbert Arenas to play was part of this. Without him on the floor the Wizards are a different team and every night he isn’t out there is a reminder of this incident. Trying to operate as normally as possibly was what the NBA and the Wizards tried to do and they hoped the fans would do likewise.


Organization Position and Communication

The National Basketball Association stood still as this whole saga unfolded. While the National Football League under current commissioner Roger Goodell often acts quickly and administers swift discipline for any accusation of wrongdoing, the NBA under David Stern has always waited until due process played out by the proper authorities before administering their own punishment. The NBA likewise told the Washington Wizards to wait to take action until the investigation was complete. For two weeks that was the case until the picture of Gilbert Arenas appearing to “stick-up” his teammates in a pregame huddle before playing the Philadelphia 76ers hit the media.  Less than 24 hours later David Stern released a statement saying Arenas was suspended indefinitely without pay (Iovono, 2010). After each compounding incident occurred, both NBA and the Washington Wizards maintained that they were letting the investigation play out. But the actions before a game in front of everyone drew the last straw.

The move to keep the incident out of the limelight while the investigation was an attempt to avoid two image bruises instead of one. This comes to light is one hailstorm. Then when the investigation is done and the punishments are handed out is another. By attempting to lessen this one and just suffer the brunt on the second one appeared to be a smart idea but it failed when Arenas would not go into hiding.

Two Affected Publics and Their Desired Behavior

Originally the affected publics were just the active and aware publics of the Washington Wizards, such as fans, ticket holders and sponsors. On Christmas Day they really were the only ones who cared since their team’s star player may be getting suspended. The fact it was announced on Christmas Eve caused it to be somewhat overlooked so a lot of people were not even aware of the incident. That all started to change as Arenas made action after on top of action that compounded the problem. (Iovono, 2010).

As the days wore on more and more people heard about the story. The fact that it was new news coming out every day made more people more likely to listen rather than the same story being rehashed over and over again. A grand jury was convened for the investigation and even non-basketball fans in Washington and basketball fans and non-basketball fans around the country were noticing the chaos that was taking place around Gilbert Arenas and the Washington Wizards.

As of Christmas Day the desired behavior for the affected publics which was fairly small at this point was to move on with their day. The Wizards said very little in their press release that appeared in the Washington Post. Just that they learned of the situation and have notified and are cooperating with proper authorities (Lee, Wizards’ Arenas investigated for gun possession, 2009).

As things were escalating the desired behavior started to change as more publics were being affected. When the NBA eventually put a stop to things there was a decidedly different behavior wanted from the affected publics. The NBA wanted public to know that the kind of behavior by Arenas was not going to be tolerated and that he would be dealt with. When Arenas stayed in the limelight during the investigation instead of lying low for a while the NBA suspended him indefinitely in the hopes that by not seeing Arenas the public would forget all about the incident.

Reputation Drivers

The Wizards held social responsibility and emotional appeal in the city of Washington as the reputation drivers of the brand. Their emotional appeal rests on the fact that they are the sole NBA team in the Baltimore-Washington area. Their social responsibility is unique among the NBA for the lengths they go to stand up against gun violence.

One of the biggest reputation drivers of the Washington Wizards is social responsibility toward trying to prevent gun violence. Abe Pollin, the former owner even went so far as to changing the name of the team from the “Bullets” to the “Wizards” in an effort to dispel to image of gun violence. This was the first time a major professional sports team changed their name without changing the city they were in since the Houston Colt .45s become the Houston Astros in 1965 (Blackistone, 2009). Wizards were forced to take a stand against the gun charges against Arenas so as to not look hypocritical on their stance against gun violence.

The Wizards also had emotional appeal with city of Washington D.C. Abe Pollin brought the city of Washington two major pro sports teams in moving the Baltimore Bullets to Washington in 1973 and by founding the Washington Capitals in 1974. Pollin also refused excepting tax money for building stadiums both in 1973 with the building of the Capital Centre and the building of the Verizon Center in 1997. Before Pollin came around the only major sports team in the nation’s capital was the Washington Redskins after the Washington Senators baseball team left town for Dallas in 1971. (Blackistone, 2009). The appeal of the Wizards being entrenched in the community and the concerns of both were thrown into question as a community concerned with gun violence saw the potential forming in their professional basketball team.


Message and Objective of the PR Campaign

The message that was sent by both the NBA and the Washington Wizards was that this is a very serious matter.  While both waited for the investigation took place both were watching Arenas carefully and not condoning his actions. When Arenas started to fake sticking up teammates in NBA arenas the NBA finally made good on their indications that this was a serious matter and suspended Arenas without pay before the investigation was completed.

The channels used to deliver the message were news releases to the media and news conferences. Both were limited as to not detract from the play of the Wizards on the court which was what the Wizards wanted the media to focus on.

The campaign would have worked had Arenas done the prudent thing and tried to keep a low profile as the rest of the investigation took place and try not to ruffle too many feathers. The lack of statements about the incident by the NBA and the Washington Wizards also suggested the desire for a low profile. However, Arenas Twitter account and quasi-apology destroyed the original objective.

Eventually David Stern had to step up and end the fiasco by suspending Arenas without pay as allowing him to continue to play allowed him to stay in the limelight far too much for the NBA or Wizards to be comfortable with.

Assessing the PR Campaign

If this had ended Christmas Day it would be a much easier public relations campaign to assess. But as the days wore on it became more complex and a good PR campaign turned tougher as Arenas was doing everything the public relations team at the Washington Wizards and the NBA was hoping he wouldn’t.

As of Christmas Day I thought the campaign was being well run. The Washington Wizards saying it was a serious matter and Gilbert Arenas will be punished. They also gave reasoning for why there was no danger because there was no ammunition in the guns and Arenas had an admirable reason for having the guns at the Verizon Center because he wanted them out of the house and away from his children. As a nothing to see here, move on with your day I think the campaign was well run.

As for the end with suspending Arenas I agree it was the right move but I feel it came too late. The NBA eventually said that “Arenas was unfit to take the court.”  It looked pretty evident that by the Tweets he was posting he was unfit for any position where he is in the public eye. Arenas was the face of the Wizards before this with his $111 million, six year contract (Berger, 2009). I think they moved a week to slow. I like the concept of waiting until the investigation played out before giving out a punishment. I think it is one of the mistakes of the NFL how they act without knowing all of the facts. But in this case I believe the Washington Wizards and the NBA should have acted sooner because the investigation was taking too long and every night Arenas was on the court in a Wizards uniform was another black eye for the league and the Wizards including the humiliating photo of Arenas sticking up his teammates in the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia.

The news release by the league was good in my opinion for addressing that the indefinite suspension isn’t really a part of the punishment for the matter but rather there will be a punishment handed down when the investigation is completed (Iovono, 2010).

It rather effectively settled the matter. With Arenas not playing anymore he wasn’t talked about nearly as much and when the investigation finally wrapped up; his suspension and fine were little more than a ten second spot on Sportscenter instead of being a constant media circus.


All things considered the Washington Wizards and the NBA handled the situation as well as they could have. Even the best issue management planning couldn’t have foreseen a grown man acting like Gilbert Arenas did while a grand jury was convening for the investigation into his behavior. If Arenas would have acted like a normal human being the public relations campaign would have gone smoothly and there would have been few problems. Thanks to Arenas that didn’t happen but the media firestorm eventually died down and it is currently business as usual for the Wizards.

Works Cited

Berger, K. (2009, December 24). Wizards’ Arenas target of gun possession probe. Retrieved November 6, 2010, from

Blackistone, K. (2009, November 25). Abe Pollin built more than the Wizards. Retrieved November 6, 2010, from Fanhouse:

Iovono, J. (2010, January 7). “Arenas not currently fit to take the court”:NBA. Retrieved November 6, 2010, from NBC Washington:

Lee, M. (2009, December 25). Wizards’ Arenas investigated for gun possession. Retrieved November 6, 2010, from Washington Post:

Lee, M. (2010, January 4). Arenas statement on gun incident. Retrieved November 6, 2010, from Washington Post:

Steinberg, D. (2010, January 6). Why Arenas was unfit to take the court. Retrieved November 6, 2010, from Washington Post:

Talmazan, Y. (2010, January 8). Gilbert Arenas Twitter Account Deleted: Did the NBA make him do it? Retrieved November 6, 2010, from Now Public:

Wojnarowski, A. (2010, January 1). Arenas probe centers on lockerroom standoff. Retrieved November 6, 2010, from Yahoo Sports:


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