Wednesday, October 19, 2005

And now another installment of the never-ending series, “Athletes Behaving Badly”: Law enforcement authorities are investigating reports of sexual misconduct by several Minnesota Vikings players aboard two chartered yachts nearly two weeks ago. People are shocked.

But they are not surprised. These, after all, are the dysfunctional Vikings, who within the year have seen their coach busted for scalping Super Bowl tickets, a running back caught in an airport with an elaborate device designed for cheating on drug tests involving urine and had other players involved in off-field incidents.

Besides, we have heard all this, or variations of the plot, before. Such news has come to be regarded as typical.

“It’s the NFL,” former All-Pro wide receiver Michael Irvin explained on ESPN on Monday. “You have a lot of guys making a lot of money, a lot of testosterone running through their bodies.”

Irvin should know. While playing for the Dallas Cowboys in the 1990s, he and several teammates kept a place called the “White House,” a stylish domicile whose amenities included prostitutes and cocaine. Many athletes have boldly ventured into choppy waters before the Vikings, many will make future attempts.

“I think the biggest thing for these guys is access,” said Jeff Benedict, a writer and lawyer who has authored several books on athletes’ misdeeds. “They have far more access to women and problems that arise from that environment than most other men. They have a lot of time on their hands. And they have a lot of money. Those things are very volatile.”

As for the testosterone — the aggression — some athletes have trouble leaving it on the field. These are men of action, around the clock, and perhaps it’s what got Seattle Seahawks safety Ken Hamlin into trouble early Monday morning. Mere hours after playing in a nationally televised game, Hamlin found himself in a bar fight. Witnesses say he did not start the altercation, but was decidedly the aggressor, refusing to back off, resisting attempts to pull him away.

As of last night, Hamlin was in serious condition in a Seattle hospital with a fractured skull and other injuries. One of the men reportedly involved in the fracas was later found dead in a nearby park.

“You see guys being menacing and intimidating, not everyone has that ability to switch it off,” CBS commentator and former San Francisco 49ers guard Randy Cross said. “Everyone wants to be the baddest guy on the planet.”

Whatever kept Hamlin from walking away might have been no more than a macho thing, an expression or defense of his manhood. But when athletes run afoul of the law or break society’s rules, be it through substance abuse, violence — sexual and otherwise — and other aberrant behavior, something beyond wealth and access and wanting to be the baddest might be going on here.

In the case of improper sexual conduct, many athletes “become conditioned through experience to think women are there for their use, or abuse, at times, and they’re not used to being told ‘no’ by women or by the people who employ them,” Benedict said. “And when women do say ‘no,’ sometimes they don’t handle it too well.”

Which raises the question of how they become “conditioned” to such thinking in the first place.

“When you have essentially the world at your feet laid out in front of you, it’s easy to think you’re immune to what applies to everyone else,” said Rich Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. “It goes back to the home, when an athlete displays extraordinary skills and he’s treated differently by his parents. … People don’t want to block their athletic path.”

Or put another way, “Male athletes are taught from a very early age that they are different, that they are exceptions to the rules,” Cross said.

Cross derives at least some of his insight from an athletic career that included 13 years in the NFL and three Super Bowl championships. Sharon Stoll’s background is a little different. A contributor to a forthcoming book by Lapchick, she directs the Center for Ethical Theory and Honor in Competitive Sports at the University of Idaho. Yet she and Cross agree completely.

“It starts as soon as an individual becomes successful and other people notice him,” Stoll said. “Everyone’s trying to do something good for the athlete. ‘You don’t have to take these harder classes.’ ‘If you get in trouble, we’ll take care of it.’ The result is, the individual has no skills and tools to make good decisions. They don’t have to buy their books. If they get in trouble, they call the coach.”

Stoll’s view is that we are all enablers. We just can’t help it.

“Athletes are good-looking, they’re talented,” she said. “We’re an entertainment society. We want to give them more and more and pretty soon they don’t have a clue about what’s acceptable in society.”

Stoll, who recently was hired by the Atlanta Braves to instruct their coaches in such areas as teamwork and anger-management, last year released a 17-year study in which she questioned 72,000 athletes, junior high to college. The result? Many (and far more males than females) lack what she calls “moral reasoning.” While acknowledging there are “good people” and “good environments out there,” she believes a problem exists.

“And it’s not just about money,” she said. “It’s the whole value structure.”

Cross said things weren’t much different when he attended UCLA in the early and mid-1970s, when the Bruins ruled college basketball. The football team was pretty good, too, and athletes were put on a pedestal.

“It’s always been like that,” he said. “When did scholarships start? Booster clubs? When did the idea of cheating start?”

Not yesterday.

Yet even in the wake of sex scandals and other unpleasantness at several universities, many in the sports community believe athletes do not get into trouble more than anyone else, that more intense media coverage only makes it seem that way. Unlike Stoll and others, they do not see the sports culture as being a significant contributor to athletes’ off-field problems, at least not today. They note that so-called “jock dorms” for athletes have been eliminated, and that the NCAA, as well as individual institutions, are trying harder to get athletes to assimilate into the university community.

“We’re making a much stronger effort,” Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione said. “I think student-athletes are much more part of the mainstream, not just on campus but the community at-large.”

Castiglione, who last year made OU one of a few schools to institute background checks for prospective recruits, said many of his athletes work in literacy programs, visit sick or terminally ill patients and get involved in projects like Habitat for Humanity, among other outside endeavors. And, he said, his school and others have become more diligent in educating athletes about such issues as substance abuse, sexual harassment and gambling, and that his coaches “are constantly reinforcing appropriate behavior.” Still, he said, only so much can be done.

“Every university out there, every one,” he said, “if it hasn’t happened to them, it’s just a matter of time until they face a situation where a student-athlete makes a poor judgment.”

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