The NBA, a league filled with young, wealthy black men, seems like the perfect place to celebrate black fatherhood. Instead, for decades NBA dads have been cultural punching bags, celebrity straw men for arguments about the pathology of black families. But this season, which concluded this week with the Golden State Warriors’ historic championship, a new story has emerged. Warriors star Steph Curry’s daughter, Riley, is winning the Internet. Derrick Rose’s son is a fan favorite. Chris Paul’s 6-year-old is appearing alongside his dad in TV commercials, and has more than 220,000 followers on Instagram.
Riley Curry’s cuteness, in particular, has become the object of public fascination. After Riley became the unexpected focus of a press conference earlier this month by singing, yawning, and crawling under a table, her dad was praised for his parenting skills. “Curry displayed his affection and patience for his daughter while fulfilling his professional responsibilities—the way a father should,” wrote Eric Rodriguez in the San Jose Mercury News.
This praise of NBA dads doesn’t appear to be fleeting, and has actually been building for a while. In 2013, USA Today put together a photo gallery celebrating NBA fatherhood featuring the league’s biggest stars—Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony—showing affection to their kids.
But just 20 years ago, the tenor of the public conversation about NBA fathers was much different. They were the highest-profile examples of amoral, hypersexual black men, whose perpetual immaturity was ruining black women and children.
Take this 1998 cover story from Sports Illustrated—titled “Where’s Daddy?”—in which a team of reporters wondered aloud whether the competitive environment of professional basketball “encourages athletes to try to prove their masculinity through sexual conquests” and, as a result, father a staggering number of children out of wedlock.
The magazine even included what it called an “NBA All-Paternity team” that, like the league itself, was filled with mostly black players: Patrick Ewing, Juwan Howard, Shawn Kemp, Jason Kidd, Stephon Marbury, Hakeem Olajuwon, Gary Payton, Scottie Pippen, and Isaiah Thomas. Larry Bird was the only non-black player on the fantasy team. And in case the point about irresponsible black masculinity was lost on anyone, there was this:
It’s no secret that the NBA has a higher proportion of black players (80%) than football (67%) or baseball (17%). Nor is it news that out-of-wedlock births are a persistent problem in the African-American community. According to the most recent study by the National Center for Health Statistics, 70% of black children nationwide are born to unmarried mothers, compared with 21% for whites and 41% for Hispanics. Yet it would be simplistic, at best, to end the discussion there. “A lot of people are ready to see it that way, but it’s much more complicated than that,” says sociology professor Anderson, who is black. “Class and socioeconomics play the big roles. In middle-class situations people engage in sex just as much, but there’s a different sense of future. I think if people in the underclass felt like their future would be derailed by the pregnancy, they would be more circumspect.”
Even when black fathers in the NBA did show affection to their children, it was frowned upon. Allen Iverson, the league’s resident tattooed bad boy of the late ’90s, regularly brought his children to press conferences—but that’s remembered mostly as an act of defiance by a player who was eager to use anything to thwart reporters’ tough questions.
So what changed?
Certainly not the numbers. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 72 percent of black women who gave birth in 2013 were unmarried. This fact still fuels speculation about overall black pathology. As Charles Blow recently wrote in The New York Times, such data make it easy to conclude “that there is something fundamental, and intrinsic about black men that is flawed, that black fathers are pathologically prone to desertion of their offspring and therefore largely responsible for black community ‘dysfunction.’”
It’s worth noting here that out-of-wedlock children are now the norm not just in black America but in America in general. Having children outside of marriage is, as The New York Times put it, “the new normal.” And, just like in the black community, just because parents decide not to get married doesn’t mean that they don’t co-parent or, often times, live in the same household. Blow points to Josh Levs’s new book All In to show that there are roughly 2.5 million black fathers living with their children, even if those men aren’t married to their children’s mothers. Marriage just isn’t as popular as it used to be, and using it as a measure of morality is simply outdated.
But perhaps more important to the changing image of the NBA’s black dads is the fact that black athletes have greater power to shape the narratives of their lives on and off the court. “What has changed is the ways that black male celebrities, and in this case athletes, use [social media] platforms to challenge these entrenched ideas regarding black masculinity, regarding absentee fathers, and regarding dysfunctional families,” says David Leonard, a professor of gender and race studies at Washington State University. “Whereas 20 years ago Sports Illustrated and ESPN functioned as gatekeepers that defined how the public consumed sporting cultures, black athletes, through Instagram, Twitter, and their media power are able to speak back.”
Indeed, in almost every instance in which an NBA player’s child has outshone its famous parent in front of the cameras, the kid has first gained a following on social media, and only then have traditional sports media taken notice.
Riley Curry, for instance, has been a mainstay on her father’s Instagram account practically her entire young life. Curry’s been able to show the world his loving relationship with his daughter on his own terms. In the process, Curry and his league mates are providing lasting examples of loving relationships with their children that debunk decades of racist narratives about their absence. And in the game of public opinion, they’re winning.