Sports Illustrated on 26 March 2007

Troubling Times

by Jeff Benedict

Troubling Times

These days it's tough to distinguish stories about professional athletes from episodes of Cops. Over the past three months, on-field heroics have been eclipsed by reports of homicides, a triple-shooting that prompted a manhunt for the gunman, violent altercations with police officers, various physical assaults, and a weapons bust that yielded six unlicensed guns and 550 rounds of ammunition. In each case, a pro athlete was involved as either the alleged perpetrator, a suspected accomplice or associate, or as the victim.

What's behind this most recent rash of violence among highly paid athletes? The crime scenes shed light on a dirty little secret that's dragging the image of pro sports into the gutter. An examination of police and published reports revealed that all of the aforementioned incidents took place at a strip club or a nightclub, between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m.

"It's a cliché, but there's nothing but trouble [early] in the morning," says Los Angeles Clippers center Elton Brand. "You have to know your surroundings. There are places that you know will be no problem, [like] a nice restaurant or nice upscale lounge. There are other places that you know have a track record. You know that you don't need to go there."

But not all players follow this wisdom, and some are getting caught up in or causing trouble, particularly several in the NFL. By SI.com's count, nearly 60 NFL players and coaches have had to deal with some kind of criminal accusation since January 2006, while nearly a dozen each NBA and major league baseball players/coaches have been in trouble with the law during that span.

"Our guys have to realize that they are not invisible, that when you're a player everyone knows who you are," says Gene Upshaw, president of the NFLPA, who disputes the notion that players today are spending more time in clubs then when he played in the late '60s through the early '80s. "Our players are targets -- they [other patrons] don't like that because you're an athlete you get to walk right into an establishment. You don't have to wait in line and then all of a sudden all of the girls approach."

There's a lot of truth to the scenario Upshaw describes, and recently there have been a number of ugly incidents involving athletes:

  • On New Year's Eve, Denver Broncos' cornerback Darrent Williams was slain when his Hummer was sprayed with bullets shortly after 2 a.m. Williams had been partying at a Denver nightclub with teammates and members of the Denver Nuggets. Published reports indicate that a dispute inside the club preceded the shooting.
  • On the same night in Minnesota, Vikings wide receiver Travis Taylor was arrested outside a nightclub when he reportedly failed to heed an officer's request that he get into a waiting limousine-bus as police tried to clear a crowd so an ambulance could get through. Ultimately, officers used a Taser to subdue Taylor before charging him with misdemeanor assault and disorderly conduct. The case is pending.
  • In the midst of the Bears' Super Bowl drive, lineman Tank Johnson was arrested on Dec. 14 after a SWAT team raided his home and found a cache of guns and ammunition. Already on probation for being caught with a loaded 9 mm handgun outside a Chicago nightclub in June 2005, Johnson publicly apologized and received a one-game suspension. But two days later Johnson went with his bodyguard, Willie Posey (a convicted felon), to a nightclub. Posey ended up getting gunned down. On March 15, a judge sentenced Johnson to four months in jail for violating probation in the 2005 gun case.
  • In Las Vegas during NBA All-Star weekend, police made more than 300 arrests, a record even for Sin City. The worst incident was a triple-shooting at a strip club. A manhunt for the gunman led police to question Tennessee Titans cornerback Adam (Pacman) Jones, who reportedly entered and left the club with the shooter. Police have seized more than $80,000 that Jones allegedly showered on 40 strippers, a move that police say triggered a melee that ended with gunshots. Jones has not been charged, but he has retained the same high-powered criminal defense lawyer who defended Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, charged with murder (and later acquitted) in 2000 after the stabbing death of two men outside an Atlanta nightclub.
  • On Feb. 21, Indiana Pacers guard Jamaal Tinsley and teammate Marquis Daniels were indicted for their role in a violent altercation at a saloon. In a published police report, Tinsley is accused of threatening to kill the bar's staff. Both players maintain their innocence and the case is pending.
  • And next month, Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Jackson is scheduled to stand trial on felony and misdemeanor charges following his arrest last October after a brawl broke out at a strip club in Indianapolis (He has pleaded not guilty). Three other players were present at the club with Jackson, who was on probation at the time after pleading no contest to assault and battery for his role in the infamous Pistons-Pacers brawl with fans in 2004.

The fact that all of those recent cases took place or began in a nightclub, strip joint or a bar is no coincidence -- these establishments have become a home away from home for many pro athletes. During rookie transition camp, the NBA warns its players about these dangers. "They cover a lot of things," says Brand. "It's about finances; it's about women, places to go, places not to go. They also meet with you two or three times during the season. But there comes a time when guys need to take it upon themselves."

The NFL Players Association invests a lot of time in warning its players, too. In fact, last season Upshaw visited every team in the league to pound home the message. "I made it a point because we had so many incidents in the [2005] offseason," says Upshaw. "It might not have been more than normal, but it seemed to be so many so close together."

Upshaw says that he told the players, "We can't be in a situation where people believe that we are a bunch of guys who are out of control, we beat our wives, we drive drunk, we get into all these incidents. We have to be careful about the image we are projecting."

It's easy to overlook the significance of spending too much time in clubs, where athletes stand out, booze flows and women dance nude. After all, it's not illegal. But research suggests that indulgence or excessive time in these clubs warps these players' perception of women and shortens the distance between deviance and crime. While writing Public Heroes, Private Felons: Athletes and Crimes Against Women, I reviewed more than 600 instances in which college and pro athletes were accused of physical or sexual assaults against women during a 10-year span. The prosecutors and defense attorneys interviewed from these cases disagreed on the players' guilt and innocence. But both sides agreed that today's top athletes can easily develop a distorted perception of women as a result of repeated opportunities for sexual favors and consensual sex.

The leagues and players unions are quick to point out that when athletes get arrested they receive an extraordinary amount of press coverage, even for minor offenses. For example, countless people face DUI charges and we rarely read about it. Yet last month the DUI arrest of then Colts running back Dominic Rhodes made national headlines. But this is largely due to the fact that days before the arrest Rhodes had appeared in the Disney World television commercial as a reward for rushing for more than 100 yards in the Super Bowl.

While writing Pros and Cons: The Criminals Who Play in the NFL, I worked with law enforcement officials across the U.S. in performing criminal background checks on more than 500 NFL players from the 1996-97 season. We discovered that 21 percent of them had been formally charged (arrested or indicted) with a serious crime. Many of the cases I examined involved female victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Players with a history of hanging out in strip clubs and pursuing sexual encounters with groupies or prostitutes were often the ones who ultimately ended up facing criminal charges of sexual assault.

At the time, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello downplayed the findings in Pros and Cons. "We think we have a pretty good handle on what our players are involved in -- the good and the bad," Aiello said. "This book is going to portray half of our players as a group of criminals and I don't think there is any way that we are going to be able to change that."

In 2003 I performed a similar investigation for my book Out of Bounds: Inside the NBA's Culture of Rape, Violence and Crime. This time I checked the criminal history of nearly 200 NBA players and found that 40 percent of the players from the 2001-02 season had been the subject of a formal criminal complaint for a serious crime. NBA Commissioner David Stern disputed these statistics. "The percentage is a fabrication," Stern said at the time. "There is a difference in being convicted of a crime and being accused of one."

Says Upshaw, "By no means am I trying to say we don't have bad apples. Every orchard has bad apples. But what I'm saying is don't paint all of our 1,900 with the same brush."

Part of the problem is that too many high-profile players continue to enter what ought to be a forbidden zone. In 1999 the FBI raided the infamous Gold Club, an Atlanta strip club known for catering to pro athletes. Dozens of athletes from the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball were implicated in the case as recipients of illegal sexual favors. No athletes were indicted. But some received subpoenas ordering them to testify. The X-rated admissions of big-time stars such as Patrick Ewing should have sent a powerful signal to the leagues that some of their stars were playing a dangerous game off the field.

To their credit, the NFL and the NBA provide lots of advantages to insulate their players from trouble. But at some point it's up to the individual to make common sense choices. "The NBA will send security guys with you on the road or even at home if you need it," says Brand. "You can have one all the time. But to me, if I need to go somewhere with a security guard, that's somewhere I don't need to go."