This may be a difficult concept to grasp for some, but believe it or not, professional athletes are human beings just like the rest of us. They do their grocery shopping at Stop and Shop. They get gas at Cumberland Farms. They might even stay up until 2 a.m. binge-watching Netflix.
Professional athletes are more than just objects of entertainment – there’s more to their lives than what they do on the court, field and ice. Once they take that uniform off, throw on some street clothes and leave that arena, they are subject to the same perils of society as the rest of us.
The Philadelphia 76ers’ Jahlil Okafor has given us a handful of examples in just the past week: he was involved in a street-fight in Boston following a game against the Celtics. A leaked video courtesy of TMZ showed the 19-year-old pushing and exchanging words with a man much smaller than him (for perspective, Okafor stands in at 6-foot-11). The Duke University product was also cited for driving 108 miles per hour over the Ben Franklin Bridge in Philadelphia in October. Several reports have shown that Okafor has used a fake I.D. to get into various bars and nightclubs. On Wednesday, he was handed a two-game suspension from Philadelphia.
If this were any other 19-year-old, these stories wouldn’t even sniff the news. Bar hopping, speeding and fights are to be expected of an immature teenager at times. But for the building block of a professional sports franchise, someone who’s expected to be the face of a team?
Ladies and gentleman, we’ve got ourselves a scandal.
Upon the news of the street fight in Boston, fingers were pointed – but not at Okafor.
“That fan shouldn’t have provoked him!” some shouted.
“That’s what the 76ers get for having no veteran presence on their team!” another group raved (the average age of Philadelphia’s roster is 23.3-years-old, for the record).
Oh, please. Is a veteran presence necessary to tell someone not to drive 100 miles per hour, or not to get in back-alley brawls in an era where everyone is so fast to start recording it? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to attack Okafor’s character, because I’m not naïve enough to believe he’s the only young athlete doing these things. He’s 19, I understand that. He’s not an adult – no person his age is. But, there is that expected tag of a “public figure” where the spotlight is on him, especially when he’s one of the youngest stars in the NBA. There’s a level of accountability.
But on the flip side, I’m not going to blame the 76ers for not providing a role model for the 19-year-old. But I’m going to hold the team accountable in another way: reign Okafor, and the rest of your players in, somehow, someway. I commend the organization for suspending their best player on the heels of their first win. But as an organization, you have to go deeper than just that. Make your organization friendlier towards young players – find him that role model if that’s what you need to do.
The NBA is accountable, too. In today’s sporting world, we see leagues turning blind eyes to their player’s mishaps, or not doing enough about them – the NBA can change that. I’m not suggesting you kick the kid out of the league, but put some sort of program in place to help young players enter the league.
Players like Okafor, in a two-year span, go from high school to being multi-millionaire athletes, and it’s not always a flawless transition. The NBA can do something about that. The teams can do something about that, but most importantly, the player themselves should be working on that.