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An unwilling role model

Ronald Mitchell
An unwilling role model

For young basketball fans like my sons, Ja Morant is a symbol of hope, an under-recruited kid out of high school who comes from a two-parent household in the small town of Dalzell, South Carolina. They have never seen anyone of his short and slight stature make such an immediate impact on the NBA at such a young age. Older fans will remember what Allen Iverson, who became a Hall of Famer despite his even slighter build, did as a rookie in 1996.

Morant, at only 6-foot-3 and 174 pounds, is proving to young basketball fans that it is possible to make it to the NBA and excel without being at least 6-foot-6 inches. Like Iverson, Morant won NBA Rookie of the Year honors and is on an early pace to reach the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.

His flashy passing and high-flying acrobatics have drawn countless fans from around the country over his first four seasons in the NBA and elevated him to a role model for youth. In cities all over the country, kids are wearing his Memphis Grizzlies jersey, planning to buy his new signature shoes due out next month, and aspiring to play his electric, fast-paced and entertaining style of basketball.

Morant’s recent off-court issues, however, may tarnish what was a squeaky-clean resume for a young player who has proven all the doubters wrong. The same way his amazing and breathtaking style of play and underdog story have influenced kids to continue to work hard at their dreams, his multiple incidents with guns could have an effect on youth, but a negative one this time.

During the early hours on March 4, a live video surfaced of Morant flashing a handgun in a strip club in suburban Glendale, Colorado. This video came only hours after the Memphis Grizzlies lost a road game to the Denver Nuggets. Morant’s 9 million followers on Instagram helped the video go viral in a matter of hours. Soon after league officials became aware of the video, Morant issued a public apology for his irresponsible actions and deactivated his Instagram and Twitter accounts.

Since that incident, two more altercations he was involved in last summer have been made public. Morant has been away from his team for the last eight games and, while he is set to return before the end of the season, no one in the Memphis organization has set a date for his return. It may never be clear how much influence Morant’s recent off-court antics have had on the country’s basketball-loving youth.

In an era when gun violence is too prevalent and mass shootings occur at a rate of more than one a day, someone of his status should be using social media platforms to promote taking guns off the streets, not showing them off in a strip joint. His misguided, thoughtless display amounted to the kind of glamorization of handguns that contributes to shootings and needless premature deaths of youth in Black communities.

In one way, Morant should aspire not to be like Iverson, who was imprisoned for his involvement in a melee even before he graduated from high school, although the circumstances of his arrest, conviction and sentencing smacked of the racial bias all too common in the criminal justice system. Early in his stellar pro career, Iverson was arrested on assault and weapons charges after he kicked his wife out of the house and allegedly threatened two men with a gun while searching for her afterwards. All but misdemeanor charges were later dropped.

Another Hall of Famer, Charles Barkley, broke a man’s nose during a fight following one game and was once arrested for throwing another man through a plate-glass window. At least no guns were involved in those two incidents. Famously, or perhaps not, Barkley declared, as a way to deflect the impact of his action: “I am not a role model.”

But he and other star Black athletes are, whether they want to be or not. That’s just how it is, so they should be cognizant of that fact in their behavior, particularly in public or in social media feeds, which have a broad reach. Although Barkley is still a bit of a blowhard, since his playing career ended, he has become a sports commentator who presents himself on television as a dignified Black man who fights his battles with well-chosen words.

So, to Ja Morant and all the other young Black professional athletes: Know that you have Black kids looking up to you, wanting to one day live out their own hoop dreams as you are now. Give them a blueprint to follow that sets them up for success, not only on the court, but away from the game as well.