Ever since an exhausted American runner named Fred Lorz hitched a ride in his manager’s car for eleven of the twenty-six miles of the marathon at the 1904 summer games in St. Louis, scandals and the Olympics have become synonymous with one another. From outright cheating to doping, political boycotts and now the threat of the Zika virus, controversy is headline news.
Such was the case late Sunday night when longtime sports commentator Al Trautwig, one of NBC’s announcers for women’s gymnastics, ignited a firestorm when discussing the family of three-time world champion, Simone Biles. In the midst of the broadcast, Mr. Trautwig referred to Nellie and Ron Biles as Simone’s “grandparents” – something that was technically true, though not entirely accurate.
The nineteen year-old Simone was born to Nellie and Ron’s daughter, Shanon, in 1997. However, when she was just three years of age, Shanon’s drug and alcohol addiction forced the young mother to relinquish custody of all four of her children. That’s when Nellie and Ron stepped in to help, eventually adopting Simone and her younger sister, Adria.
And so, just like that, grandparents Nellie and Ron, near empty-nesters, became “Mom and Dad” to two young toddlers.
“It was a hard transition for me because they didn’t have any connection to me and I didn’t have any connection to them,” Nellie Biles recently told the Associated Press. The couple’s commitment, coupled with their strong Catholic faith and prayer life, drove them to find a way to make it work. Two years of counseling proved indispensable to the now multi-generational family.
The Biles soon settled into a happy, healthy routine, so ordinary, in fact, that Simone’s adoption was never a real issue for the young girl.
“As a kid,” she said recently, “since I didn’t know much, I honestly thought like everyone was adopted, until I spoke up, and they’re like, ‘You’re adopted?’ And I’m like, ‘Aren’t you?’ And so to me it was just normal and it was all I knew, so people make a story about it, but I think it’s normal.”
In choosing to adopt their granddaughters, Nellie and Ron Biles joined a rapidly expanding American demographic. According to the most recent U.S. Census figure, 2.7 million grandparents are raising their grandchildren – a seven percent increase from 2009.
After Mr. Trautwig referred to the Biles as Simon’s “grandparents,” an alert viewer tweeted the commentator, advising him they were actually her adoptive parents, too.
“They may be mom and dad but they are NOT her parents,” Trautwig hastily tweeted back.
The responses to the NBC analyst’s remarks were vociferous and animated, with many calling his comments “insensitive,” “offensive” and even “cruel.” By Monday morning, Mr. Trautwig had apologized, acknowledged his mistake and expressed regret that “I wasn’t more clear in my wording on the air.”
I suspect that Nellie and Ron Biles quickly and easily accepted Mr. Trautwig’s apology. It wasn’t the first time they heard such things – nor will it be the last.
As an adoptive father of three boys, I’m well aware of the verbal challenges associated with openly talking about the sensitive issue of adoption, especially when you’re talking with children who were adopted and adoptive parents themselves. Sincere and loving friends regularly ask us about the status of our boys’ “real” parents – or whether or not Riley, Will and Alex are “brothers.”
In every instance, we know what they mean – and in every instance, they mean well.
However unartful or imprecise some of the questions and their choice of language may be, I always welcome the dialogue. That’s because to ask about the family origins of our boys’ lives gives us an opportunity to talk about their birthmother’s sacrificial decision to carry their child to term and give them a chance at a life they otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity to live.
As an adoptive parent, I understand and appreciate the need to watch our words when discussing the sensitive subject of adoption. It is a weighty and wonderful thing, to be entrusted with the care of another life. But I wonder if in demanding too precise a lexicon for conversation about the subject, do we inadvertently discourage people from talking about adoption at all?
Earlier this year, I set out to tell the stories of fifteen well-known adoptees, from Apple’s Steve Jobs to the late Nancy Reagan and President Gerald Ford to former Olympian Scott Hamilton. The result is a book that will be published in October titled, Chosen For Greatness: How Adoption Changes the World. To a person, each of the individuals I studied and featured didn’t succeed in spite of being adopted. From the parents and grandparents that welcomed them to the neighborhoods they lived in to the access and influence their adopted relatives provided, all of them achieved what they did because of their adoption itself.
Tellingly, however loving their adoptive parents were/are, all of them were deeply interested in their family of biological origin, which is what Al Trautwig was getting at.
Today, there are well over 400,000 children in foster care with 100,000 children available for adoption. In all due respect, that so many children so desperately are seeking a forever home should be more offensive to the public than a sport’s announcer’s imprecise language about adoption itself.
America is rooting for the Ohio native and her teammates to bring home the gold medal, but whatever happens in Rio, Simone Biles has already been chosen for greatness.
Paul J. Batura is Vice President of Communications at Focus on the Family. His latest book, Chosen For Greatness: How Adoption Changes the World, will be released October 31, 2016.