Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa?

Ask your kid to name his hero, and chances are he’ll name an athlete. And it’s easy to see why: High visibility, a huge income, and a glamorous lifestyle make the sporting life very attractive. But a recent article in Sports Illustrated reveals why discernment is necessary: It exposes the tawdry side of the sporting life—and helps us understand why we cannot separate private conduct from public performance. The article, titled "Paternity Ward," says that "fathering out-of-wedlock kids has become commonplace among athletes, many of whom seem oblivious to the legal, financial and emotional consequences." How commonplace? Len Elmore, a former NBA player and ESPN analyst, estimates that for every active NBA player, there is at least one illegitimate child. While there are many players—including Michael Jordan and Karl Malone—who have not fathered children out-of-wedlock, others, such as Shawn Kemp of the Cleveland Cavaliers, have more than made up for the slack. Kemp has fathered seven illegitimate children by six different women. Latrell Sprewell, when he wasn’t busy strangling his coach, found time to father three children by three different women before he was 21. While they all pay child support—as much as $100,000 a year—these athletes are often indifferent to their children. For instance, NBA legend Larry Bird rarely saw his now-grown daughter, although he often played golf only 20 minutes from her home. Should we care how professional athletes conduct themselves? After all, Shawn Kemp is paid to score and rebound, not to be a moral exemplar. Yes, society should care, because we have so much at stake. The ancient philosophers maintained a crucial distinction between excellence of a particular sort—like being a good basketball player—and excellence more generally speaking—such as being a good person. Pollsters and media elites would have us believe a myth: that we can somehow celebrate basketball players as great athletes without celebrating them as human beings. It just doesn’t work that way. Why? A high public profile confers on people significant moral clout; anyone with a high public profile stands a good chance of becoming some kid’s hero. What kids celebrate is not just the good job someone does, but the person who does it. That's why professional athletes, whether they like it or not, are role models. Kids idolize them for what they do on the playing field, and then figure anything else they do is cool, too. And that's why the behavior of athletes, both in and out of the spotlight, should be the subject of intense scrutiny. It isn’t just highly paid athletes from whom much is required. Our political leaders are subject to the same package deal. They trade in the right to live as they please for the power, prestige, and responsibility of public office. That's why we should be bothered when polls tell us that Americans believe that job performance, not personal conduct, is the only thing that matters. We need to help our neighbors understand why we ought to require responsible behavior from our athletes—and from our political leaders. And we need to teach our children that the ability to hit the three-pointer doesn’t make someone a hero. Only moral excellence confers that status.


Chuck Colson


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