Players are providing lasting examples of loving relationships with their children that debunk decades of racist narratives about their absence.
The NBA, a league filled with young, wealthy black men, seems like the perfect place to celebrate black fatherhood. Instead, for decades NBA dads have been cultural punching bags, celebrity straw men for arguments about the pathology of black families. But this season, which concluded this week with the Golden State Warriors’ historic championship, a new story has emerged. Warriors star Steph Curry’s daughter, Riley, is winning the Internet. Derrick Rose’s son is a fan favorite. Chris Paul’s 6-year-old is appearing alongside his dad in TV commercials, and has more than 220,000 followers on Instagram.
Riley Curry’s cuteness, in particular, has become the object of public fascination. After Riley became the unexpected focus of a press conference earlier this month by singing, yawning, and crawling under a table, her dad was praised for his parenting skills. “Curry displayed his affection and patience for his daughter while fulfilling his professional responsibilities—the way a father should,” wrote Eric Rodriguez in the San Jose Mercury News.
This praise of NBA dads doesn’t appear to be fleeting, and has actually been building for a while. In 2013, USA Today put together a photo gallery celebrating NBA fatherhood featuring the league’s biggest stars—Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony—showing affection to their kids.
But perhaps more important to the changing image of the NBA’s black dads is the fact that black athletes have greater power to shape the narratives of their lives on and off the court. “What has changed is the ways that black male celebrities, and in this case athletes, use [social media] platforms to challenge these entrenched ideas regarding black masculinity, regarding absentee fathers, and regarding dysfunctional families,” said David Leonard, associate professor and chair of the Department of Critical Cultures, Gender and Race Studies at WSU. “Whereas 20 years ago Sports Illustrated and ESPN functioned as gatekeepers that defined how the public consumed sporting cultures, black athletes, through Instagram, Twitter, and their media power are able to speak back,” Leonard said.