Sunday, June 18, 2006


Father's Day Good Sports

The following originally ran June 19, 2000 over at National Review Online.

A few things have changed since it's original publication -- most notably Kobe Bryant's reputation which took some self-imposed bruises. However, I think the overall point remains true -- and is given more poignancy with Earl Woods' recent passing (more gems from my early-00's NRO run can found by clicking on the Ragged 2.0 link at left).

Happy Father's Day to all -- especially the "Big Daddy" column regulars, Bill, Rob & Ed!!!


Father's Day Good Sports: Tiger & Kobe
Where they learned their values.

Robert A. George is an editorial page writer for the New York Post.

What does it take to become the "heir to Air"? In other words, how do you make the next Michael Jordan? Well, it's beginning to seem that Michael Jordans are not created. They are born — and raised. By fathers.

Tiger Woods could not have picked a better moment to have a record-shattering victory at golf's U.S. Open — because it was Father's Day. Like Jordan, Woods currently towers, not just over his own sport, but over all sports as the premier athlete. Like Jordan, he has become the ultimate crossover spokesman — not in racial terms, but economic ones: He sells everything from Nike clothes to American Express, from Titleist golf clubs to Buicks and a whole lot more.

But he is most like Jordan in that a father has been front and center in his life. Earl Woods, of course, helped stoke his toddler son's interest in golf from the very beginning. He claims that Tiger was talking about winning championships from the age of five.

Perhaps James Jordan did not seek to raise the greatest basketball player, but Michael never demurred about the role his father played in his life. It was, in fact, the elder Jordan's senseless 1993 murder that precipitated Michael's first retirement. Perhaps the last awe-inspiring Father's Day performance prior to yesterday occurred in 1996. That was Jordan's first championship since his father's death three years before. Both Jordan and Woods represent rare athletes who compete at a high level, yet manage to comport themselves as civil human beings off the area of play. Of course, Woods is so young that one hesitates to project what sort of person he will be, but right now he appears to be following the Jordan model.

Bill Stephney doesn't think the similar images of Jordan and Woods are just coincidence. Stephney is a record company owner and producer (he just finished supervising the music production of the Shaft movie soundtrack). An African-American, he also spends as much of his free time as possible discussing fatherhood issues. He sits on the boards of both the Urban League and Wade Horn's National Fatherhood Initiative. He has also created his own organization — Families Organized for Liberty and Action (FOLA) — to focus on fatherhood issues in the Hispanic and black communities.

Stephney points to family structure as the reason that these two men are not just at the apex of their particular games, but rule the endorsement-sports nexus in their particular eras. "I think the presence, or lack thereof, of a father in the home is a reliable predictor, in professional basketball at least, of whether a given player is going to be a 'good citizen' or not. Look at Michael, on the one hand, and Isaiah Rider and Dennis Rodman on the other." Rider, after being with several teams, was cut by the Atlanta Hawks last season for repeated insubordination. Rodman is, well, Rodman. One could also look at the New York Knicks' Latrell Sprewell. Though having become something of a well-behaved player since he hit the Big Apple, Sprewell was the villain of the moment in 1997 when he choked his coach. In addition, Sprewell, his own father absent most of his life, has sired three children by three different women.

By contrast, the Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant — on the verge of his first championship — also draws favorable comparisons to Jordan, on and off the field. He grew up in Italy where his father Joe played pro ball. He went straight to the NBA without going to college. Far from being too immature for the league, the now 21-year-old Bryant has purchased an Italian team and installed his dad as its general manager.

Tiger's dominance suggests that Bill Stephney's "predictor" extends well beyond the social culture of pro basketball. Tiger and Kobe stand out as the "new Jordans" because, like Mike, their fathers have been there from the beginning to give them an emotional balance of which many African-American athletes seem bereft. While the Knicks' Larry Johnson and Cleveland Cavalier Shawn Kemp have twelve children by ten women between them, neither Bryant nor Woods (both single) has children. Both are reportedly in stable relationships, with Bryant set to be married this summer. It is a testament to the image that Tiger Woods has cultivated that his only recent misstep was being picked up cussing after a missed putt this past weekend. Imagine that, a pro athlete apologizing, not for beating up his girlfriend or being caught with some illegal substance, but for swearing!

Woods dedicated his U.S. Open victory to his dad, whose health problems prevent him from attending some of his son's tournaments. No one would call Earl Woods perfect. He has said a couple of foolish things since Tiger's professional debut four years ago. For that matter, so has Richard Williams, who raised and coached his daughters Venus and Serena on public tennis courts in Los Angeles; Serena is the defending U.S. Open champion. Of course, no one is perfect. But if it's agreed that raising children into mature adults is the most important job any parent can perform, then we must tip our caps to the elder Bryant, Woods, and Williams for the sparkling jewels that they have given professional sports and the world.

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