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“Mayor of Pickleball” Having Court Troubles & Potential Felony Charges

Strategy & Technique Frank Cerabino 04-04-2022

The biggest pickleball story in Denver these days is happening in a court of law.

Arslan Guney, a 71-year-old pickleball evangelist, who is known as “The Mayor of Pickleball” among the group of players at Denver’s Central Park Recreation Center, landed in jail recently in a case that has spawned national headlines and highlighted the sometimes all-too-common tension created by the increasing popularity of the sport.

"Mayor of Pickleball" Faces Felony Charges for Markings on Court | Pickler Pickleball

The city’s parks and recreation department calls what Guney did felony criminal mischief. Guney calls it lending a helping hand.

Whatever it is, it speaks to a problem of a sport that’s growing so fast that it’s putting a strain on communities to find new places for ever-growing numbers of pickleballers.

Guney, a retired civil engineer who once worked for Vlasic Pickles, has been the point person among an active and restless group of players. They’ve been lobbying Denver parks and recreation officials to put permanent pickleball lines on the wooden floor of a multi-purpose gymnasium that is currently focused on providing space for volleyball and basketball players.

The Central Park gym has permanent red lines for basketball and white lines for volleyball. The spacious floor would have room to accommodate six pickleball courts oriented sideways from the basketball court.

But adding permanent pickleball lines to the gym floor would be too disorienting, contends John Martinez, the deputy manager of the parks and recreation department.

“The reasoning for not painting these lines is that the primary use of the gym is for basketball and volleyball — and that adding extra lines would create confusion and potential errors for those participants,” Martinez wrote Guney.

Martinez also rejected the idea of marking the pickleball court with temporary taped lines that can be removed when the floor is used for other sports.

“We avoid putting down taped lines because the tape eventually must be removed because it deteriorates, and it damages the floor when it’s removed,” Martinez wrote.

The city refinished the gym’s wood floors in 2020, and added two additional coats of lacquer on it last year.

Martinez suggested that the pickleball players play elsewhere at one of the other recreation centers that the city already has lined for pickleball.

But the pickleballers wanted to use their local Central Park gym, and a compromise of sorts had been reached. They were granted access only if they used the throw-down L-shaped, and dash-shaped rubber mats — 3 inches wide by 12 inches long — to mark the edges and key spots of the courts.

"Mayor of Pickleball" Faces Felony Charges for Markings on Court | Pickler Pickleball

It’s not ideal, Guney pointed out in an email he wrote to city officials in January.

“Unfortunately, these rubber pieces are seriously inappropriate for playing the game because of serious safety concerns. They don’t stay in place, and the ends of these pieces curl up,” he wrote.

“The players, many of whom are older, constantly face the risk of tripping and falling because the strips do not stay in place and constantly have to be straightened out and adjusted.”

Martinez wrote back that permanent pickleball lines weren’t an option in that gym due to the recent refinishing and sealing of the gym floor.

“It will be at least 5 years before the floor requires additional work, so that would be the soonest we could add permanent lines,” he wrote Guney. 

The city had allowed the pickleballers to play Mondays and Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. using portable nets and the throw-down rubber boundary markers.

Guney, meanwhile, continued to lobby for greater access.

And on March 9 he thought he had a breakthrough. He got recreation center officials to attend a meeting with him to discuss the future of pickleball in the Central Park gym.

After the meeting, Guney sent Martinez an email to thank him for the meeting and to say how happy he was with its results.

“It was a very productive meeting, and we are encouraged with your commitment to the future of Pickleball at the Central Park Rec Center as well as the Central Park community,” Guney wrote.

As part of his understanding from the meeting, Guney wrote that the city was going to look into adding Friday mornings for pickleball at the gym and using the staff to help set up the nets prior to each day’s play.

There was something else too. And this is what led to the trouble: Guney also wrote that he would “provide drawings for the pickleball court nets and strip setup locations” to one of the parks and recreation supervisors.

Seth Howsden, the recreation director, wrote back to Guney to thank him.

“It was a pleasure meeting you and your fellow pickleball aficionados,” Howsden wrote. “I appreciate your passion for the game … it is a lot of fun!”

Guney said he took that as a license to map out the gym floor and mark all the corners of the court with a Sharpie to show how the orientation of six pickleball courts would fit on the gym floor.

The markings would assist the rec center staff in setting up the courts prior to each session, he imagined.

On the following Monday after the regularly scheduled pickleball session, Guney stayed behind to map out the gym floor. Sometime last year, the gym’s staff had placed small “X’s” written in black marker on some points of the floor that marked pickleball court boundaries.

Guney asked and received a permanent black marker from the gym staff and drew small rectangles around those existing marks, and added other boxes.

In all, he drew 45 small rectangles with sides of no more than a few inches long on the gym floor. They were small enough so that a casual observer might easily not notice them.

"Mayor of Pickleball" Faces Felony Charges for Markings on Court | Pickler Pickleball

Two days later, Guney learned from a Denver police detective that he was banned from the gym and accused of committing a felony by making those markings.

Guney sent an email to the recreation center staff to say he was “shocked and saddened” to learn he was being accused of committing a crime.

“I am not a criminal …” he wrote. “I have never damaged anything in my life.”

“The floor was previously marked back in the fall by the previous supervisor at the time,” he wrote. “The Rec center staff and pickleball players have been using these markings every week, when they set up the courts to lay down the yellow strips.

“On Monday, I simply asked the front desk for a marker to refresh the markings and added a few,” he continued. “This was an unintentional honest mistake.”

The city said those small boxes would have to be removed in a process that would involve stripping the entire gym floor at a cost of nearly $10,000.

The rec center staff also decided to punish the rest of the players, posting a notice on the door that read, “Pickleball is cancelled until further notice.”

"Mayor of Pickleball" Faces Felony Charges for Markings on Court | Pickler Pickleball

The pickleball community rallied behind Guney, and within a few days the story was featured on the local news and drawing national attention from The Washington Post and other news outlets.

One of the local avid pickleball players, Holland Hoskins, is a lawyer. She took on representing Guney pro bono in an effort to get the city to drop the prosecution.

"Mayor of Pickleball" Faces Felony Charges for Markings on Court | Pickler Pickleball

“Denver Parks and Rec is declaring war against pickleball,” Hoskins told The Pickler. “This was an old guy thinking he was helping. There was no attempt to ruin the floor.

“I’ve got contractors telling me they can fix this, and you don’t need to resurface the whole gym floor.”

Hoskins said the pickleballers would do what it takes to raise the money to fix the floor. And that Guney would be happy to do hours of community service as part of a settlement. Many local pickleballers chimed in by writing letters in support of Guney.

“This very unfortunate episode has shaken Arslen — and the entire Central Park pickleball community — to the core,” one letter writer wrote. “He made a mistake, really an innocent mistake. It is simply unbelievable to any of us that his act of marking the gym floor could be construed as ‘criminal.’

“Everyone who has had even minimal contact with Arslan in his role as unofficial volunteer pickleball instructor knows how selflessly he has given his time, energy, and support to encourage people to play,” the letter continues. “And as we all know, play is very important, especially to older people, who have endured a great deal of social isolation in the past two years.”

In response, city officials issued a prepared statement justifying its stance to prosecute Guney.

It is our duty and responsibility to the citizens of Denver to protect city assets and public property,” the statement said. “Defacing or damaging public property is unacceptable, a criminal offense and will not be tolerated in any of our public buildings or spaces.”

The Denver Police issued an arrest warrant for Guney on March 17. He turned himself into jail, where he was booked and eventually released on bond with the help of his lawyer.

In the affidavit for the arrest warrant, Det. Jay Spitzer noted that he approached Martinez at the recreation center and indicated that Guney had offered to “come to an agreement” about the marks that didn’t involve criminal charges.

Martinez told the detective, “I’m not interested in meeting with Mr. Guney. We want to move forward with charges, as his actions caused significant damage to our gym floor and will cost the city thousands of dollars to repair,” the arrest affidavit detailed.

Martinez also notified the detective that the parks and recreation supervisors already met with the city attorney’s office and stated, “We are moving forward with pressing charges,” the arrest warrant affidavit said.

It included an estimate from a flooring company that it would cost $9,344.58 to remove the markings and reseal the floor.

Martinez also sent Gunay a “notification of change of membership status” letter that suspended his membership indefinitely to any Denver recreation program in a city park or gym.

“As of this date of this letter, if you visit any center or any park or area where a program is taking place, this will be considered trespassing, and staff has been instructed to contact the Denver Police Department,” the notification says.

There are signs, though, that the tense conditions are beginning to thaw.

After closing the Central Park gym to pickleball for a week, the city reopened the gym for pickleball.

Meanwhile, Gunay’s case lingers, as he waits to see whether the local prosecutor’s office will agree to present the case in state criminal court.

The felony charge of criminal mischief is punishable by up to three years in state prison, although without a criminal record, Gunay, if convicted, would likely face a milder sentence.

"Mayor of Pickleball" Faces Felony Charges for Markings on Court | Pickler Pickleball

On March 29, Denver District Attorney Beth McCann, issued a statement that seemed to be nudging the sides toward an amicable settlement rather than a felony trial.

“My office has not charged Mr. Arslan Guney with any criminal counts regarding the pickleball incident with Denver Parks and Recreation,” the statement reads. “At my suggestion, the parties will attempt to resolve this matter through mediation with a city mediator. I am optimistic that by sitting down and working out a mutually-agreeable solution, this matter can be solved amicably.”

The way Guney’s lawyer sees it, this whole “pickleball goof-up” is a classic case of overreaction that’s emblematic in the kind of friction that can pop up as pickleball becomes more popular and players seek more access and venues to play.

“We need to take this case as an example and figure out how to better work with our council people, or legislators and our parks and rec people,” Hoskins said. “Some people think we’re obnoxious because the demand is so strong.

“We’re always asking for more courts,” she said. “People who aren’t used to it might look at us as a whiny group.”

“They don’t understand pickleball,” Hoskins said. “This wasn’t a guy who was mad who was trying to ruin the floor. This was a guy who was trying to help.”

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