Kids' kids aren't news

March 24, 1996|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE de GRACE -- Another Baltimore-born sports legend is in full-scale national production. By the time the excitement lTC surrounding this year's NCAA basketball tournament wanes, kids everywhere are going to wish they could be like Donta Bright.

The much-admired University of Massachusetts senior, a product of Dunbar High, helped his team win the top ranking in the country before the tournament began, and after it's over he'll surely embark on a professional career that will bring him many millions of dollars. On top of that, as Paul McMullen's story in The Sun the other day made clear, he's a nice young man who pays close attention to his mother.

Few of the teen-aged boys to whom he's already being displayed as a role model will ever be able to come close to matching his basketball skills, of course, but maybe because of Donta Bright they'll listen more closely to their mothers. Or maybe they'll be prompted to show concern about their children, just as Mr. Bright reportedly does about the three girls he has fathered.

Daddy knows his girls

Expressions of concern are better than nothing, I suppose, and probably Mr. Bright's daughters are glad to know that their famous daddy at least knows who they are. For one thing, when his riches finally arrive they'll be entitled to expect that he'll make some tangible contributions to their support, the way ordinary working fathers do.

Mr. Bright's fatherhood hasn't received much attention, which isn't surprising. Plenty of young men father children they can't support, and while this is recognized as a general social problem, it's considered improper and unsophisticated to criticize individuals for doing so.

And the idea that a young man might consider marriage to a young woman he impregnates is now considered amusingly quaint. Teen-age fathers who marry are about as common these days as 5-foot-10 NBA forwards. In 1970 about 30 percent of births to teen-agers were illegitimate, to use the old-fashioned and out-of-favor word. By 1990 it was almost 70 percent, and in many cities more than 80.

Despite the torrents of free condoms and happy-talk birth-control pamphlets which inundate the schools, about a million teen-agers get pregnant every year, proportionately far more than was the case a generation ago. Of those who conceive, about half give birth. Of the rest, slightly more than two-thirds have abortions. The balance, maybe 140,000 a year, miscarry.

Recent studies indicate that many of the men responsible for these pregnancies are 10 years or more older than the girls, but teen-age boys are doing their share. A 1988 survey indicated that a third of American teen-age males have had sex by age 15, 86 percent by age 19.

If those statistics are right, and there's no good reason to doubt them, they confirm the breadth of the value-neutral culture that has done so much to make our cities what they are today. But they also suggest that it would be unfair to single out the newly-famous Donta Bright for doing something that almost certainly no one ever seriously told him he shouldn't.

Even though he can do on the basketball court what few other young men can, why should he be expected to perform with similar distinction in his personal life? That's like taking a member of the school's ''It's Academic'' team and telling him he has to sink four out of five mid-court jump shots.

Several generations back, a college athlete who was known to have impregnated a girl out of wedlock would probably have been thrown off the team, if not out of the school. Somewhat more recently, such an incident might have been officially overlooked if the couple married.

Those were the responses of a more stable and confident society. But now making such judgments, let alone expressing them or acting on them, violates the proprieties. Thus Paul McMullen's long story about Donta Bright reports the fact of his three children in a single paragraph, with total neutrality, exactly as it might have reported that he has three portable television sets. Kids' kids aren't news.

It would be impermissibly judgmental to imply that this nice young man, so graceful on the court and so attentive to his mom, might not be the ideal role model for another generation of young men. In fact it might be argued, and probably will be, that his careless fertility is simply confirmation of his humanity. It shows him as a man of his place and his times, behaving in conformance with the customs of both.

From Babe Ruth to Jack Kennedy, from Len Bias to Bill Clinton, that's been a traditional defense offered for the behavior of glamorous men with deplorable private lives. It's also traditional to take note when they're respectful to their mothers.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 3/24/96

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