Like many basketball junkies deprived of March Madness and the NBA playoffs, I devoured ESPN’s 10-part series “The Last Dance,” the definitive account of one of the NBA’s G.O.A.T (“greatest of all time), Michael Jordan. Anyone who watched the emergence of the Bulls in the 1990’s knew that Jordan’s talent and athleticism was matched only by his drive, but I’m not sure any of us fully understood his unique ability to manufacture grudges for competitive advantage, or to either motivate or run off teammates.
In one area, however, Michael Jordan was just like the rest of us. The series dove deeply into his love and devotion for his dad. The greatest athlete of the 20th century, the international icon and billionaire, longed for his dad’s acceptance and love just like everyone else, from the time he was a boy until long after his dad was murdered in North Carolina in 1993. His dad was the reason for his first retirement. His dad is the reason behind the iconic photo of Jordan heaving tears, hugging the championship trophy, after returning to the game.
The film also covers the career of Dennis Rodman, perhaps the greatest rebounder in basketball history and an unexpected ingredient in the second half of the Bulls dynasty. Rodman grew up without a father but found one, after his unlikely journey to the NBA, in Chuck Daly, the coach of the Detroit Pistons. After being traded to Chicago, Rodman continued to perform well on the court, but without Daly’s guidance, went off the rails off the court. Today, he’s less known for basketball than he is for substance abuse, Vegas bingers, dating Madonna, getting arrested, wearing a wedding dress and hanging out with Korean dictator Kim Jong un.
Another series I’ve binged during quarantine was the podcast “Monster: DC Sniper.” In October of 2002, John Allen Muhammad (aged 41) and Lee Boyd Malvo (aged 17) held Washington DC, northern Virginia, and Maryland hostage with fear during a three-week random shooting rampage.
A key factor behind the entire horrifying saga, at least according to the series, is Lee Boyd Malvo’e desperate need for a father. Malvo met John Allen Muhammad when he was 13, and Muhammad treated him like a son, trusting and affirming him. Muhammad even introduced Malvo to others as his son. So, Malvo followed him, back and forth across the country, and four years later, on a shooting spree that would kill at least eleven people in three states.
A dominant narrative today is that fathers are expendable except for, perhaps, genetic and financial contributions. Either life goes on just fine without them, or they can be easily replaced by a “loving parent.” The stories of Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman, and Lee Boyd Malvo, however, suggest that there is a dad-shaped hole in all us that only dads can fill.
Of course, many people have fared well without dads, and many haven’t fared so well with dads. Heroic single parents are everywhere, as are grandparents and extended family members, foster care parents, and others who step in to fill the gap left by absent dads. But still, the data could not be more clear: dads matter.
Back in 1992, Vice- President Dan Quayle was derided for saying as much in response to sitcom character Murphy Brown having a child outside of marriage and without the father involved. The whole saga likely cost him the presidency. (Either that, or it was because he couldn’t spell potato).
The following year, in an Atlantic article, Barbara Defoe Whitehead proclaimed “Dan Quayle was Right”. According to “a growing body of social-scientific evidence,” she wrote, “children in families disrupted by divorce and out-of-wedlock birth do worse than children in intact families on several measures of well-being.” Today, nearly three decades later, we know that “do worse” is an understatement. “Children in single-parent families are six times as likely to be poor.” They are also more likely to stay poor. “Fatherless children also have more difficulties with social adjustment, and are more likely to report problems with friendships, and manifest behavior problems.” As Chuck Colson would often point out, they are far more likely to be arrested and sent to prison. They “are more likely to smoke, drink alcohol, and abuse drugs in childhood and adulthood.” They are more likely to drop out of school and are much less likely to go to college even if they don’t. They are far more likely to run away from home, and they are much more likely to be physically and/or sexually abused.
Again, let me be clear: none of this means children from single-parent homes are doomed to fail. Heroic single parents, grandparents, adopted families, and mentors step in to fill huge gaps left when dads are absent. Yet, when it comes to dads, our culture changes the narrative instead of taking the data seriously.
Taking the data seriously would require sacrificing personal happiness for the sake of kids. Taking the data seriously requires not redefining institutions of marriage and “family.” Taking the data seriously means rethinking what a “life well-lived” really is.
Thankfully, almost none of the victims of our bad ideas about marriage or parenting or fathering wind up shooting random strangers around the Beltway, but the damage done is real and lasting. The narratives we invent won’t change that.