Many black athletes plagued by out-of-wedlock relationships
MIAMI — The self-inflicted wound crippling the black community spread on the Internet last week like a popular joke. There was New York Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie on the HBO show "Hard Knocks," using his fingers to count his children and appearing to struggle with their names and birth dates. Eight kids by six women in five states. Cromartie just turned 26 — a damaging stereotype come to life, allowing America to mock black men and black athletes. The Jets reportedly had to front Cromartie $500,000 before he played a down for them, just to cover all the paternity suits.
Jim Brown, civil-rights pioneer, legend and proud black man, felt his giant shoulders sag. When will this ever change? He goes into ghettos and prisons with his message of help and hope. Rival gangs stack their guns on the table when he speaks in front of them. And so little changes as he gets old and tired. Even the lucky ones who escape, like Cromartie, continue to make the mistakes of their absentee fathers, reckless negligence passed down from generation to generation like a genetic disease.
"How in the world do gangbangers control a neighborhood?" Brown asks. "Twelve- and 13-year-olds, these babies with guns in their hands? They control a community because there are no families there, no fathers there. The biggest problem in the black community is that fathers aren't taking care of their responsibilities. It is one of the biggest contributors to our disorganization and discord. It has turned everything backward. The social effect can't even be measured. It's totally devastating."
He pauses here, so exhausted by this fight.
"I don't mind being a surrogate and father figure to these young men because I see the good it does, but we need the actual fathers," he says. "This is a tragedy. Stop blaming the white man or the system or discrimination. Blame yourself. Cromartie is so misguided. This young man has no guidance."
I once asked Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis why so many black athletes have children out of wedlock. His response? Because so many of us are children out of wedlock. It's a good answer, sociologically, but it doesn't demand introspection or improvement. We're all products of our upbringing, our experiences, our environments. Unless we choose not to be. Alonzo Mourning grew into a model father and community pillar, using the platforms sports gave him for things beyond bedroom pleasure, and he was an orphan. It was important for him to be a good father specifically because of how much it hurt him not to have one.
"Cromartie had eight kids, and it seemed like nine of them were 3 years old — that had to be the year he made the Pro Bowl," former NFL player Marcellus Wiley says with a laugh.
Wiley made the unusual journey from Compton, Calif., to Columbia University with the aid of a two-parent home. Marriage? Overrated, he says. He points to the American divorce rate and a recent Sports Illustrated report that 78 percent of NFL players, white and black, are either broke or divorced within two years of retirement — when there is time to be home, in other words, and really get to know your spouse without the divided time that must be poured into climbing atop something as cutthroat competitive as sports. Wiley's parents were boyfriend and girlfriend for 21 years without getting married. He has an 11-year-old with a woman who isn't his wife, and he says that bond requires more commitment than anything you'll ever find at a fancy wedding reception without children.
"The baby momma should be forever," he says. "But we come from this background where the father isn't around all the time, and we don't look at it as badly as other cultures do. We've been desensitized to this vicious cycle. This vicious cycle is our normal."
Counters former NFL running back Robert Smith: "That's a pathetic excuse. Are we still subservient because we came here in chains? We changed that. We can't change this? When does this expletive change? You either follow the path or you create it."
But it is so much easier to follow than lead — especially when the women and money are easy, too. Besides, youth is wasted on the young, and perspective and wisdom usually comes with age and your own mistakes, not the mistakes of others. The temptation around athletes is breathtaking and omnipresent. Combine fun and youth and money with beautiful women eager to be near it in a hip-hop culture that glorifies sexy excess. Throw in some gold-diggers, like the ex-wife of former NBA All-Star Kenny Anderson, who drives around with a license plate that reads "HISCASH." (Anderson declined to discuss that part of his past, saying little beyond that his mother begged him not to get married.) It isn't hard for an irresponsible athlete to sink in that world.
"But a lot of people come from broken homes and don't perpetuate it," says former NBA player Jalen Rose. "I don't want to give black men that crutch. I don't know of any white athletes that have as many irresponsible situations as Cromartie. I don't care if you were born in a cave or were a crack baby, there is no justification for this. As an adult and professional, there has to be a sense of reason and responsibility. This isn't just a money-and-power thing, though. I know guys who have never left their corner of the neighborhood who have six kids by five women. I know guys still living at home with Mom who have done the same. Money gives guys access, but this isn't a professional-athlete problem. This is an African-American problem."
Former NFL running back Travis Henry, broke, allegedly resorted to cocaine trafficking to alleviate debt caused by too much irresponsible sex. He told The New York Times he was trapped by four women who had his babies, but that doesn't explain the seven other kids he had with six other women who didn't trap him. Calvin Murphy — reportedly 14 kids by nine women. NBA journeyman Jason Caffey — reportedly 10 children by eight women. NBA journeyman Willie Anderson — reportedly nine kids by seven women. The NBA lifestyle, with so much travel and so many groupies, also ensnared Scott Skiles, the white former guard who now coaches the Milwaukee Bucks. It has been reported he has six to eight illegitimate children.
"It's a cultural problem for us, a pattern of short-view outlooks," Smith says. "Instant gratification. Overvalue material, undervalue education. Get rich or die trying. It's disgusting, but it is telling. So many of the problems that plague us — education, violence, prison — start with the father's absence."
Smith gets angry discussing this. He got married a few years ago and just had his first baby at 38, a bundle of life-changing joy named Ty. Smith directs me to a Curtis Mayfield song about a wild child's descent into drugs:
Watch a while
You see he never smiles
So he's all alone
Kind of sad
Kind of mad
Thinkin' he's been had
One room shack
On the alley-back
Control, I'm told
From across the track
Where is the mayor
Who'll make all things fair
He lives outside
Our polluted air
So little has changed since that song came out in 1972.
Smith has rekindled his relationship with his old man, although it is not without its stresses. A month ago, at the end of a conversation, Smith's father mentioned something about visiting New York when he was young because he had nothing else to do. It was just a throw-away comment. But it stayed with the son after he hung up. So he called his father back.
"You had nothing else to do?" Smith asked. "No, you should have gotten your ass home and taken care of your wife and kids."
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ANTONIO CROMARTIE, ROBERT SMITH