I'm prepared to share a dirty little secret that many of my colleagues at Howard University School of Law would probably prefer I keep to myself. Some of our students are serious lawyers-in-training who seize every opportunity they can to keep abreast of the latest legal developments and to immerse themselves more deeply in the law. These are the students for whom the multiple flat screen televisions scattered throughout the law school were purchased. When the televisions aren't cycling through a series of messages for the law school community, they are tuned to either CNN or C-SPAN. They create an atmosphere of gravitas that makes campus visitors believe that within these halls walk students who eat, live and breathe "the law."
There is, however, one television the students control which provides a much better sense of what they prefer to do when they're not thinking about their class work, employment prospects or the bar exam. Located in the student lounge, this television is rarely tuned to CNN or C-SPAN. This is the television that, for two hours every weekday afternoon is tuned to The Maury Show. Here, a critical mass gathers to witness what has become standard fare for Maury Povich's show.
These shows feature women with more than enough sexual partners around the time they conceived to muddy issues of paternity and men who must be forced to accept the consequences of venturing out bare back, as it were. Povich introduces a series of incredible stories generously sprinkled with the almost ubiquitous and now-mainstreamed black vernacular of single parenthood. The ultimate objective of these shows is to answer the question emblazoned on the shot glasses sold as part of Povich's paraphernalia – "Who's your babydaddy?"
He has relied on this formula for so long that some of the women he consoled when the DNA failed to corroborate their hunches have been on the program multiple times searching for their paternity Holy Grail. Each time, these women are even surer that the men they've brought to the show are their babydaddies. Indeed, one woman proclaimed she was "a gazillion percent" certain the DNA donor was her child's father. The science, however, proved she was a gazillion percent wrong.
You might think these lawyers-in-training should be a bit more serious about continuing the legacies of Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall and James Nabritt, but I don't fault them for enjoying their daily dose of drama. I have been known to catch a segment or two, and while I could justify this in terms of my scholarly interests in popular culture, gender, race and class with a particular focus on the discourse of legitimacy and pathology, I won't. That's like claiming to watch Divorce Court because you're interested in family law.
Let it suffice to say that I'm drawn to television shows such as Maury, Being Bobby Brown and Flavor of Love (seasons 1 and 2 only, preferably without "New York") because they're like watching a train wreck; you know you should turn away, but you can't.
One person I'm sure is glad Maury wasn't deep into his babydaddy thing in the 1980s is Karl Malone. In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit I've never liked Karl Malone and, for that reason, I've been a die-hard anti-Utah Jazz fan. Whether it's a function of his famous flop, whining about referees' calls or his counter-Charles Barkley, "I am a role model" crap, I always found it easy to dislike Malone's game.
If Maury had embarked on his golden formula a decade earlier, however, it is easy to imagine an episode that introduced Maury fans to two mothers, three children and one man. Bonita Ford and Gloria Bell claim Karl Malone impregnated them as teenagers and failed to take care of his responsibilities. Malone brands the women as teenaged gold diggers intent on taking advantage of his lucrative future: Hitching their wagon to his rising star would provide Bonita, Gloria and their three children with an easy way out of the grinding poverty they endured in rural Louisiana.
He should not be faulted for choosing not to spend the summer of 1983 dealing exclusively with Bonita and his then-2-year-old twins Cheryl and Daryl Ford whom he left behind when he went to Louisiana Tech to play basketball. It is totally understandable that a young man might choose to reject the fatherhood resulting from his high school sexual exploits. I mean, who wants to spend their summer break tied down to two babies? Who wouldn't want to chart virgin territory in the person of a barely pubescent girl? It wasn't his fault that Gloria decided to become a mother at 13 years old.
In regard to black men not taking care of their children, Malone, obviously, is only a small part of the problem here, but he did like to think of himself as a role model. So if Maury had been an option, he would have been a perfect example. Perhaps the paternity suit filed by Gloria's parents would have been unnecessary. Bonita and Gloria might have called 1-888-45MAURY, been flown to New York and had the opportunity to confront Karl on national television. After the stories were told and the paternity test results were in, Maury would have announced, "Karl, you are the father." Bonita and Gloria would jump up, feeling completely vindicated in their very public efforts to make Karl "man up." But, this was not the case. It would take a number of paternity suits, DNA tests that unequivocally linked these three children to Malone, and the results of investigative reporting before Malone would be placed in a position in which he could not deny his children.
Cheryl's career as a basketball phenom is something about which Malone is apparently proud. Indeed, he and his wife have publicly claimed to have accepted Cheryl and Daryl into their family. This courtesy, however, has not been extended to Gloria's boy, Demetrius, who was recently selected by the Buffalo Bills in the seventh round of the NFL draft. When, at 18 years old, Bell finally contacted his father, Malone reportedly told him that it was much too late for the two to have a father-son relationship and that Bell would have to make his own money. According to Bell, Malone is not a father but merely a sperm donor whose genetic contribution can be described as "cock diesel." Beyond any genetic contributions, Bell is determined to succeed in spite of, not because of, anything Malone has done. I pray that Demetrius achieves all he wants and is as committed to making the point that he's better off without Malone, should father attempt to hitch his wagon to the progeny's rising star.
Lisa Crooms is a professor at Howard University School of Law.