This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's May 15, 2000, issue. Subscribe today!
THE STORY GOES LIKE THIS: An athlete answers the phone in his hotel room. A seductive female voice invites him to join some friends at a club. His wariness melts as the beguiling voice (which, in fact, belongs to a man) teases and cajoles. Cut to the club, where the athlete finds himself sandwiched between two beautiful women. Cut back to the hotel room. As the athlete walks toward one naked woman in his bed, the second slips away and opens the door. In bursts a photographer -- Snap! Snap! "Cut the points or else," the shyster growls.
Okay, it's a little "L.A. Confidential," but the video, Gambling With Your Life, is meant to alarm the rookies -- from the NBA, NFL and MLB -- who see it each year. So is the one on violence (domestic and barroom), and the one on the club scene. Rae Carruth and Ray Lewis have focused attention on the NFL, but the fact that all four leagues have programs on the dangers right outside the locker room shows they know that anyone can be next. And that their "assets" need protecting.
It's a losing battle. Young men with lots of money tend to get into trouble, and there's very little the older men who hand out the money can do about it. In July, security people from at least three of the big leagues (the NBA hasn't committed) will scrimmage over what more can be done to protect players. But as Larry Lee, who runs the Detroit Lions player programs, says, "It's like being a parent. You give them everything, and hope nothing happens to them. Yes, teams can put a morals clause in contracts, obligating a player to behave with some restraint." But how much good does that do when many players are so naive about the simplest things? "We have kids who come into the league who've never had a bank account or been out socially," says NFL executive vice president Harold Henderson. "We're considering ways to teach them how to order off a menu." Imagine, then, the difficulty of teaching manners when the menu offers much more than surf 'n' turf.
Deep down, the leagues know that what keeps players out of trouble hangs by two flimsy threads: judgment and luck. To help with the latter, all four of the big pro leagues have a security officer assigned to each team to keep an eye on players and check out unsavory characters (male or female). For the former, the leagues rely on game, if lame, attempts at education. Think high school sex ed, with better production values. This past March, for example, Kevin Hallinan, head of MLB security, embarked on his annual rite of spring: Making the rounds of training camps with his off-Broadway show in tow. With over-the-top videos (starring actors) and in-person advice (starring athletes), the revue bombards players with warnings about women, gambling and violence. "Players are always approached by fans offering meals, jewelry, clothes, women," says Hallinan. "I try to tell them there are no free lunches."
This message is vividly portrayed in the newest video, Dangers of Night Life, in which three athletes visit a strip club, are escorted into a VIP room by gorgeous women who ply them with liquor -- and quickly come to ruination. Narrators explain that Paulie Walnuts types target an athlete and dispatch a beauty to ensnare him. "I don't kiss and tell," a temptress murmurs as she surreptitiously laces our man's drink with Ecstasy. "It'll be a night you'll never forget." Then? His valuables disappear, or he's stopped for drunken driving, or he's so wasted that he can barely perform in the next day's game. "Or worse," says Stan Kasten, president of Atlanta's Braves, Hawks and Thrashers: "If you're not vigilant, they can get you in a blackmail loop in a flash." Hallinan's show was a follow-up to a 3 1/2-day seminar held in January for 90 MLB rookies and blue-chip minor leaguers.(Last year's program began with -- how perfect -- a meeting with President Clinton.) "Paternity suits can be a big problem, especially for Latin players," says Gene Orza, associate general counsel for MLB's Players Association. "A lot of players are gods back home, and the gap between their salaries and the average young woman's is enormous. Every year we see allegations of paternity galore. One former player had something like seven."
When educating players about the evil that lurks in skirts, it's important to teach humility, says Satch Sanders, who runs the NBA's player programs (including a 4 1/2-day seminar similar to MLB's). "I remind rookies of their physical, uh, prowess and the money they make. Then I say, 'If you were not that attractive to ladies growing up, believe me, you didn't turn into Denzel overnight. If two or three women are discerning enough to see your good points, fine. But 30 or 40? Can so many women be so perceptive?' " Of course, convincing a $10-million-a-year 22-year-old forward that he's not quite as "all that" as the ladies say may be the biggest lost cause in history. Keeping pro ballers out of their own way -- at least when it comes to the opposite sex -- may just be a task for greater powers. The Angels' Mo Vaughn, for one, trusts but a single person to vet all the gifts and letters he receives: his mom.