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Pamela McGee: The Challenges of Being a Proud "Basketball Mom"

Pamela McGee has been in the headlines again as the Washington Wizards selected her son JaVale with the 18th pick in the NBA Draft on Thursday.

I was one of those rabid NBA junkies who watched the entire draft on Thursday night, which means I missed an outstanding Liberty-Fever game on ESPN 2. Nevertheless, watching the draft and digging up information about prospects got me interested in Pamela McGee.

Some people have credited Pamela with providing JaVale a strong basketball IQ despite being raw and a little too light to bang with NBA big men. However, as a mama’s boy, there have also been questions as to whether Pamela has taken up too much space in the headlines…and perhaps JaVale’s life.

There were some rumors during the draft process that she was too involved in JaVale’s workout process, to the point of canceling workouts with teams that held anything below the 12th pick (which ended up being false). Others have suggested that teaching him perimeter skills have hindered her son’s development, as he lacks adequate post skills to play in the NBA.

However, it’s interesting to juxtapose these observations with past reports about McGee’s capacity as a mother. Longtime WNBA fans may remember Pamela’s custody battle over her daughter, Imani, in 1998, which was the first such custody battle for a WNBA mother. At that time, Pamela was accused of being incapable of balancing the demands of being a professional athlete with the demands of being a good parent.

What I found interesting about this story is that it appears to illustrate the double standards that working mothers face as they attempt to balance career demands with demands to raise their children.

McGee the single working mother

I stumbled across a story about the custody battle as I was trying to see if Pamela had any response about where JaVale was drafted or his fit with the Wizards. I hadn’t heard of McGee’s custody battle prior to that point, so for others who are unaware, here is a synopsis:
Pamela McGee, who plays for the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks, lost custody of her 4-year-old daughter while the court investigated whether McGee's work prevented her from being a good mother. In his motion for temporary sole custody, McGee's ex-husband, the Rev. Kevin E. Stafford, asserted that a career and motherhood are mutually exclusive. McGee's "level of achievement," he argued, impaired her ability to parent their child. McGee was on the road four weeks a year. And the father said it took away too much from the daughter. But the court did not investigate whether the father's travel schedule, which took him on the road seven to eight weeks a year, made him an unfit father.
However, it was the ex-husband’s lawyer who made the most controversial argument in the case.
"The whole problem is right now, it's her career," said Peter Lucido, an attorney for Ms. McGee's ex-husband, the Rev. Kevin E. Stafford of Mount Clemens. "There are a lot of sacrifices you need to make to be a good basketball player. You need to make a lot of sacrifices to be a good parent as well."

Not only is this an odd assertion because Pamela was only traveling four weeks a year (according to reports I read), it is representative of the double standard that professional mothers face. But as WNBA spokesman Alice McGillion points out, it would seem relatively easy to plan joint custody around the WNBA schedule.
"If you were to just take a step back and compare this situation to a middle manager for accounting firm that travels, it's vastly different," she said.

For WNBA players, "the schedule is known before you travel. It's three months."
Obviously, we cannot judge whether McGee is fit as a mother from a few newspaper articles – that’s unfair to McGee and her ex-husband. But the most disturbing element of this case is the implication that a working mother cannot satisfactorily care for her children, which has much larger implications.
"We live in a culture where we want mothers to do everything, and whenever something goes wrong, it's the mother's fault," Mary Becker, who teaches family and domestic violence law at DePaul University in Chicago, told the New York Times. This perception is reinforced daily by everything from the people around us to the news.
McGee the proud overbearing mother

Fast forward almost ten years, and we hear a different story about McGee as a mother as she prepares Javale, who was 10-years-old at the time of the custody battle, to enter the NBA draft.

Pamela wrote a rather exaggerated scouting report about JaVale on that compared him to Tyson Chandler, Michael Jordan, and Dirk Nowitzki, which is clearly absurd…or the Wizards grabbed the steal of the century.
JaVale McGee is probably the most physically gifted player the Wolf Pack program has ever had (with Edgar Jones being the only ex-Nevada player who could also stake claim to that title). But you wonder if the expectations being placed upon McGee by his mother are too high. (link)
A fellow blogger made another interesting comment:
"This is a woman who knows the workings of professional basketball -- so why is she doing this? It's not like some NBA General Manager is going to read her over-the-top -- and by the way off the mark -- sales job let alone be convinced by it. She's coming off like a Little League monster parent who is completely embarrassing herself and possibly turning off NBA front office people who may not want to draft her son because that might mean having to get involved with her."
But if you think about it, hyperbole is just part of the draft process. Hyperbole suckered GMs into drafting Michael Olowokandi, Kwame Brown, and Andrea Bargnani first overall in the NBA draft. Harold "Baby Jordan" Miner was supposed to be the second coming of Michael Jordan. Nicholoz Tskitishvilli and/or Darko Millicic among others were supposed to be the next Nowitzki. And there’s no shortage of marginal players being compared to perennial all-stars every single year – and I’ll look forward to seeing how well DJ Augustin compares to Steve Nash.

So while I would strongly disagree with Pamela’s assertion, it’s not that much different than countless other scouting reports that float around the web at this time of year. And yet, I think there might be a reasonable explanation for why she posted such an exaggerated scouting report: she’s a proud mother, not an NBA scout. It’s probably the reason that employers don’t ask for recommendations from our mothers when us average folk apply for jobs – they’re biased.

It would seem as though we would rather find fault in Pamela McGee as a mother -- by comparing her to the already stigmatized "overbearing soccer mom" -- than look to other possible alternatives. It seems inconsistent that one woman could go from being an unfit mother to becoming an overbearing mother, natural development notwithstanding.

An unfortunate double standard…
It's a double bind for moms because fathers seem to carry much less responsibility for the problems their sons may have, but in the political and popular culture of today, they are considered absolutely essential to raising good sons. (link)
During this whole ordeal, we’ve heard considerably less about JaVale’s father and his capacity as a father. We have no reason to assume that he’s a bad father, it’s just curious that his competency never came into question.

I’m hardly claiming that there are people out there who are somehow conspiring against Pamela McGee – in fact, ESPN published an article about the mother-son combo about a month ago. Nor is this fully representative of the challenges that the average working mother faces -- it's a completely abnormal case...which makes the situation even more bizarre. It shouldn't even be an issue.

However, I find it difficult to ignore the double standard inherent in the fact that Pamela McGee has received so much blame and negative attention while doing her best to balance her career with her parenting responsibilities.
"When they know I pursued my dreams, it sets a standard for them - that they can do whatever they want to do. One of the main reasons I play is because I know the WNBA is historic. This is history."
Transition Points:
  • A number of the articles I read about this case mentioned the difficulty working mothers have in these kind of custody battles. So I was left with three questions after writing this: a) How often do working mothers win custody battles?; b) How does that compare to working fathers?; and c) How often do male professional athletes (longer seasons, more travel) face similar custody battles?
  • A post-draft analysis of JaVale McGee (drafted #18 by the Washington Wizards):