A Season Of Shame

As he turned 25 years old last week in an Atlanta courtroom at his own murder trial, football star Ray Lewis wasn't looking much like a hero. Wearing a sober suit, he scribbled notes on a yellow legal pad and talked to his defense team, barely glancing at his two codefendants just 10 feet away. It was a humbling posture for Lewis, who last season had another great year for the Baltimore Ravens, leading the league in tackles, making the All-Pro team, enjoying a new $26 million contract. He'd been swaggering then, hitting the clubs in a full-length mink coat and a much longer limo, surrounded by worshipful friends. But the night of the Super Bowl last January, outside a club called the Cobalt Lounge, there was a confrontation and two men died. Lewis has pleaded not guilty. A defense attorney asked one prospective juror what his initial reaction was when he saw the news reports. "I said to myself, 'Oh, no--not another sports figure.' It was just something I was tired of."

So is everybody else: tired, alarmed, angry. We revere our sports heroes, pay them millions, build a good part of our culture around their exploits. Our children want to emulate them. We expect the world of them. Are these expectations unfair? Maybe. But one thing is sure: now more than ever, these athletes are crashing and burning in front of our eyes. The sports pages are full of crime, drug incidents and assaults on women. Lewis wasn't even the only Pro Bowler in court last week. Green Bay Packer star Mark Chmura was charged with sexually assaulting a drunken 17-year-old, a regular babysitter for his children, at a post-prom party. His attorney has filed a motion seeking to dismiss the charges. And former Carolina Panther receiver Rae Carruth was awaiting trial for allegedly arranging a fatal "hit" on his pregnant girlfriend. He has pleaded not guilty. In just the past year, some three dozen NFL athletes have been arrested, while a host of other sports figures have found trouble. Just last week skater Tonya Harding was sentenced to jail for assaulting her boyfriend with a hubcap; coach Bobby Knight almost lost his job for harassing his players and anyone else who annoyed him. When NFL owners sit down at their annual spring meeting this week, the issue of athletes' off-field travails will top the agenda. Says Tampa Bay Bucs coach Tony Dungy: "We're in a danger zone."

The recipe for trouble has always existed in professional sports: ill-prepared young kids ushered too quickly into the spotlight, bathed in adoration, showered with riches, surrounded by hangers-on. But the money and media attention has intensified the pace of it all. New York Knicks star Latrell Sprewell, once reviled for choking his coach, understands it well: "Things come at you so fast sometimes you don't know what to do. We're only human."

Much has been said, too, about an ever-growing sense of entitlement, fed by our sports-crazed culture. "We put these people on a pedestal and give them more than what is their due," says Lew Lyon, a Baltimore psychologist who works with pro athletes. "Everyone tells them how good they are, and they believe it. There's this sense that they're above it all." Among that chorus: the proverbial entourage, the moochers, sycophants and predators who bird-dog sports stars. Calvin Hill, the former Cowboys running back and father of the NBA superstar Grant, says athletes are especially vulnerable. "They don't have the intuition or the skepticism."

But while many players say their friends are an invaluable support system, for others the presence of a "posse" can bring the violence of the streets back into their lives. Sports has always had its share of athletes with humble backgrounds. But as the industry becomes ever more efficient in discovering and grooming talent, more and more kids are being plucked out of the projects and other rough neighborhoods. Leo Armbrust, a Roman Catholic priest and team chaplain, screens college players for the Miami Dolphins. Of the 76 he interviewed this year, Father Armbrust says 27 had no connection to their biological fathers, seven had a member of their immediate family who had been shot and three had dads in prison--and that's just what was volunteered. "These young men are not from another planet," he says. "These are the times we live in. Until we understand the environments these young men come from, we don't have a clue about the pressures they're under."

Athletes have always been honored as heroes, but in our celebrity-obsessed culture they've reached a whole new level of visibility--especially if they're towering basketball or football players. There's no place to hide, not that they'd want to anyway. "This is a generation of young men who didn't have much growing up," says Harvard University Medical School psychiatry professor Alvin Poussaint. "So when they get something as adults, they wear it on their sleeve so people can be clear they made it. It's important to prove to everyone they've arrived."

And the style of proving it is filtered through the flash and attitude of hip-hop culture. Says NFL superagent Leigh Steinberg: "The rappers want to be ballers and the ballers want to be rappers." Deion Sanders's jewel-bedecked persona made him an original crossover figure, and even now that he's a preacher he's still high-style. "Maybe the guys back in the day didn't wear diamonds and furs, but it's a different day," he says. "I worked for them, I deserve them. I mean, how can you be young with money, good looks and fame and not take advantage of it?"

Such public posturing can be wholly innocent. Regardless, it can attract trouble. NBA star Anthony Mason has had more than his share of nightclub incidents, including a recent assault arrest in New York (he's out on $1,000 bail while the case is still pending). "Everyone's got something to prove," he says. "They think if they prove with you, that gets them a gold star. So you wear a little ice and they think you're flossing, and they start hating you. It's a no-win situation for us." Particularly when the slightest insult can provoke a serious confrontation. "In the hood you don't back down," says University of Southern California assistant professor Todd Boyd. "Any sort of accommodation is considered weakness."

It's even harder to accommodate, of course, when you're traveling in a pack of loyal friends who will do anything to protect your honor. And the athletes protect them back: it's the notion of keeping it real. Athletes from the poorest neighborhoods once sought to escape their old stomping grounds and every remnant of it. Today's stars fight to remain connected. "Staying true to the hood is extremely important to these young men when they make it," says University of Pennsylvania sociologist Elijah Anderson. "Being considered a sellout is the worst thing imaginable to the hip-hop generation. You may move out, but you can't let go of the hood or of the people who saw you come up. It's the kiss of death for you as a star."

Ray Lewis, as it happens, grew up in a relatively stable environment in Lakeland, Fla. He acquired an entourage only later on. When opening arguments in the trial begin this week, Lewis's defense attorneys will portray him as nothing worse than an unsuccessful peacemaker in a nasty street squabble. The implication will be clear: it was the other guys who were fighting, and Lewis is merely guilty of a questionable choice of companions. And they were questionable: one of his codefendants, an aspiring rapper named Reginald Oakley, was charged with some 25 criminal counts between 1985 and 1992; the other, Joe Sweeting, is a convicted felon who also did time in federal prison for a firearms violation.

The notion of a grown man led astray by his companions doesn't provoke a whole lot of sympathy. But Dana London, director of Transition Teams, an education and support group for pro athletes, says the continual demands on athletes from friends comes up more often than any other issue when young athletes talk about off-field problems. "Every friend's got a business idea, every one wants to hang out," she says. "When you're a professional athlete, you can't buy a friend a Civic. They want a BMW, a Lexus." Whatever the athlete's generous intentions, paying all the bills changes the dynamic. "If a person is part of your posse, they evolve from a friend into an employee," says Calvin Hill. Which fuses the friendships with tensions.

But it's only logical that some athletes would want to stick with their old buddies. "What are they going to start doing? Call Donald Trump or Bill Gates and say, 'Let's have a drink'?" adds London. Indeed, many athletes say their posses get them through. NBA superstar Allen Iverson still rolls with his homeboys--as many as eight, like Iverson, with baggy pants, oversize sweaters and cornrows--from a rough patch of his hometown of Hampton, Va. He supports them, and most of them bunk at his plush mansion in the Philly suburbs. "These guys are family, like blood to me," he says. "People don't understand how these guys fought for me as a kid. I can't and don't want to send them away just when I get a little success. They're who I am. Dissing them is like dissing me."

NBA Commissioner David Stern insists that "as a rule the posse thing has been a plus for us in the league," and cites Kevin Garnett of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Garnett arrived in Minneapolis right out of high school with his OBF--"Official Block Family"--from back home in Mauldin, S.C. "It's scary, but you can't trust anybody at this level," says the all-star forward. "I need people who knew me when. They keep me grounded."

All of this, though, merely widens the cultural chasm between today's stars, so many of them black from impoverished circumstances, and the largely white, upper-middle-class fans who buy tickets. Will they still pay? Team owners are increasingly distressed by the off-field ugliness, if only because they recognize the bottom-line implications. Take the NBA's Charlotte Hornets, which this year had almost as many courtroom as court appearances. Three Hornets were charged with crimes in separate incidents, a fourth was killed in a drag race and a fifth was cited for reckless driving. (Team owner George Shinn was also embroiled in a civil case alleging sexual assault, which he ultimately won.) Amid the distractions the team still made the playoffs, but played at home to a half-filled arena. In Green Bay, where the Packers face a critical vote on a $295 million stadium renovation, public support dropped sharply after Chmura's arrest.

The NFL may not admit to a crisis, but this year it has invested more money and time than ever in screening for prospective draftees, from investigations to psychological testing to one-on-one interviews. The league is also putting a little more sting in its response to off-field misdeeds. For the first time last season the NFL suspended players for off-field criminal activities. While the league conducts a mandatory four-day seminar for all rookies, it is considering requiring special counseling for those with checkered histories.

Programs and seminars are no substitute, however, for a little help from your friends--the right kind of friends. Wide receiver Randy Moss was one of the most talented players in the entire 1998 draft. But by the time he joined the NFL, he already had lost scholarships at Notre Dame and Florida State, served time for assault, had a second jail stint after testing positive for marijuana and had been charged with domestic battery against the mother of his two children. Those charges were eventually dropped, but they cost him millions of dollars when he wasn't drafted until the 21st selection. "You get a lot of attention at a young age, and it can really screw you up," says the Vikings star, who in two seasons has stayed out of trouble and is now the best receiver in the game. "You get into things and you don't know how much they're going to haunt you down the road. It's so easy to get caught up in the moment, and one thing leads to another until you can't stop it. Then you deal with the consequences--and boy do you have to deal with them for a long time."

Moss had someone to lean on. Even before the first training camp, Vikings star receiver Cris Carter, a born-again Christian who says he "dabbled in the gutter," was on the phone to Moss volunteering his services as a mentor. The world of athletic stardom can be as insular as the police force--nobody can understand a cop except another cop. "Cris had been there and knew what it was like to go down the wrong path--way down," says Moss. Carter says he believes the best approach is a buddy system, a one-on-one, athlete-to-athlete approach. "The NFL has done all it can with its programs," he says. "At a certain point, it's on the individuals." Moss agrees. "There are a lot of haters out there who want you to screw up, so you have to check yourself," he says. "But at the end of the day, it's on you if something goes down." That's certainly true. But because they're athletes, it's on the rest of us, too.