Cowboys Will Be Boys

EVEN BY THE SORDID OFF-FIELD standards that have come to symbolize football's Dallas Cowboys, the latest accusations were shocking. A 23-year-old woman told police that, one night after the team's opening-round playoff victory, she was raped at gunpoint by three men, including two Cowboys stars, at the North Dallas home of one of them, all-pro tackle Erik Williams. The woman, who has done some makeup work for the team's cheerleaders, said that Williams and another man raped her while superstar receiver Michael Irvin held a gun on her. And, she said, the incident was videotaped. Police, besieged by media inquiries about the allegations, revealed that they had searched Williams's home and confiscated a videotape containing sexual activity--and suggested that criminal charges might be imminent.

But by the end of the week, Irvin and Williams were preparing to fly off with the team for its second-round matchup with Carolina, and Dallas police were backpedaling like a defensive back. The police said that they had not interviewed--and had no current plans to interview--either player and that their inquiry might last "several days to several weeks." Williams and Irvin denied all charges, the latter with so much conviction that it would require dissembling skills equal to his football abilities. Irvin's attorney, Royce West, said that his client has an airtight alibi for the evening of the alleged attack. Williams told his lawyer Irvin hasn't visited his home in more than a year. The lineman insisted that he, too, has been "falsely accused." "I'm not a bad person. I realize the responsibilities and privileges that it takes to be a Dallas Cowboy," he says. "I'm looking forward to the truth coming out as soon as possible."

Whatever the truth of the accusations, what rang hollow in Williams's remarks was his sanctimony about what it means to be a Cowboy. Only an NFL flack would still call the Cowboys "America's Team"; from anyone else, it would be thought a slur on a great nation. Even before these accusation, the team led the league--indeed all leagues--in scandals; of the last 13 NFL players suspended for drug violations, seven have played for Dallas.

Both Irvin, 30, and Williams, 28, have had prior run-ins with the law. Williams's two-year probation from a drunken-driving charge recently expired. And in April of 1995, a 17-year-old topless dancer accused the 324-pound tackle of sexually assaulting her at his home; she settled with Williams out of court, and he was not indicted. Irvin is currently serving four years' probation on drug charges to which he pleaded no contest after he was found last March partying in a hotel room with a former teammate--and a couple of local dancers. The judge warned him that a revocation of probation would mean "you're looking at 20 years in the penitentiary."

The Dallas Cowboys have always been a wild and woolly bunch, the beneficiaries of a local culture that deifies its football heroes like no place else in the country. What has changed is that nobody in the organization, not owner Jerry Jones or coach Barry Switzer, seems willing to take responsibility for--or to do anything about--the team's disgrace, as long as it keeps winning. Tom Landry, who coached the Cowboys for its first 29 years, before Jones purchased the team, told NBC News that, while players deserve second chances to straighten out, "if they don't, then we have to get rid of them. The owner or the coach--they have the responsibility of developing the character of a football team."

By current scandal standards, both police comments and press speculation about the Irvin and Williams allegations have been relatively restrained. Irvin says that he is anxious to see if reporters "rewrite, reprint, rerun all these things about what happened Sunday night when you find out I wasn't even at Erik's house." But regardless of what really happened that evening at Williams's home, there is clearly a backlash against today's overpaid and overpampered athletes. The public seems eager to believe the worst about them. O. J. Simpson's case seems to have represented a turning point. "Obviously there is and always has been a huge problem with the way men in this country treat women," says Richard Lapchick, director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society. "But it was the O. J. Simpson case that crystallized it and brought the issue to public scrutiny."

No one, however, should jump to conclusions about Irvin and Williams in this case. What started out as another case of he said/she said has been weakened by questions about the women's credibility. Though the police report describes the woman as having "bruises, abrasions and scratches," police are clearly troubled by the fact that before reporting the attack to police she took her complaint to a well-known TV reporter. And her estranged husband publicly challenged her credibility, describing her as "melodramatic" and someone who twice previously--without contacting police--had falsely accused men of sexual assault.

The case may hinge on the videotape seized from Williams's home--and on the strength of Irvin's alibi. There are indications that the videotape does not conclusively put Irvin at the scene. Irvin's attorney would not reveal his client's whereabouts at the time of the alleged attack, but he says that a security guard at the gated complex where Williams lives will confirm that Irvin didn't visit that evening. Another Irvin lawyer told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that Irvin spent much of that night at the Cowboys Sports Cafe, a popular players' hangout owned by former Cowboys including Tony Dorsett.

The cafe, a restaurant/bar with a jukebox and two pool tables, is located in an Irving, Texas, strip mall a short distance from the team's training facility. On most nights, a few players can be found there, and a sign on the door warns "no autographs." While the cafE's management declined to comment on Irvin, a couple of self-described regulars told NEWSWEEK that they saw Irvin Sunday night. One says Irvin was shooting pool at about 6 p.m. Another, who says he frequently sees the "rude, crude and arrogant" receiver there, saw Irvin leaving the cafE at about 9:20 p.m. He watched as two "out-of-towners" approached Irvin to offer congratulations on his team's win only to have Irvin curse them and walk away.

Still, rudeness is hardly a criminal offense. And it is at least a 30-minute drive from the bar to Williams's home; the woman reportedly told police she was there from 8:30 to 11 p.m., so Irvin's alibi--and her credibility--ought to be easy to check. Furthermore, Irvin's attorney has subpoenaed--and received--a surveillance videotape from a 7-Eleven store at which Irvin supposedly stopped after leaving the bar. A close friend of Irvin's said he found the charges inconceivable. "He's done some silly things, but putting a gun to someone's head--no way," says the friend. "He has lots of women all over Dallas who want him. He doesn't have to force anybody."

A former Cowboy cheerleader familiar with the team's social scene says that Irvin and Williams haven't hung together since Irvin's bust. "After that Michael seemed to try to distance himself from anyone as prone to trouble as he was," she says. "He took the judge's threat of sending him away pretty seriously." She says that Williams's regular parties, attended by a number of players and cheerleaders, included a lot of sexual activity--some of it videotaped. Says one current Dallas cheerleader: "You don't go to Erik's to have cake and tea." Williams's lawyer, Peter Ginsberg, says the player sometimes makes videotapes of his partners giving their "consent" to sexual relations--arguably a wise precaution for a celebrity. He adds that his client has done nothing wrong.

After Friday's practice Irvin appeared relatively relaxed and sanguine about developments. "I feel real good, and I know this is going away soon," he told NEWSWEEK. "None of it is true, so I have nothing to worry about." That may not be the case for the Cowboys, whose attitude--"just another day around the block with these guys," says coach Switzer--seems painfully at odds with society's. The days of "boys will be boys"--even Cowboys--should be long over, and someone in the Dallas organization ought to be man enough to insist upon it.

PHOTOS (COLOR): Alibied? Irvin, facing 20 years if he violates probation, was spotted at a bar that night

PHOTOS (COLOR): "I'm not a bad person": Williams talked about responsibilities and priviledges

PHOTO (COLOR): "Just another day around the block": Coach Switzer meets the press

PHOTO (COLOR): Party time: Irvin looked cheerful after his arrest in March with dancer Angela Beck

FROM AMERICA'S TEAM TO AMERICA'S MOST WANTED

The once loved Dallas Cowboys are fast becoming the team people love to hate. Last week's allegations against Michael Irvin and Erik Williams were just the latest problems for a squad mired in off-field difficulties. Some of their troubles:

Leon Lett: Star defensive tackle has twice violated the league's substance-abuse policy and is serving a one-year suspension.

Broderick Thomas: In 1995 he was charged for weapons possession and drunken driving. In 1996 he signed with the 'Boys.

Erik Williams: All-pro offensive tackle cited for drunken driving in 1994; 17-year-old accuses him of sexual assault in 1995.

Shante Carver: Defensive end was suspended for the first six games of the 1996 season for violating league drug policy.

Michael Irvin: No-contest plea to drug possession gives him four years' court probation and a five-game NFL suspension.

Clayton Holmes: In 1995 the cornerback had a four-game suspension, increased to a year, for violating league drug policy.

Cory Fleming: The receiver, who is now out of the league, was cited by the NFL this season for earlier drug violations.

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