Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Need a Tie to Go With That Paternity Suit?

The cover of the article's issue
Several years ago, Sports Illustrated ran an in-depth article on the legal and social issues surrounding the growing number of professional athletes fathering children out of wedlock, often with multiple women.*  Obviously, all men who father children with women not their wives face the same set of issues:  the financial obligations; battles over legal issues like custody and decisions regarding the child's upbringing; how the existence of the child will impact other areas of his life; and, most critical, forging a relationship with that child.  For professional athletes, however, these issues can be much more complicated.

My alma mater.  Hail!
In my first year of law school at the University of Michigan, we were allowed to take one "elective" class during our second semester.  I chose to take Sports Law, a course being offered for the first time at the school.  A third of our grade was going to be based on a paper, the topic of which could be any of our choosing, as long as it had something to do with sports and law. 

Inspired by the SI article, which had been published two years earlier, I decided to write about the issues professional athletes face--both in the courtroom and the locker room--when confronted with a paternity lawsuit.  My topic choice was validated when a prominent agent (and lawyer) came to speak to our class.  Right off the bat he told us that if you want to become a sports agent, you have to become familiar with family law.  Although that was over ten years ago, this issue has gotten some fresh attention recently, when it came out that New York Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie had fathered ten children with eight different women, including a daughter and son with his current wife.**  It became a story when he struggled to name all of his kids during an episode of the HBO hit series Hard Knocks:

With Father's Day fast approaching, I thought this would be as good a time as any to dust off the old law school files and resurrect my paper (the more interesting bits, anyway), which I titled "Personal Foul: Paternity Claims Against Professional Athletes" (clever, huh?).  Fortunately for you, this post (split between today and tomorrow) is not a verbatim rendering of the original--it's much shorter and I've omitted the legal speak wherever possible.

"Honey, I'm Pregnant."

Whether hoped for or completely unexpected, these three little words often elicit the same emotions--in more or less the same order:  shock, excitement, fear and wonder.  For the pro player, though, soon after hearing these words, several questions might pop into their heads when the woman giving them this news is not his wife.  For example, if there is any doubt in his mind that he could be father:

  • Should I deny paternity right away, and risk looking like an a-hole to my fans?
  • If I act the "gentleman" and own up to it right away, do I hurt myself when I challenge paternity later?
  • What if I don't do anything?  (By the way, keeping mum until paternity is conclusively established will typically be the preference of the lawyers—to the dismay of agents and publicity reps).

Then, once paternity is established, the pro's lawyers have to wonder:

  • How will a court figure out how much my client has to pay in support?
  • How can we make sure that the money is best used for the child's benefit?

I know this is a touchy subject, so before we get into the legal meat of the matter, let's lay a few things on the table.
First, the negatives.  Though many paternity cases involving pro athletes involve the irresponsible actions of an immature, inexperienced player and a probably equally immature woman, it is an unfortunate fact that there are women who target professional athletes and willfully seduce them in the hopes of getting pregnant.  In the SI article, former 49ers QB Jim Drunkenmiller recalled a moment from his NFL rookie orientation when two HIV-positive NFL groupies described how they seduced players.  Said Drunkenmiller:  "They wanted to let everyone know that girls out there will take a chance to get pregnant. They'll do anything, sometimes, to get money out of you."

And while there are definitely cases where a player was blind (perhaps willfully so) to the potential consequences of his promiscuity, some players are well aware of the stakes, and even seem to take pride in their fathering prowess--Antonio Cromartie being an apparent example.

Now for some positives... 
First, professional athletes among the most reliable at paying child support.  Before you get all sentimental about it, though, the reasons for their reliability are more practical than emotional:  they can usually afford to pay; they are easy to locate; and they often have lawyers, agents and/or accountants to make sure they are not delinquent in their payments.
Second, rookies coming right out of college aren't just thrown to the wolves, for lack of a better phrase.  As mentioned above, the NFL and the other major sports leagues conduct rookie orientation programs to advise them on how to deal with the various responsibilities and occupational hazards that go along with professional sports.  Topics for lessons include wealth management, dealing with the media and, yes, conduct with members of the opposite sex.  Never knew turning pro had so many pitfalls, huh? 

Several NFL teams, coaches and players are taking all of this a step further and sponsoring programs that encourage all fathers—fans and players alike—to actively participate in fatherhood.  One notable example should be familiar to “Reading Huddle” followers, who read Tony Dungy’s memoir, Quiet Strength

The Dungy Family

Former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy is a proud father and has always put family first.  He started an organization called All Pro Dad, which sponsors events for fathers and their kids, including monthly local breakfasts where fathers can build memories with their children and discuss family topics with other dads.  Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh and several current and former NFL players are active spokesmen for the organization.  Visit to find events in your area.

Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at what happens when paternity is established and the courts have to figure out how much Daddy needs to pay in support.  Plus we’ll take a look at a few cases where this very personal issue spilled over to the playing field.  You don’t want to miss it!

*Grant Wahl & L. Jon Wertheim, “Paternity Ward,” Sports Illustrated, May 4, 1998.

**In a few months that number will skip to twelve, as Cromartie’s wife is pregnant with twins.

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