Sports stars, sex and stalkers

You are young, rich and chiseled, and life offers sexual opportunities that few can imagine. But increasingly, pro-spor insiders say, the risks are harrowing.

Published August 6, 2003 7:00PM (EDT)

Midnight at a high-end lodge in Colorado. A young woman who works there as a receptionist gets off work and goes to a guest's room. The guest is a famous athlete. The woman, just 19, is perhaps starstruck to be in his presence. For the athlete, she appears to be like one of many who throw themselves at him on a daily basis. Some sexual activity takes place. By the time the woman leaves a half-hour later, she contends she was raped. The athlete, married with a young child, says he only committed adultery.

This is all anyone really knows about the Kobe Bryant sexual assault case, save for the Los Angeles Lakers star guard and the 19-year-old college student. And as much as the media pundits and their hired legal experts weigh in with their considered opinions, no one really knows for sure what happened late the night of June 30. But at its core, the case is relatively simple: A man says he has had consensual sex, while a woman claims she was sexually assaulted. Rapture on the one hand, rape on the other.

For now, the case is all about ambiguity and uncertainty; in time, it will be likely be a lurid media frenzy. But for now, with Bryant scheduled to appear in an Eagle, Colo., court Wednesday for a preliminary hearing, the case offers a backstage view into professional sports culture that is almost never revealed in a Sunday afternoon game broadcast or in newspaper coverage the next day. It is a hyper-sexualized world, both a meat market and a minefield. It is a world where even a third-string jock can find a sexual companion almost any time he wants, with a woman of his choosing. It is a world where some women see the athlete as a notch on the belt, a chance to live the celebrity life or to win a fat financial settlement.

Of course the phenomenon is not new. Baseball Hall of Famer Babe Ruth was legendary for his home runs, and also for his womanizing. But times have changed, and the athlete's world is one that few Monday morning quarterbacks can even imagine. The men are young and chiseled, they have more money than they can spend, and they face a constant barrage of temptation. The women have drop-dead, fashion-model looks, accentuated by tight jeans, a short skirt, a revealing blouse. They stake out hotel lobbies, clubs that jocks frequent, hallways in the arenas. When men do it, it's called stalking; women are merely groupies.

Sports stars are reluctant to talk about it to outsiders, but hundreds of them undoubtedly are watching the opening acts of the Kobe Bryant case with a certain amount of educated dread. Like us, they don't know what happened. Unlike us, though, they know the thrill of daily opportunity and casual sex, but also the danger that comes with it -- the liaisons that can tear a family apart, the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, the threats of blackmail.

It's easy to view Kobe Bryant as another spoiled brat jock who believes he can play outside the rules of law and marriage. Especially to those inside the sports culture, it might be easy to see this as just another case of a woman setting up a celebrity. Certainly, though, it is a cautionary tale about power, and the sexual paradox that is sometimes found in the halls -- and bedrooms -- of power. It's not unlike the affair of President Clinton with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Perhaps Clinton was just another powerful, horny man looking to score with a naive young woman who admired him. Perhaps Monica was the conniving young temptress with "presidential knee-pads" looking a little bit of love and a big place in history.

Make no mistake, says Dallas Cowboys star Michael Irvin: Power is how male athletes define themselves, and when a male athlete goes looking to score off the field, power is the name of the game. "Power is head wine for men -- any form of power," the former receiver and current ESPN analyst told the Dallas Observer in an interview last year. "That's why we make money an issue, nice cars an issue, clothes -- all of it's head wine, all of it's to draw women. It all comes back to women. If a guy tells you it doesn't, trust me, he's lying. Let's be real here."

Darryl Dawkins, the former all-star center for the NBA's Philadelphia 76-ers, has an interesting take on the Bryant case. In a 14-year career that spanned from the mid-1970s to the end of the '80s, Dawkins learned -- learned a lot -- about women. For Dawkins, who claimed to have had sex with 1,000 women during his playing days, the problem with women and professional athletes is the stalking factor. "Everywhere we went, there were ladies around," he told Salon in an interview last week. "Every guy on our teams got hit on, and it didn't matter if they were married or not, if they were a star on the team, or good-looking. If I didn't want some woman, she would offer to bring her friend along and double-team me. Sometimes, the biggest problem was getting them to leave."

Temptation is always around the corner, and a possible lawsuit, extortion attempt or child-support payment comes with every encounter. "No matter how pretty or sweet-smelling your wife or girlfriend back home was, there was always a girl on the road who was prettier, smelled sweeter, had that certain walk that made her ass pop, and knew how to come at you," Dawkins writes in his new autobiography, "Chocolate Thunder." "There are all kinds of horror stories. I heard lots of time about a girl supplying a rubber, only she's already poked holes in it. Or a guy who got a girl pregnant, and when she sued him he discovered that the name he knew her by wasn't even her real name. There are so many girls coming at pro athletes from so many different angles just looking for a meal ticket."

Even if Dawkins has no inside knowledge about the details of Kobe's case, it is instructive to consider his mindset. News reports have suggested that the 19-year-old receptionist suffered bruises on her body during her encounter with Bryant, and the prosecution will use this physical evidence to try to prove the sex was nonconsensual. "My personal opinion is that Kobe didn't rape her," Dawkins said last week. "Something was probably promised to her, and then Kobe probably changed his mind. When it was time for her to leave, she probably didn't want to go. If she has bruises, it was probably from Kobe trying to get her out of the room, not from him beating her up."

Perhaps that is a coarse analysis; perhaps it comes from a man who has issues with women. But Dawkins is hardly alone in his views about the women who love athletes too much.

Brenda Thomas, who worked as a personal assistant for Phoenix Suns all-star guard Stephon Marbury, has penned a steamy novel -- "Threesome: Where Seduction, Power, and Basketball Collide" -- based on what she saw from that vantage. She insists that Marbury was not and is not one of the players she's describing, but generally, she says, the underbelly of professional sports is both amazing and disgusting.

In an interview, Thomas recalled being at a restaurant with some NBA players for a party, and a procession to the bathroom as players were "serviced" by a groupie hanging out at the bar. "This woman was taking guys into the bathroom after they just met," Thomas says. "After a few minutes of small talk, I heard a player say to her, 'So, you want to give me some head?' and off they went. I've seen women who will get down on their knees and service the entire entourage -- four or five guys or more -- just to get to the ball player. And these women are all types: black, Latino, white, professional women, women you would describe as whores.

"These guys can have three or four women every day, that is no exaggeration," Thomas continues. "These women come at these guys from every angle, at every hour of the day and night. The NBA tries to teach these guys how to avoid trouble like this, but when you're in your 20s and a women is down on her knees in front of you, the lessons learned are really not at the forefront of your mind.

How far will women go to get close to a player? Jennifer Briggs, a Fort Worth, Texas-based writer and author who has covered sports for 15 years, found that groupies used a curious security dodge at the Dallas Cowboys training in the mid-1990s in Austin. After practice, the Cowboys players would pass by fans pressed against a fence and asking for autographs. The security guards allowed kids in wheelchairs to gain a position just inside the fence.

"I started to notice that the women with the handicapped kids were dressed in short skirts, low cut blouses, heavy-duty makeup," Briggs recalls. "The security guards referred to these women as the 'ho express,' groupies pushing handicapped kids on wheels. These women were borrowing other people's handicapped kids so they could get close to the players." Briggs says the Cowboys security detail had to put the brakes on the 'ho express, allowing only one person to accompany each child in a wheelchair, and making them prove the kid was actually handicapped.

"Being with a woman all night never hurt no professional baseball player," baseball titan Casey Stengel once said. "It's staying up all night looking for a woman that does him in." The issue of sex and the pro athlete has for the most part always been viewed with a certain whimsy, a wink-wink to the fact that boys will be boys and women will chase them around. The notion of the heroic male includes sexual conquests, and male fans at least have tended to give the jocks a pass on sexual exploits. The news media never reported the indiscretions of the players, and a hooking up on the road was just a part of being a male sports hero.

In the movie "Bull Durham," the relationship between Annie Savoy and the minor league baseball players is played out in a positive way: The older woman beds a young stud pitcher and enhances his career. The other groupie in the movie, Millie, sleeps with multiple players, but ultimately marries one of the more upstanding among them. The relationships in the movie are as wholesome as one can get, and the hint of nastiness and coercion is harmless literary fun.

And for many years, the relationships between athletes and their women has been treated as a running locker-room joke. In Jim Bouton's 1970 book "Ball Four," infidelity among baseball players was treated almost cavalierly, with the author and fellow players embarking on "beaver shooting" missions and hiding tape recorders under their beds so teammates could enjoy the sexual soundtrack on the bus the next day. Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Mark Grace commented a few years ago on Jim Rome's sports radio show about the concept of the "slump buster." When a batter is going through a hitting slump, Grace said the player must find an ugly (and preferably fat) woman. Sleep with her, toss her aside and -- voilà -- the slump is over. It's called "diving on a live grenade," Grace joked, or "taking one for the team."

But in recent years, such apparently innocent sex has turned dangerous.

It started with Magic Johnson announcing he was HIV-positive in 1991, a result, he says, of heterosexual sex with endless partners over a decade. Throughout the 1990s, there has been a parade of court cases based upon athletes' infidelity. Michael Jordan paid a mistress $250,000 to keep quiet about their affair, but the woman then sued the basketball player for $5 million (the case was eventually thrown out). The New York Mets' Daryl Boston paid a woman $600,000 to avoid having her charge him with rape. Boston Red Sox third baseman Wade Boggs was sued by his mistress for failure to pay her "salary and expenses." Boxer Mike Tyson served a prison term for raping a beauty queen. Atlanta Falcons defensive back Eugene Robinson was arrested for trolling for prostitutes the night before the Super Bowl. Irvin, the Cowboys receiver, was caught in a hotel room with "self-employed models," cocaine and sex toys.

With players fathering "fun babies" at an almost Malthusian rate, the law of mathematical odds made certain that the sexual exploits of star athletes would end up in court. The rising salaries had much to do with it; players found that paying off their mistresses and mothers of their illegitimate children was easier than fighting. The expenses have almost become another line item on their business managers' ledger.

Boston Celtics great Bill Russell once joked that athletes "are on scholarship from the time they are in the third grade." Great athletes are doted upon from the time they are kids; they are given special treatment by their families and schools, and then later by fans and the media. They learn to expect special treatment and most of the time they get it.

"I call it 'spoiled athlete syndrome,'" says Steve Ortiz, a sociologist at Oregon State University. "When a cop stops them for speeding, they get out of a ticket. When a restaurant is crowded, they get the best table. Agents clean up their financial messes. Eventually, some athletes don't think the rules apply to them. And those rules include sexual behavior and marital fidelity."

Ortiz studied the marriages of pro athletes by interviewing 47 wives of players in the mid-1990s. He said there were few admitted extramarital affairs in his study group, but he said that most of the players' wives were dissatisfied with their husbands' contributions to the marriage. "Most of these men were doted upon by their mothers, and they basically traded in Mom for a younger, new and improved model," Ortiz says. "They tended to de-sexualize their marriage. Their wife would keep the home base running smoothly, and the player thought as long as he was giving his wife the check, everything was fine. Many of these men feel that because of their careers, because they are gone from home so much, they are off the hook from parenting and other kinds of accountability in their marriage."

Ortiz acknowledges that many marriages outside of sports have the same dynamic. But he says two problems are different by degrees in the athlete's marriage. First, the "hyper-masculinized" world of sports encourages and provides opportunity for infidelity much more so than in an average married man's life. The second point is the financial leverage an athlete has over his wife or partner; make a scene, it is implied, and you get tossed off of the gravy train.

"Most of the wives would get upset with how blatant the groupies were, and how indiscreet the players would be," says Ortiz. "But most of the wives coped by telling themselves that all of this is temporary. That's why they stay with their husbands when they cheat. It's all about survival. They think it will all be over when he retires. But it doesn't work that way, either."

This may explain why Kobe Bryant's 21-year-old wife, with a 6-month-old baby at home, appeared at the press conference last month with her philandering husband, holding his hand and staring deeply into his eyes. When the average guy gets in trouble with his wife, something small like staying out with the boys drinking or not helping with the housework, he might face a punishing weekend of picking out wallpaper at Home Depot or choosing throw pillows at Bed, Bath & Beyond. Kobe gets charged with sexual assault and he fixes things by buying his wife a $4 million ring.

But when the average guy cheats on his wife, he can't get off the hook by writing a check for $4 million. Athletes are different that way.

"A lifetime of developing one skill doesn't allow much time to develop others," Bouton wrote in his 20th anniversary edition of "Ball Four." "Lots of athletes can't function in the real world. That's why they only feel comfortable in each other's company. They sense that something is missing from their lives, but they're not sure what. At the same time they feel invincible because of their success on the field."

"This combination of emotional immaturity and physical ability makes athletes uniquely vulnerable to temptation," Bouton continues. "They can't 'just say no.' They're too busy trying to fit in and show how great they are at the same time."

When Jennifer Briggs was the beat writer for the Texas Rangers, she said some players would go to clubs after the game, and just troll the parking lot for women, not unlike men driving through seedy neighborhoods looking for hookers. "My nephews came to a game with me one night, and they wanted to meet some ballplayers, but we couldn't get them into the locker room. So I took them to the parking lot of a club near the ballpark. Sure enough, there were players parked there, with women bent over, talking to them through their car windows. All you saw was miniskirts with their asses hanging out, long legs and high heels. At least my nephews got to see some ball players in their natural habitat."

And like Briggs' nephews, this is how many view the professional athlete. They make too much money, they are far removed from the norms of conventional society, they seem to live by their own rules. They treat women as disposable objects, and if they get caught breaking the law, they'll hire a high-priced lawyer to pay their way out of it.

But the life has its perils. Think of what it is like to be away from family for months at a time, to be besieged by autograph seekers every time you go out to eat, to be unable to go to a bar and just have a beer with friends, to be constantly under the media microscope. No pity is warranted -- the jocks sign on to this lifestyle as they cash their enormous checks. But the price of celebrity can no doubt wear on anyone, and maybe the consequence of such star power is how it gets played in the realm of sexual conquest.

Dawkins said nothing prepared him for the temptations he faced as a star athlete. Before he joined the NBA as an 18-year-old, fresh out of high school, he says his pastor and a few veteran players warned him of the perils of sleeping around. "You're a young kid, you're away from your family for the first time and you're lonely," Dawkins says. "You meet someone you think is pretty cool. Before you know it she's up in your room. Most men would be doing the same thing in that situation."

But most men will never face that situation. And one of the lessons of the Kobe Bryant sexual assault case is perhaps the extent to which the athletes in professional sports have been pushed so far outside the norms of society. They are held up as heroes, accorded status unrivaled in our society, and they pocket millions of dollars along the way. They are objects of desire and envy, love and hate. But at the end of the day, they are still just grown-up kids who can run faster and shoot a ball better than anyone else. To expect some higher moral code from guys who play ball for a living is probably unrealistic.

Not to excuse Kobe Bryant. He is a married man who cheated on his wife with a teenager. If convicted of sexual assault, he will be spending time in jail (conviction in Colorado carries a sentence of four years to life). But it shouldn't come as any shock to anyone that athletes misbehave. We have created this aberrant sexualized world in which they live. And in this strange world, it is not wishy-washy to see both sides of the case.

But regardless of which story the jury believes, the Kobe Bryant case is about the curious and grotesque world where sex and sports collide. It is about acting upon impulses without caution, about men and women using each other, of wary eyes being cast on every sexual advance, money and power overriding true love, decency and morality. And although many might fantasize about living in such a world, very few of us would find solace there.

By Dan McGraw

Dan McGraw is a writer living in Fort Worth, Texas. His memoir, "First and Last Seasons: A Father, A Son, and Sunday Afternoon Football" was published in 2000 by Doubleday.


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