Keith Strudler: The Spoils Of A Star's Life
There’s good news for Philadelphia 76ers rookie center Jahlil Okafor. First, his team finally got their first win of the season last night, beating the also hapless Los Angeles Lakers to bring their record to 1-18. That puts them one win ahead of the Lakers for the all-important top spot in the NBA draft lottery, which seems to be the 6ers title every year now.
Second, Okafor now can travel the nightclub circuit in confidence, since he will be accompanied at all times by a personal security guard. This comes after a series of incidents between him and various fans, for lack of a better term. The most recent came outside a Boston nightclub after a loss to the Celtics. After some ill spirited heckling about the relative accomplishment of the 76ers, words escalated to Okafor knocking the guy out, which, I'm guessing a lot of people might secretly believe he deserved. All that was caught on video and will probably be coming to courtroom near you. Earlier, Okafor got into a late night spat that ended with someone pulling out a gun. And there was the case of Okafor driving his car 108 miles an hour over the Ben Franklin Bridge. So he could use a driver as well.
While a multimillionaire and someone in a position of clear prominence, Jahlil Okafor is still a 19 year old. And one with unimaginable scrutiny and entitlement. So while most 19 year olds might make poor decisions, they come with far lesser stakes and consequences. It's often said that god gives us only what we can handle. I'm not so sure God considered an 82 game NBA rookie schedule in that assessment.
There will be many in the general sports landscape that crucify Okafor for his undeniably immature, and potentially dangerous behavior. As much as we marginalize and rationalize certain acts in the vernacular of “boys will be boys,” the reality is that any one of the aforementioned transgressions could have gotten someone killed – and not just Jahlil. So the scrutiny he’s getting is certainly in-bounds, to steal a sports phrase. Most of the rhetoric will focus on how he’s wasting such a great opportunity, or he doesn’t know how lucky he is, or anything that frames this saga from a comparative perspective. In other words, I have to go work every day, and I don’t get paid millions a year to play ball, and I stay out of trouble. Those thoughts are understandable, but fairly unrealistic. It’s like getting angry at birds because they can fly for free. Jahlil Okafor, and all NBA prodigies, live a far different life with different skills and responsibilities. So comparing his life to ours is like doing a Civil War reenactment. In the end, it’s just not the real thing.
But these offenses do raise obvious questions. Including one that’s on the table at the NBA commissioner’s office as we speak – namely, when are you ready for the spoils of the professional sports life? As is, athletes need to be at least one year clear of high school, which is exactly what Jahlil Okafor is, having spent one year with the Duke Blue Devils, helping guide them to a national title last season and generating lots of money for everyone but himself. So when the opportunity to change that came, which it did, Okafor jumped at the chance to be a top 3 draft pick – going after two other underclassmen. And, let’s be honest, it’s virtually impossible to blame him for doing the exact same thing we all do given the chance. NBA commissioner Adam Silver seems to want that to change now to two years out of high school, which would mean Okafor would limit his mistakes to college towns – and with considerably less disposable income. While I disagree with this on principle, it’s hard to doubt the maturity an extra year could provide – even if it’s morally wrong.
Then there’s also the question of how much should we penalize a guy like Jahlil Okafor? There’s a common belief that athletes get of easy, as they say. Should they go to jail like everyone else – or do they already?
The answers to these quandaries are hard, if not impossible, because they exist in the larger framework of athletic idolatry – where our society irrationally lauds, abuses, and overcompensates our greatest physical stars. Grade school is a job interview and college is a world tour. Your work place is a 20,000 seat arena, and you can’t open an Internet browser without seeing your face – and some choice words. That, more than anything, is why history repeats itself. And why a 19 year old with seeming everything can’t even act as mature as, say, a 12 year old. And that is not good news for the Philadelphia 76ers, or anyone else in sports for that matter.
Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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