Commentary

Ron English not wrong

Assessment of the challenges facing athletes from single-parent families rings true

Updated: August 19, 2010, 9:23 AM ET
By Jemele Hill | ESPN.com

A good friend of mine once joked that women who have involved fathers dance differently than those who don't.

My friend referred to it as the "I Got A Daddy" dance, which was his light-hearted way of explaining that women with fathers in their lives behave less provocatively.

In today's world, it's not exactly considered progressive to suggest that children from broken homes have behavior issues, since so few of us grew up in traditional families like the Huxtables.

Over the past week, Eastern Michigan football coach Ron English discovered just how sensitive this topic can be.

[+] EnlargeEnglish
Steven King/Icon SMIRon English is in his second season as head coach at Eastern Michigan.

English is taking a lot of heat for saying he preferred recruits who had a "father in the background," which some interpreted as a criticism of single mothers.

"A guy that's raised by his mom all the time, and please don't take me wrong, but the reality is that you've got to teach that guy how to be taught by a man," English said at Mid-American Conference media day last month in response to a question about his incoming recruiting class.

After not winning a single game last year, EMU needed some publicity, but this probably isn't what English, a second-year coach, or the university had in mind.

English has since publicly apologized for his remarks, telling AnnArbor.com: "Where I've been, in high-profile situations, you always have to be very careful about what you say. But I want to say I made a mistake."

It certainly wasn't the smartest thing for a coach coming off a winless season to say. I'm sure a lot of high school football coaches in the metro Detroit area took notice, and a few recruits probably wondered why they would want to play for a college coach whose comments seemed to indicate he was shying away from the challenge of grooming young men, rather than embracing it.

But while this won't do English any favors in recruiting, let's not pretend that his statements weren't laced with some uncomfortable truths.

We commonly witness examples of athletes who could have benefited from having a father or a male figure in their lives. Michael Vick and Allen Iverson, who were both estranged from their fathers, immediately come to mind.

English wasn't trying to knock women raising sons on their own. In fact, English's mother died when he was just 18 months old and he was raised primarily by his grandmother. English also explained that his uncles and male coaches were important influences who helped him develop into the man he is. Clearly women are more than capable of raising boys, and there have been plenty of children from two-parent homes who have grown up to be knuckleheads.

But statistics show that children raised in single-parent homes -- especially boys -- suffer from some unique problems.

In 2007, there was a record number of babies born out of wedlock (four out of 10, according to the National Center for Health Statistics), and in the African-American community -- which is well-represented in areas where English does a lot of recruiting -- more than half of the children live in single-parent homes. The majority of these households are headed by women.

As a product of a single mother I wouldn't dare attack women in that position, but children from single-parent homes are 35 percent more likely to live in poverty, have disciplinary issues at school, go to jail and drop out of high school.

It's not gender discrimination to say that boys often fare better when their lives are influenced by positive male role models because it's true. The National Fatherhood Initiative has a host of statistics that support what English said -- which was just a realistic portrayal of the impact of broken homes. And mentoring young black men is one of the reasons Tony Dungy said he retired from the NFL.

Sadly, a lot of coaches are used to being ad hoc fathers, and privately, many of them will tell you that they can tell which players have a father in their life versus those who doesn't.

It's admirable that English clarified his statements, but I'll bet there were plenty of single mothers who understood.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.

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