COLUMN ONE : From Box Scores to the Police Blotter : 1995 was a rough year for athletes and the law. A host of high-profile cases helped link sports and crime in the public’s mind.
The late Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren once said that he read the sports section first because it records man’s accomplishments, while the front page reveals nothing but his failures.
But no section of the newspaper is safe anymore.
In a year in which the front page has been inundated with stories about a former football superstar accused of double murder, the sports pages have been barraged by stories about athletes and crime. A Times survey of 1995 court documents and newspaper and wire-service reports found 252 incidents involving active American or Canadian sports figures and the criminal justice system. These cases involved 345 athletes or team employees.
While there is insufficient data to determine if athlete-related crime has risen, experts say, there is no denying that--especially this year--sports and crime are increasingly intertwined in the public’s mind. Though criminal cases involve a mere fraction of people in the sports world, they have included some of its biggest names.
O.J. Simpson was acquitted of double murder in the fall. But the ordeal of the trial and the horror of the crimes left their mark. So have other high-profile cases. Among them:
Minnesota Vikings quarterback Warren Moon and World Series championship manager Bobby Cox of Atlanta were charged with spousal battery. Moon faces trial; Cox’s charges were dismissed and he was ordered to get counseling.
Among legal woes plaguing top-ranked University of Nebraska, running back Lawrence Phillips, once a leading Heisman Trophy candidate, was charged with assault after attacking a former girlfriend. He was sentenced to one year’s probation, restitution and counseling.
Ex-heavyweight champion Mike Tyson was released from prison after serving three years for rape. Former Ram Darryl Henley is in jail awaiting a new trial on drug charges. And then-University of Michigan football coach Gary Moeller was arrested after a drunken incident in a restaurant. He pleaded no contest and paid $409 in fines. He has since resigned.
The profile of sports and crime also has been raised, experts say, by the increased reporting of incidents--both by the alleged victims and by a more aggressive media.
Violence against women--including rape--was the most frequent criminal accusation made against athletes in the Times survey. Police say changes in society’s view of domestic violence are helping them make more arrests--of athletes and others.
Studies show an increase in athlete-related complaints in other areas as well.
“You have [more] athletes arrested for what I consider serious crimes . . . particularly against women,” said state Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren. “No doubt [the situation] is worse now than ever before.”
Some experts say that the violence in some sports contributes to criminal behavior off the field. In the Times survey, 209 of the 345 people involved in crime-related incidents played football, one of the most violent games.
Others say that crime has risen along with the rise in the legitimate money available in sports, not only in the pro ranks but in high-stakes college programs. They claim that the big money and privileged treatment given athletes encourage a strong sense of entitlement.
“I still cringe at some of the stuff you hear about. I am constantly talking with our guys [players], trying to get them to understand [how bad this behavior is],” said outfielder Tony Gwynn of the San Diego Padres. “Some will listen and with others you are just spinning your wheels. The bottom line is that just because you are good at baseball or any other sport, doesn’t mean you are above the law. For some of these guys it just doesn’t sink in.”
What many in society have realized is that athletes no longer can be counted on as role models. To some, this is a troubling turnaround. To others, the hero idea was a myth to begin with.
“We want to think that these athletes are heroes,” said Todd Crosset, assistant professor of sports management at the University of Massachusetts. “But in some ways, we don’t. Then we can yell at them and get into discussions about how there are no heroes anymore.’
More Aggressive Media
Since their unspoken pact to keep lives private ended in the early 1970s, athletes’ relationship with sportswriters has crumbled--along with the pedestals on which the media helped place them.
For decades, sportswriters had reported only action on the playing field. Life outside the lines was virtually ignored.
Ty Cobb said he once left a mugger for dead after a fierce struggle, and it was kept quiet by reporters for years. Babe Ruth, known as a carouser, once was chased through a train by a woman wielding a knife, but the reporter who saw it didn’t tell the story until he was on his deathbed.
The rise of sports television coverage changed the way reporters worked. No longer was it enough to cover games from press boxes. Reporters had to find out why a player arrived at the clubhouse with a black eye--because the camera would show it.
“I don’t want to be the guy to blame television. But where I sit at Dodger Stadium in the press box, I can see into the Dodger dugout a little bit, but I can’t see the manager sleeping--but the cameras can,” said Gordon Verrell of the Long Beach Press-Telegram, who has covered baseball since 1969.
TV also offered near-instant access to scores and details of a game, forcing reporters to focus more on players’ personalities. As writers began exploring more, they started uncovering more. And when they started writing more, the public’s appetite for off-the-field exploits became voracious.
That mirrored a change in society overall, sparked by the unrest of the 1960s and fueled by Watergate: people wanted more aggressive coverage of public figures. The media began exposing malfeasance--and sometimes the sensational among the previously protected.
So if the media were no longer ignoring the personal life of the president, why would they shield Pete Rose?
As the press--and the fans--began to scrutinize athletes more closely, another change occurred: the public no longer was as adoring of, or as intimidated by, an athlete’s status. As a result, more people have come forward with accusations.
Sometimes, athletes believe they are targeted unfairly.
“You are being watched a lot closer by people, and a lot of players think they can get away with anything,” Gwynn said. “People test you. I drive my Porsche with the license plate ‘TG 19' to the ballpark and there will be people who try to make you mad. They cut you off, test you to see if you will do something stupid.”
Warren Moon’s Case
Last summer, Warren Moon’s 7-year-old son dialed 911 after Moon struck his wife, Felicia, and choked her until she nearly passed out. He was arrested and charged with assault.
Three days later, Moon appeared on television with his wife and children. He issued a public apology and asked forgiveness. He said he had entered counseling.
But Moon’s apology wasn’t good enough for law authorities. When his wife asked prosecutors to drop the charges, they refused under authority of a new law in Texas, where Moon lives in the off-season. His trial is scheduled for February.
Changes in law and society’s awareness of domestic violence have prompted what many see as a stronger push now to prosecute athletes. But prosecution is one thing. Convictions, sometimes, are another.
“In our experience, generally it is more difficult to prosecute people of celebrity,” said Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, whose office prosecuted the marathon Simpson case.
In the Times survey, athletes were convicted 68% of the time, nearly the same rate as the general population (67%). But in cases involving domestic violence, they were convicted at a much lower rate, 36%, compared to 77% for the public.
Exploring this pattern, two sociologists at Northeastern University in Boston examined police reports of sexual assault cases involving 143 amateur and professional athletes over four years ending in 1994. They found that athletes who were accused of sexual assault were arrested at a much higher rate--79%--than members of the general population who were accused of similar crimes--32%. But they were convicted at a much lower rate--30%, compared to 54% overall.
“When we talked with various agencies, we found that police agencies and others felt that when an athlete came through, along with him came a great deal of media attention. So they would arrest him to try to look good in the eyes of the media,” said Alan Klein, who coauthored the study with Jeffrey Benedict.
“Between the arrest and conviction, though, is where the institution of sport and the legal system have this unholy alliance. This is where the sports safety net comes into play--those attorneys and institutional safeguards that are allotted to athletes that the average Joe on the street doesn’t have.”
Klein says the safety net applies especially in sexual assault cases, where the “groupie” defense is used.
“They [defense lawyers] will make it look like a woman’s background is so checkered that she may have given consent. The victim has be Mother Teresa to get a conviction. In other crimes, the conviction rate is higher because the crime is more easily determined.”
Some in law enforcement dispute that athletes are treated differently. The police supervisor who booked Moon said cases involving athletes can create more pressure on an officer, but ultimately are not treated differently.
“We have a lot of sports figures [in our precinct] and have made several arrests,” said Corp. Ray Smiley, a 22-year police veteran. In his area, he said, “there are no more arrests of athletes now than before.”
The “safety net” to which Klein referred can include intervention by teams, coaches and university athletic departments.
This year, Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne has had three players accused of crimes ranging from assault to second-degree murder. He has been heavily criticized by the media and local law enforcement, who allege that his comments proclaiming his players’ innocence and some of his other actions have interfered with the criminal justice system.
In one case, Osborne reportedly admitted that he and a then- assistant coach locked up a gun that belonged to a player before the player was charged with felonies involving a shooting in 1994. Osborne said the campus police knew about it.
“I really have not second-guessed anything that I have done,” Osborne said. “I really have tried to do the best.”
Such troubles have prompted Cedric Dempsey, the NCAA’s executive director, to advise athletic departments to stay out of such affairs. “No matter whether you’re right or wrong, there’s a perception that there is a conflict of interest,” he said. “I don’t think the coach has the responsibility to interfere with the process.”
Roots of Violence
Researchers say there is no evidence proving that athletes are more prone to violence than others. However, new research raises potential answers--and questions--in at least one area of concern.
A 1995 study of sexual assault cases found that male college athletes were involved in a disproportionate number of incidents. Researchers at Northeastern and the University of Massachusetts found 107 cases of sexual assault at 30 universities over an 18-month period. Male athletes, who made up 3.3% of the student body, were involved in 19% of the assaults reported on campus.
Some believe specific conditions may influence the relationship between athletes and crime.
Eli Chesen is a Lincoln, Neb., psychiatrist whose clients included the Nebraska football team from 1983 to 1993. He says a percentage of top athletes suffer from manic depression, which is hereditary and can lead to mood swings and aggressiveness. He said he also has found that steroid use--which can produce what is known as “ ‘roid rage"--is prevalent among college athletes.
Treatment for overly aggressive players has included “anger groups” and counseling, Chesen said. “But, to try and help a violent athlete with counseling is like trying to take a T. rex to charm school. A player [with manic-depressive illness] needs to be on medication, which helps correct the chemical imbalance.”
Crosset cites alcohol use. A new study by the Harvard School of Public Health found that binge drinking was higher among student athletes than in the general population.
Recreational drugs are a minor influence on athletes and crime, most experts say.
Still others believe that the core of violence is the connection between athletes and money, beginning with NCAA Division I programs.
“The kid going to [a small university] to play ball is still a student who is going to be an athlete,” said Klein. “The kid going to [a top football school] has been recruited by 80 other schools and has a sense of entitlement that is beyond anything you and I can conjure up.
“He is made to feel as if he is Michael Jordan already and included in that is the view of women as always at one’s beck and call. It’s a combination of that and never being held accountable for anything.”
But Joan Leitzel, interim chancellor at Nebraska, sees broader forces at work. She says violence among athletes mirrors society. “We should not be surprised out of many hundreds of students in intercollegiate athletics here that a very small percent get in trouble,” she said. “Now it’s very disappointing, especially when they do something way outside the standards of conduct.’
Sports and the Public
Last season, linebacker Winston Moss, then a Los Angeles Raider, punched Seattle Seahawk quarterback Rick Mirer after he was tackled, setting off a brawl. Moss was not caught by referees. When asked by a reporter about the incident, he said, “It’s not a cheap shot unless you get caught.”
State Atty. Gen. Lungren clipped the quote out of the newspaper and kept it as an example of a destructive message to young people, who traditionally have looked to athletes as role models.
“Sports competition is supposed to teach teamwork and sacrifice and in some ways, help develop character and discipline, showing that sacrifice leads to success,” he said. “But now we have trash talk, where it is me, me, me.
“Rather than the self-satisfaction of celebrating with your teammates, you don’t receive it unless you humiliate your opponent. . . . No society can [exist] if the measure of success is the degree to which you destroy another [person].”
If the public image has been tarnished, what of the business of sports?
Teams might suffer on the field if a player is lost to the criminal justice system. The St. Louis Rams lost Henley for this season, for instance, after he was found guilty of conspiring to run a cocaine ring.
Clubhouses may be put in flux by the distractions a troubled athlete can cause. The Dodgers were hurt by the myriad problems surrounding outfielder Darryl Strawberry, including an arrest on suspicion that he hit his girlfriend in 1993--although the district attorney’s office did not file charges. The Dodgers eventually bought out Strawberry’s contract, releasing him the day before the 1994 season began.
But trouble doesn’t seem to keep sports fans away. Tyson, providing he has a worthy opponent, will still sell out. Nebraska still draws capacity crowds. And television ratings don’t change.
Instead, fans may boo troubled players, as they did to Moon after his arrest. Besides protesting the crime, fans resent the intrusion, some say. Sports are supposed to be an escape to fun and fantasy. Not reality.
But the reality is that the sports section has been bringing lots of bad news.
On Jan. 28 this year, for example, The Times had a nearly all-crime sports front page. Articles included the plea bargain of Strawberry for tax evasion, the sentencing of former quarterback Art Schlichter for bank fraud and the story of a San Diego Charger wide receiver and his brother, a Florida death row inmate.
The next week’s letters to The Times expressed dismay.
Reader Ken Johnson of Pinon Hills wrote: “The articles pertained to a cancer death, a brother on death row, an ex-athlete convicted of bank fraud, an athlete going to jail for tax evasion, an abusive father and a commissioner discussing economics. Some Toy Dept.”
And Matthew A. Bernstein of Los Angeles had this request: “I wish you could bury all this negative information in the back under ‘Jurisprudence’ and just publish the Pakistani cricket scores up front.”
Earl Warren, no doubt, would have empathized.
Times staff writers Elliott Almond and Bob Nightengale contributed to this story.
Crime & Sports
* CAMPUS--The University of Nebraska has received the most attention for its athletes’ problems, but it is not alone. C1
* OPINION--Columnist Mike Downey says athletes, although we would like to believe otherwise, are not above transgressions. C3
* WOMEN--Scholars and social scientists say male athletes are more likely to be abusive toward women than other males. C4
* AFRICAN AMERICANS--Coaches say after-school sports, better role models are ways to decrease incarceration rates. C5
* OTHER COVERAGE: C3-10
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How the Story Was Researched
Times staff writers George Dohrmann, Houston Mitchell, Ara Najarian and Greg Sandoval and editorial library researcher Paul Singleton scoured electronic newspaper libraries, reviewing more than 1,500 Associated Press and Times articles. They searched for every nationally reported police incident, court appearance or other development involving professional or college athletes or team employees that occurred, was adjudicated or was settled between Jan. 1 and Dec. 15, 1995.
Mitchell and Singleton then searched more than 1,000 newspaper articles looking for resolutions to the incidents. Dohrmann followed up with more than 300 telephone calls to courthouses, newspapers and teams.
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By the Numbers
A Times study of nationally reported police incidents, court appearances, criminal action or other developments involving current U.S. or Canadian professional or college athletes or team employees that occurred in 1995, up to Dec. 15, found 252 incidents involving 345 athletes. The breakdown:
Total college: 209
Total pro: 136
College football: 160
Pro football: 49
College basketball: 35
Pro basketball: 21