What do Isiah Thomas, Barry Sanders and Juwan Howard have in common? All have been celebrated as “good guys.” All have been hailed as humble star athletes who have their priorities straight.

And all have fathered children out of wedlock.

I bring them up only to prove that the current Sports Illustrated cover story,
“Where’s Daddy?” about paternity and athletes, is not some device to sell magazines, and not some blown-up tale about a few sex-crazed deviants. It’s as real a problem as there is in sports, and it says a lot about who we are and what we choose to admire.

Sports Illustrated paints a grim picture. One estimate says that for every NBA player, there is one out-of-wedlock child. Some players, such as Cleveland’s Shawn Kemp, seem to want to break the offspring record more than the scoring record. Kemp, 28, has reportedly fathered seven children with six different women. The Knicks’ Larry Johnson has five children by four women. Latrell Sprewell had three children with three women — before he turned 21!

As a sportswriter, I see this problem all the time. I know it is real. I also know it is ironic. Because if there is one underlying theme with pro athletes
— especially in basketball and football — it’s that their fathers were never around for them.

The sins of the sons.

Ego, ego, ego

Now, before we go any further, let’s recognize that out-of-wedlock babies are not limited to sports. Statistics show that 32 percent of U.S. children are born to unmarried mothers. In the black community, the figure is 70 percent. And since the NBA and NFL are predominantly black, one might argue that the fathering athletes are no different than their community at large.

I would challenge that. Because the handful of lucky studs good enough to make the pros have advantages their demographic peers do not. They have money. Fame. Advisors. They have choices.

Why then do so many ignore it all?

Ego, for one thing. Athletes, competitive by nature, often see women as one more thing to keep score of. Ego drives them to bed as many as they can, then move on. Ego makes them also think that these women are somehow interested in them, not their money. And ego makes them think that, if a child comes along, it will be taken care of the way their luggage and bills are taken care of, by somebody else.

Then there’s opportunity. Even a homely NBA or NFL star will have plenty of attractive women ready to fall all over him. Some women see it as status. Some see it as a meal-ticket. Some are looking to get pregnant, because, with certain states and judges willing to snatch 20 percent of an athlete’s salary for child support, well, to put it crudely, one kid is worth six figures.

But neither ego nor opportunity explains the simple issue of unprotected sex. And this is where it all comes back to the athletes. They complain that these women are gold diggers, one-night stands, but if they’re so unimportant, why not just say no? Or at least use condoms? Why do they repeatedly have unprotected sex, even after being burned?

What was Shawn Kemp thinking after child No. 5? That lightning wouldn’t strike six times? What was Magic Johnson thinking when he was flopping between, according to him, the 1,000 women he slept with? Do these guys honestly think they’re so special that the rules of biology don’t apply?

They’re not heroes

The problem comes from stupidity, pride and the belief that money and fame should place you above other “common” people, such as women in tight dresses. But mentioning Johnson raises the issue that, to me, is really bothersome: Why are so many of these child-spawning responsibility-shirkers still celebrated as heroes?

Larry Bird, Mr. Team Player, has a grown daughter that he barely acknowledges. Steve Garvey, who made a tidy fortune from a Mr. Clean image, was sued for paternity of children he fathered out of wedlock. Jim Palmer, the All-America underwear man, has an out-of-wedlock daughter he pays for but never sees.

Why do such men make fortunes from endorsements, get special favors, even receive humanitarian awards — when the simple responsibility of their children is ignored? It’s not enough to send money. Pro athletes have plenty of money. But money doesn’t wash away absence. The answer to “Where’s Daddy?” is not in a checkbook.

At many points in this Sports Illustrated story, battles over child-support payments are highlighted, with mothers wanting to live like stars and athletes wanting to pay for cereal and juice. An expert, defending large support payments, says, “When you talk about investment in a child, it’s not just about buying Pampers, it’s all the things that go into producing an adult.”

Yeah. Here’s ingredient No. 1: a father.

How many balls have to hit you in the head before that sinks in?

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581. He will sign
“Tuesdays With Morrie” 7:30-8:30 p.m. Wednesday at Barnes & Noble in Grosse Pointe Woods.

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