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Urban Rhythms

Hoops, Baby

By Wiley Hall III | Posted 5/6/1998

Did you catch the May 4 issue of Sports Illustrated magazine? If not, too bad--it's quite a hell-raiser.

The cover features a grim-faced toddler clutching a basketball. "Where's Daddy?" the headline reads.

"Pro athletes have fathered startling numbers of out-of-wedlock children," the cover blurb states. "One NBA star has seven by six women. Paternity cases have disrupted teams. What's happening and what does it mean for the kids left behind?"

Although writers Grant Wahl and L. Jon Werthein take pains to acknowledge that the problem involves other ethnic groups and other sports, the photographs selected and the examples used in the text of the story make it clear that this issue seems most acute in the National Basketball Association, where most of the players are black.

"For numbers I would guess that one out-of-wedlock child for every player is a good ballpark figure," Len Elmore, a former University of Maryland and NBA star and now a sports agent, told SI. "For every player with none, there's a guy with two or three."

This association between fatherless children and black athletes is one reason we can expect hoopla over the magazine's special report. And that uproar would be justified. The media has an obligation to be balanced and fair. For example, the story reports that 70 percent of African-American children are born out of wedlock. As near as I can determine from area sociologists, this is inaccurate. According to the latest census, 70 percent of African-American children live in single-parent households, which is not quite the same thing.

But the story raises another issue, and that issue is every bit as important as the continuation of unfair stereotypes. I am speaking of the responsibility--or rampant irresponsibility--of certain individuals who happen to be black.

The magazine lists an NBA All-Paternity team of current and former players who have had children out of wedlock and have subsequently been the subject of paternity-related suits: Larry Bird (who is white), Patrick Ewing, Juwan Howard, Jason Kidd, Stephon Marbury, Hakeen Olajuwon, and Isiah Thomas.

There's Larry Johnson of the New York Knicks, who has fathered children with a 28-year-old aspiring model and a former flight attendant in addition to the two children he has had with his wife of three years. There is Cleveland Cavaliers superstar Shawn Kemp, who allegedly has fathered seven children and is paying out thousands of dollars in child support each month. And there is Gary Payton of the Seattle Supersonics, who has named one of his sons Gary Payton Jr. and another son Gary Payton II. Gary Payton II is four months younger than Gary Payton Jr., and has a different mother.

Clearly both the athletes and the women are responsible for such irresponsibility. In many cases--though not all--the fathers have little or no meaningful contact with their offspring. In many cases, the fathers support their children only after the mothers haul them into court and paternity is established through tests. (Sports Illustrated quotes agents and players who estimate that 90 percent of the paternity cases are settled before they become a matter of public record.) A number of sources allege that women deliberately have children with millionaire athletes, hoping to cash in. And in case after case, the mothers are so focused on the potential windfall of a settlement that they don't even consider the fact that the average career of most NBA players is only a half dozen years or so.

Given the explosive nature of their subject, Wahl and Werthein made an effort to be fair. For instance, they quote one source who notes that NBA players carry the burden of conducting their affairs more or less in the public eye.

"My guess is that if Fortune looked at CEOs and another magazine looked at the entertainment industry, you'd see similar numbers" of out-of-wedlock children, Richard Lapchick of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society told Sports Illustrated. "I think the common denominator is high-income earners."

And if you allow for changing mores in society at large, you'd probably find that athletes of yore were similarly irresponsible.

So should we give a damn, one way or another?

My impulse is to let those young millionaire athletes wallow in their own muck. But African-American athletes in particular frequently call upon the civil-rights community to rally around them when they get into trouble. They yelp for help when they are stereotyped by the media, beleaguered by insensitive coaches, or used and callously tossed aside by heartless owners.

Well, our support ought to have a price. We have a right to expect responsible behavior in return, and we have an obligation to say so when athletes fail to live up to our expectations. Those who act like dogs ought not to be ashamed to carry the name.

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