Athletes and women can be a dangerous mix

A group of attractive women, dressed to be noticed, stake out a hotel lobby in search of NBA rookies. It happens most every year.

The newest NBA millionaires gather in late September for a mandatory six-day rookie orientation program. The seminar was in Tarrytown, N.Y. No cell phones or pagers were allowed. No leaving the hotel.

The rookies — including schoolboy legend LeBron James — were tutored by the league on everything from table manners to gambling to AIDS to violence against women. This particular year, as NBA star Kobe Bryant faces sexual-assault charges, the lessons seemed especially urgent.

Often, on the first night of orientation, the rookies are cornered by those women in the lobby. The women flirt, and in some cases, make plans for later in the week. Imagine the players’ surprise when the next morning, the same women walk into the seminar (some with incriminating audiotapes) and reveal they were plants — paid for by the NBA to illustrate the wild world the rookies are about to enter.

“At my orientation, this really pretty lady we met later told us she was HIV positive,” said former University of Miami guard John Salmons, now with the Philadelphia 76ers. “They wanted us to see the dangers out there. They warned us about groupies poking holes in condoms, having hidden cameras and stuff like that. The temptations are hard to turn down, but if you don’t, you are subject to big problems.”

Bryant and Florida Marlins catcher Ramon Castro are both involved in rape cases — Bryant in Eagle, Colo., and Castro in Pittsburgh. Both are married. Both have children. Both have admitted to consensual sex with their accusers, women they met on the road, hours before the encounters.

Nobody but them and their accusers know what happened in those hotel rooms, but this much is known: Pro athletes live in a hyper-masculine subculture where sex is available at every turn, where mail piles often are littered with nude photos, where team loyalty can outweigh marital loyalty.

This climate can pose dangers to athletes and the women they get involved with. Athletes can be victimized by predatory women. And women can be victimized because some athletes, so accustomed to getting what they want, assume they are entitled to get their way in the bedroom. When they don’t, it can lead to misunderstandings and much worse.

No matter how many warnings athletes get from their leagues — the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball cover this topic in rookie orientation — the scandals continue.

Scams on athletes

The FBI has gotten involved in investigating a scam in which a woman poses as a groupie, slips a drug into an athlete’s drink, goes to his room, he passes out, then she takes compromising photos of him — sometimes with a male accomplice.

The New York Daily News reported that this happened to at least one Yankee, and an NBA source said a similar incident happened during the 1995 All-Star weekend in Phoenix.

More often, the headlines are about athletes accused of rape and other forms of violence against women. Roughly 100 athletes per year — college and pro — face charges of violence against women, according to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports.

Steven Ortiz, a sociology professor at Oregon State, spent four years researching a book on pro athletes and their marriages. He interviewed 47 wives of professional athletes, plus several of the athletes.

“Men objectify, trivialize and sexualize women in all walks of life, not just sports,” Ortiz said. “But in sports, that mentality is combined with what I call the ‘spoiled athlete syndrome,’ a condition that begins when boys 6, 7, 8 years old begin to get preferential treatment because they can run fast or throw a ball.

“That intensifies as the kid gets into high school and college, when coaches, cheerleaders, fans and media enable the young man to feel that he is entitled to be treated differently. Then, as a pro, he believes he can be absolved of accountability.”

Peer pressure

Ortiz found that several male athletes also cave to peer pressure in the locker room.

“Teammates form a brotherhood, a family unto themselves, and for some athletes, that loyalty is more valued than marital loyalty,” Ortiz said.

Angela Wilder, ex-wife of former NBA star James Worthy, said during a recent 20/20 interview that she chose to ignore groupies and signs of her husband’s infidelity. Worthy was arrested in 1990 and charged with soliciting a prostitute.

“I was the Seabiscuit NBA wife and just kept those blinders on,” Wilder said.

Sports and promiscuity are hardly new partners.

Wilt’s 20,000 women

NBA Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain boasted in his autobiography of having sex with 20,000 women. The infidelities of baseball players Steve Garvey and Wade Boggs were highly publicized. Sports Illustrated reported that basketball player Shawn Kemp fathered seven children out of wedlock with six different women.

Julius Erving admitted in a Philadelphia magazine story that in addition to tennis player Alexandra Stevenson, whom he fathered out of wedlock with a reporter 23 years ago, he has a 5-year-old illegitimate son named Jules from a liaison in Orlando.

A trial two years ago revealed that several high-profile athletes, including basketball player Patrick Ewing, baseball player Andruw Jones and football player Terrell Davis, had sex with dancers at the Gold Club, a strip bar in Atlanta.

On the eve of the 1999 Super Bowl in Miami, a few days after being named the NFL’s Humanitarian of the Year, Eugene Robinson of the Atlanta Falcons left his wife and children at the team hotel and was arrested for soliciting a prostitute on Biscayne Boulevard.

The Dallas Cowboys of a few years ago pooled rent to sustain a two-story home they called “The White House,” a secret getaway where players could have sex with women away from their wives.

Wives and girlfriends

Sources told The Miami Herald in 1999 that players on a half-dozen other NFL teams had similar arrangements. Athletes are known to swap half their game tickets with teammates so their wives and girlfriends won’t wind up sitting together.

“It happens in the NBA, too, private places certain guys go, knowing their teammates will cover their steps,” said Ed Pinckney, a former NBA player and Miami Heat announcer now an assistant coach at Villanova. “Bogus phones, bogus beepers, ways to stay in touch with girlfriends. My locker used to be right next to Reggie Theus, and for every 10 letters he got, five contained nude photos. It was ridiculous — girls on Corvettes, tables, you name it. It was a locker-room joke.”

Did living in that environment, and seeing the X-rated mail, make Pinckney and his teammates think differently of women?

“It made it hard to trust women, but in my case, I wouldn’t say it made me respect women less, just those kinds of women,” he said. “But I could see where some guys would not have a healthy attitude toward women after seeing what you see out there.”

Pinckney stressed that despite the wild stories, the majority of athletes he knows do not engage in that kind of behavior.

Seven of 10 say no

“There are guys who are really wild, no question about it, but it’s not like every married guy on every team cheats and every single guy has 10 girlfriends,” he said. “LaPhonso Ellis is one of the greatest family guys around, Dwyane Wade comes in as a rookie with a wife and child, and there are plenty like them. I’d say seven out of 10 guys say no to groupies, but those other three take the risks, play the percentages and say, ‘Who’s going to know?’ “