My day job is to study American families and most particularly, the changing role of American fathers. But when I go home at night, I am an active consumer of sports. While I don't watch ESPN 24/7, I have been a student of games for half a century and like to feel I have good judgment when it comes to the quality of sports, including its broadcasters and analysts.
One football commentator I have long admired is Boomer Esiason. While I couldn't have been labeled a fan of "the Boomer" during his playing days -- I didn't follow the Bengals and certainly never rooted for the Jets -- I've always found Esiason to be a balanced and thoughtful analyst. He frequently stands in stark contrast to many NFL "experts" who spend more time falling in love with their own clichés and hyperbolic rhetoric than providing insights into the game.
My esteem for Boomer was also bolstered by what I learned of him through our mutual connection to Boston College. Boomer's son Gunnar was a student at BC until recently and this offered me insight into the tremendous work the senior Esiason has done to combat cystic fibrosis which the younger Esiason has suffered from since early childhood. Over the past two decades, the Boomer Esiason Foundation has raised more than $100 million to support organizations and individuals struggling with this terrible disease.
Then this week, the case of New York Mets second baseman, Daniel Murphy, became a national news story. Murphy decided to utilize Major League Baseball's pioneering paternity leave policy. MLB is the first major sports league that allows fathers to take one to three games off following the birth of their child. A sports media firestorm resulted when Murphy missed two games of his 162-game schedule after his wife Victoria gave birth to their son Noah the night before Opening Day.
With prodding from his radio co-host, Craig Carton, Esiason offered his thoughts on Murphy's decision and made clear what he would have done in that circumstance:
"That's not me, I wouldn't do that. Quite frankly, I would have said, 'C-section before the season starts. I need to be at Opening Day.' I'm sorry. This is what makes our money. This is how we're going to live our life. This is going to give my child every opportunity to be a success in life. I'll be able to afford any college I want to send my kid to because I am a baseball player."
Later, Boomer offered one more pearl of wisdom on a father's role following the birth of his child: "No complications. Get your ass back to work."
In addition to his sidekick, Esiason was joined in the fray by other sports radio jocks including most notably, Mike Francesa of WFAN in New York. Francesa was particularly irksome, holding himself up again and again as the role model for how fatherhood should work. The more wound-up Francesa became in his rant, the more firmly he established his dubious parenting credentials incessantly repeating he had taken no time off when his children were born. His mantra on the role of a new dad was summed up (again and again) in his same profound question: "What would I do?" His take? "I don't know why you need three days off. I'm gonna be honest. You see the birth and you get back [to work]. What are you doing the first couple of days? Maybe you take care of the other kids ... Because your wife doesn't need your help the first couple of days. You know that."
And Francesa went on (and on) to add: "You're a Major League Baseball player. You can hire a nurse to take care of the baby if your wife needs help." Okay, Mike, we get it ... not bonding with your child, not sharing in the joy of perhaps life's most significant moment with your spouse, not being a partner in parenthood. "The wife" should handle this stuff on her own and you go be "the man." That's your formula for effective fatherhood.
It would be impossible to have displayed more of a tin ear than Francesa did with his repeated calls for the good old days when men's role was to hand out cigars and get back to the office. It seemed that every father that called in to his show to offer a different perspective only sent Francesa further into his downward spiral.
But I expected more from Esiason. He has established his credentials as an athlete on the field and a humanitarian off the field. He has provided countless intelligent insights as one of the country's leading sports analysts. But going off script on this issue, Boomer demonstrated a serious flaw in judgment. The negative response from America's fathers will likely come back at him like a boomerang (if you'll excuse the pun).
My hope is that two positive lessons will result from this controversy. First, that there will be a much wider recognition that American fathers are waging a serious battle to establish themselves as fully engaged parents -- not simply financial providers. And second, that anyone who looks to sport radio for life lessons and parenting advice really needs to change the channel.