COMMENTARY | Are athletes naive? Are they about to become even more detached from the general public because of that?
When Mantei Te'o was duped by an Internet dating scam that went public nearly a year ago, it drew national attention from the time of his initial announcement that his grandmother and what turned out to be pseudo girlfriend had both passed away within hours of each other.
In the days leading up to the BCS National Championship game, in which Te'o and the undefeated Notre Dame football team were to play for college football's holy grail in South Florida, the Fighting Irish linebacker began to discover he was duped in the final days of his amateur status before he would embark on a professional career in sports.
Now another scam of a different kind involving professional athletes has ties to the South Florida area.
According to a story originally published in Sports Illustrated, former Miami Heat shooting forward Mike Miller and current Heat forward Rashard Lewis and guard James Jones were among the victims of a reported multi-million dollar real estate scam involving Haider Zafar, who moved from Ohio to South Florida. Zafar pleaded not guilty to all charges.
With an ongoing investigation still unraveling, it was reported Miller and other South Floridians invested $8 million with Zafar, who awaits trial on wire fraud and other charges. Zafar was indicted on 135 counts of fooling a Washington, D.C., businessman Patwinder Sidhu out of $10 million between 2008 and 2010.
The complaint describes Zafar, a Pakistinian with legal U.S. residency status, as using questionable documents to solicit funds from Sidhu for real estate ventures in Pakistan. According to reports, Zafar told Sidhu his uncle was Pakistan's defense minister, and was responsible for purchasing property for his native country's government. The complaint goes on to say Zafar told Sidhu they could buy land in Pakistan and then sell it to the government for profit.
How the Miami Heat players got mixed up in all this is beyond bizarre. It is another example of where money-making motives can sometimes lead to mishap. The fact that the Heat players were victims isn't necessarily far-fetched so much as it is bewildering. Professional athletes with loads of money make decisions all the time to invest cash in hopes of profiting. Some work out. Some don't.
But is there a bigger problem here than an athlete with a feel-good story such as Miller, amnestied by the Heat and no longer a member of the team, being swindled out of money? Are all athletes who have more money than they'll ever need naive in many ways because they can be known to spend so carelessly while others with very little scrape to get by or even suffer?
Does this problem run even deeper than that? Are the sick and twisted now seeking athletes because they see dollar signs, seek their "15 minutes of fame" connection to these athletes and then realize they can get away with things once they've "buddied up?" Stories like this certainly makes athletes look like the "dumb" targets.
Will these types of instances further alienate the free-spending athlete from the outside world?
Maybe. Maybe not.
One thing is for sure: athletes come ready-whipped with egos, especially at the highest levels. They believe they've been blessed with special talents, and that gives them special privileges. They're often accused of snubbing autograph seekers, electing not to saying hello to general strangers and turning their heads on those who look up to or, in some ways, envy them.
The world isn't a fair place. Not with how society is run. But when an athlete gets scammed or wronged, it gets more magnified than, say, if it were to happen to the common person.
What becomes of this particular story won't be revisited the way the chronicles of Te'o's time warp trials into online dating may be still hovering over the San Diego Chargers linebacker, who, by the way, is listed No. 1 on the team's depth chart. But that's not to say it will be forgotten by NBA players and other athletes alike.
Internet or investment scam, it doesn't matter. Do an athlete wrong, and it never spells Christmas. It's sad to think how the course of a few events can change the attitude and actions of others for good.
Let's just hope today's athletes become a little wiser about the decisions they make so the general public can still feel a connection to something that gives us pleasure and joy. Because life without sports, now that would be the royal scam.
Jim McCurdy is a freelance sports writer based in Miami. He has written for major publications around the country. Follow him on Twitter at @irishcurds.
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