Stephen J. Dubner





Selected journalism by Stephen J. Dubner
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Life Is a Contact Sport
By STEPHEN J. DUBNER
August 18, 2002

The bananas are distributed first. Young women from the league office tote them on their hips in big wicker baskets. Then come the condoms, in smaller baskets. Given the sheer plenitude and the wicker, the enterprise almost has the feel of a summer-camp picnic. One banana and one condom for every young man in the hotel ballroom, 262 of them, the entire rookie draft class of the National Football League. Then the woman onstage, a grandmotherly dynamo named Sandra McDonald, commands the rookies to practice technique. The condom is a condom, and the banana is. . . .

There is a fair amount of snickering. In her sweetly hectoring Southern accent, McDonald, an AIDS counselor, tries to shush the rookies. ''Someone in this room,'' she says, ''is gonna go get AIDS because y'all are not listening.''

If the bananas don't get their attention, the photographs do: extreme close-ups of gonorrhea and syphilis and herpes infections. The room quakes with groans and wails.

Now they are listening. Now they are grabbing for the microphone. How did Magic Johnson really get H.I.V., they want to know. (''I don't know,'' says McDonald, ''I'm not Magic Johnson. But we need to respect what he said -- that he had a lot of sex with a lot of different women.'') Is it true, they want to know, that AIDS was invented in a laboratory to kill off young black men? (''Baby, we're in the fire now; we don't have time to find out who struck the match.'') One rookie asks about oral sex -- can you get AIDS that way?

''I know that one's close to y'all's hearts,'' McDonald says. ''And I wish I could give you a blanket permission, but I can't. I would not want you to be the first person in the world to get AIDS that way.''

Another rookie waves his hand. ''I've heard a lot of horror stories about women setting up guys,'' he says. ''So, is it true that if a woman puts K-Y jelly in her vagina, it'll, like, burn up a condom?''

Such woman-as-predator tales are common among professional athletes, and McDonald has come to expect them. ''No, baby, that's not true,'' she says, ''but that's a real good question.''

And so it goes for the rest of her hour onstage. She knows how to talk to the rookies. She knows that, physically, they are grown men (and then some), but in other significant ways they are not. The average rookie is a man-child in the promised land. He has some growing up to do -- and the promised land, Sandra McDonald and others are here to tell him, is not quite as he imagined it. Some of the rookies will make a great deal of money, but many will not. Some of them will bring home trophies, but most will not. And a few of them will get in big trouble.

The sports pages this summer have been full of mayhem and stupidity. Baseball suffered the triple threat of steroids, strike and Seligry. Vacationing basketball writers were kept busy covering the former all-star Jayson Williams (who is charged with aggravated manslaughter in the shooting of a limousine driver) and Allen Iverson (who supposedly threw his naked wife out of their house in the middle of the night -- ''in the manner of an aggrieved Fred Flintstone putting out the cat,'' as Sports Illustrated blithely put it -- and then went looking for her). Al Unser Jr., who has twice won the Indianapolis 500, was arrested on charges that, while drunk, he hit his girlfriend in the face and abandoned her beside an interstate, also in the middle of the night. As Unser admitted after the charges were dropped, ''I made some very poor choices.''

In late June, the N.F.L. convened its rookies in the hope of teaching them to make choices that aren't so poor. For the better part of four days, the league commandeered La Costa Resort and Spa, north of San Diego, for a ''rookie symposium.'' Every drafted rookie was required to attend (or pay a $10,000 fine), from the No. 1 pick, David Carr, to the lowly seventh-rounders. They were not allowed to leave the premises without permission, or have guests, or drink alcohol. Cellphones and pagers were banned from the proceedings, as were do-rags, bandannas and sunglasses. The N.F.L. is working hard to breed the thug life out of any rookie so inclined. From 8 a.m. until 10 p.m., the players would sit through lectures about the pitfalls that await the unwary: paternity suits and domestic-abuse charges, bar fights and drug stings, crooked financial advisers and greedy hangers-on. The symposium would play like a blend of motivational seminar, boot camp, and ''Scared Straight,'' full of cautionary tales.

The greatest cautionary tale, however, was an unspoken one. The N.F.L. has been holding this symposium for six years. Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association began similar versions even earlier. Which means that, of the relatively few professional athletes who do hit the crime blotter, the vast majority have already heard and not listened.

In the ballroom, Harold Henderson, the executive vice president of labor relations for the league, welcomes the rookies with congratulatory vigor: ''You're in the N.F.L and your life will never be the same again!'' They respond with a round of prideful tittering. ''The average rookie makes $460,308,'' says Henderson. ''We might have our first $100 million career player here in the room!'' They sit back in wide-body leather chairs, a sea of Fubu and Sean John, of cornrows and farm-boy buzz cuts. And yes, they are huge. Huge in a different way than in seasons past -- since the N.F.L. outlawed steroids more than 10 years ago, football bodies are more KFC than A.A.S. -- but still huge. At the sign-in desk, I came upon Bryant McKinnie, a 6-foot-8, 343-pound lineman from the University of Miami; it was like coming upon an upended S.U.V. He smiled, gently, from high above.

Having pumped the rookies up, Henderson now deflates them. ''Seventy percent of you in this room will make the opening-day roster -- and 30 percent of you won't,'' he says. ''Almost 50 percent of you will not be in the league after four years.''

Mike Haynes, a Hall of Fame defensive back who is now vice president for player and employee development for the N.F.L., joins Henderson onstage. ''How many of you guys know what you want to do when your N.F.L. career is over?'' he asks. Only a few dozen rookies raise their hands. Haynes gives a chiding smile. This is a paradox the rookies would confront throughout the symposium. As athletes, they must have blinding confidence in their abilities; now they are being asked to envision their careers flaming out at any moment. ''The N.F.L.,'' as Sandra McDonald would say later, ''stands for Not for Long.''

The opening-night panel discussion, ''Life as a Rookie,'' features four budding N.F.L. stars who were rookies last year. Kendrell Bell, a Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker, tells of his great awakening to the verities of income tax: ''I got a million-dollar signing bonus. But then I got the check, and it was only $624,000. I thought, Oh, well, I'll get the other half later. Then I found out that's all there was. I thought, They can't do this to me. Then I got on the Internet and I found out they can.''

Richard Seymour, a defensive tackle for the New England Patriots, describes the hazing a rookie should expect: at the very least, running errands for the veterans and carrying their sweaty pads. (At the worst, a veteran may try to break a rookie's skull -- for it is the veteran's job, after all, that the rookie is trying to win.) One night, Seymour recalls, the Patriots rookies had to take the Patriots veterans out to dinner. The veterans ate aggressively and drank Cristal. Seymour's share of the tab: $15,000. That, he says, was when he decided to put himself on a budget. And he decided that, when old friends came looking for handouts, he had to say no.

One rookie in the crowd stands up. ''People have been investing in me all my life,'' he says. ''I can't just shut them all off.''

Seymour shoots him a look. ''Now that you're in the N.F.L., everybody's going to say they be for you,'' he says. ''But all they're going to be for me is leeches.''

The next day, over lunch with the Oakland Raiders rookies, I learned that the leeching had already begun. The phone calls started back in April, when the rookies were drafted. ''Some of my homeboys were wanting to put together a rap group, and they needed $8,000 to shoot a video,'' says Keyon Nash, a defensive back who grew up in Colquitt, Ga. ''I said, 'Man, I never even heard you rap.' ''

The other Raiders laugh knowingly. Most of them have taken to carrying two cellphones: one for family and ''real'' friends, the second sometimes called a ''girlfriend phone.'' According to a loose survey I conducted during the symposium -- of players, counselors and league and union officials -- roughly 50 percent of the rookies have fathered children. (About 10 percent, meanwhile, are married.) The mothers of those children are often shunted to that girlfriend line.

''I heard from an uncle I hadn't seen in six years,'' says Napoleon Harris, a linebacker whom the Raiders drafted in the first round. ''He wanted two things. He wanted free tickets, and he wanted me to set him up with girls. And I started hearing from a cousin I hadn't seen since I was 10. He's been in jail and everything. He was calling me every day, sometimes twice in 20 minutes. A couple weeks ago, I had to snap. He says, 'I'm just calling to tell you how happy I am for you.' I had to say: 'Look, dog, I know you're happy for me. I'm happy for me, too, and I'll get a lot happier when you stop calling my [expletive] phone.' ''

Harris grew up in suburban Chicago (he made the National Honor Society in high school) and graduated from Northwestern. He is sharp, funny, confident. Some rookies at the symposium seem cowed by the step up to the N.F.L.; not so Harris. ''This is what guys like myself dream about all your life, to be a superstar,'' he says. ''When I'm done, 12 or 14 years from now, I want these guys sitting here saying to you, 'Hey man, I want to be like Napoleon Harris; he changed the game.' ''

Harris was considered the best linebacker in this year's draft. (One scouting report called him a ''big hitter with a touch of nasty.'') Like many of the rookies, he hasn't yet signed a contract, which means he hasn't yet been paid. Contracts would be signed in the coming weeks, toward the start of training camp in late July. But Harris knew what to expect. As the No. 23 pick overall, he would be paid about $3 million as a signing bonus, plus a salary of at least $225,000, the rookie minimum. (A sixth-round pick like Keyon Nash, meanwhile, would get a signing bonus of just $45,000 and, if he makes the team, his salary.)

Although they would hear a great deal during the symposium about not spending money that wasn't yet theirs, about the wisdom of buying mutual funds versus $60,000 S.U.V.'s, a lot of players are already driving S.U.V.'s. Their agents or bankers have been only too happy to extend them credit. Some of them buy cars for all their old friends. Andrew Park, a social worker who led sessions during the symposium, told me why: ''They lack refusal skills because they've never had anything to refuse before.''

I ask Napoleon Harris what he has spent so far. ''All I spent was $8,000 last Christmas,'' he says. ''But $6,000 of that was for a mink coat for my mom. My father, he passed away when I was 16. I'm the oldest in the family.'' Harris is wearing a pair of small hoop earrings with tiny diamond chips. I ask how much they cost. ''No, I got these for free from a jewelry store back home. I gave them some autographs, sent some friends there.'' What, I ask, will he do with his signing bonus? ''I think I'll just put it up. They told us about the N.F.L. having a 401(k) with a two-for-one match, so that's a win-win situation. There's only one thing I want to do now, which is get my mom a house. That's a must.'' Harris fingers one of his earrings. ''I'm a mama's boy,'' he adds, matter-of-factly.

The rest of the Raiders, half-listening to Harris over their plates of roast beef and fried chicken and macaroni and cheese, start nodding in agreement. ''Gotta get Mama that house!'' one of them says. And they all burst out with a laughter beyond happy.

Most of the rookies admit they would rather be elsewhere. The symposium cuts into the last vacation they'll have until midwinter. Where, I ask Joaquin Gonzalez, a seventh-round pick of the Cleveland Browns, would he be if not here? ''To be totally honest?'' he says. ''I'd be home, sleeping off a hangover.'' Between lectures, and sometimes during them, rookies bolt themselves into bathroom stalls for half-hour phone calls to their agents.

Back in the ballroom, Zachary Minor has taken the stage. ''Character,'' he tells the rookies, ''is what you do when you're angry, afraid or bored, and no one is watching.'' Minor is an educator and actor from New York who, with his troupe of seven other actors, stages bad-news scenarios for the rookies in all four major sports leagues.

Minor writes the N.F.L. scenarios in consultation with the league. They are meant to be ultrarealistic, and they are. In one scene, two actors play a pair of rookies who discover that the woman they shared in a hotel room eight months earlier -- consensually, they thought -- is charging them with sexual assault. As the real-life rookies watch, they probably know that Darrell Russell, a Pro Bowl defensive tackle for the Oakland Raiders, is currently awaiting trial on similar charges.

Between scenes, Minor adopts the mien of a prison counselor or storefront preacher. His mantra: ''Choices. Decisions. Consequences.'' He'll say it a thousand times by symposium's end, and although the rookies start to mock it, they can't seem to forget it either.

In another scenario, a ballplayer decides to kick his live-in girlfriend out of the house. ''You better think long and hard about telling me to walk,'' she tells him, ''because I'm going to walk with half.'' It turns out that his girlfriend has already seen a lawyer. She and the ballplayer have been cohabiting long enough, she explains, to be considered legally married.

En masse, the rookies boo. ''That's not fair!'' they shout, and more unprintable terms. Minor calms them down. ''Every state has its own common-law marriage statute,'' he says. ''When you get to your states where you're playing, please make yourself aware of what that statute is.''

The scene continues. The ballplayer badly desires to smack his girlfriend in the head. That desire, encouragingly, also brings boos.

''Good!'' Minor says. ''Remember: Choices. Decisions. Consequences. We all get angry. But you've got to deal with it appropriately. Each of you has a player-development representative on your team -- use them. Go to them for help. You're not a bad person for going to counseling.''

Domestic and sexual assaults are hardly new problems. In early 1996, shortly after O. J. Simpson was acquitted of murder, two members of Congress wrote to N.F.L. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, urging him to address ''repeated tragic examples'' of football players' violence against women. The league held its first rookie symposium the following summer. A year later, in ''Pros and Cons: The Criminals Who Play in the N.F.L.,'' the authors Jeff Benedict and Don Yaeger argued that violence against women was only part of the problem. ''Our research,'' they wrote, ''shows that 21 percent -- one of every five -- of the players in the N.F.L. have been charged with a serious crime.''

The league is still steaming about that claim. At the symposium, I spoke with Milt Ahlerich, a former F.B.I. assistant director who is now the N.F.L.'s security chief. ''The guys who wrote this book 'Pros and Cons' took players from something like the time they were 15 years old until they were 45, and showed that they had criminal records over that time,'' he said. ''Give me a break!''

Before each year's draft, Ahlerich's office compiles a criminal background report on all likely draftees. Those reports are hardly exhaustive, Ahlerich said. ''We're not going out and knocking on doors and saying: 'What kind of kid was Johnny Johnson when he was around here? Did he smoke dope in the backyard?' ''

But, increasingly, individual teams do go knocking on old doors. They track down high-school girlfriends and guidance counselors. They also put the players through strenuous predraft interviews and psychological testing. One night during the symposium, between the end of lectures and the 12:30 a.m. bed check, I sat up talking with Jeff Hatch, the New York Giants' third-round pick. (He was bleary-eyed. La Costa Resort is overrun with rabbits, and one of them got in Hatch's room two nights earlier; its rustling kept him awake.) Hatch is a 6-foot-7, 310-pound offensive lineman, a Penn graduate and this year's only Ivy draftee. ''It was unbelievable,'' he said of the predraft testing. ''You're just being grilled by these people. I must have talked to 15 or 16 teams. The Giants, you may or may not know, are notorious; they give you this 438-question test. It takes an hour and a half if you're moving decently. Questions like, Did you ever put a dog in the microwave? Or like, If there's no cops around, do you speed?''

Milt Ahlerich contends that the N.F.L., its teams and the players' union are conspiring to minimize the crimes committed by players. ''This symposium is very successful,'' he said. ''It's a tone-setting device; it raises the expectations with the players. But we will not save all souls here, and it's hard to measure the souls that were saved.''

Ahlerich further contends that, despite the claims of ''Pros and Cons,'' N.F.L. players are in fact arrested at a lower rate than young men in the general population. And a variety of independent studies back him up. But the perception of N.F.L. gangsterism was fixed, perhaps indelibly, three summers ago, when two players stood charged with murder in separate incidents. Ray Lewis, a Baltimore Ravens linebacker, ultimately pleaded guilty to obstructing justice and returned to lead the Ravens to a Super Bowl victory. Rae Carruth, a wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers, went to prison for helping gun down his pregnant girlfriend.

Since then, the N.F.L. has freighted the symposium with speakers who try to scare the rookies into lawfulness. Irving Fryar, a recently retired wide receiver, is such a speaker. ''We're going to have some idiots come out of this room,'' he begins. ''Those of you feeling good about yourselves, stop it. You ain't did nothing yet.'' Fryar recites his career stats: 17 N.F.L. seasons, a drug habit since he was 13 and four trips to jail. ''The first time, I was stopped in New Jersey,'' he says. ''I was on my way to shoot somebody. Driving my BMW. I had guns in the trunk, and I got taken to jail. The second time, also guns. Third time was domestic abuse. Fourth time, it was guns again. No. Yeah, yeah, it was guns again. Things got so bad for me, I put a .44 magnum up to my head and pulled the trigger.'' Now Fryar is a minister. ''When I was a rookie,'' he says, ''we didn't have anything like this. I had to learn it the hard way. Don't use me as an example of what you can get away with, brothers. Use me as an example of what you shouldn't do.''

Fryar exhorts the rookies to, among other things, dress with class. ''Why,'' he asks, ''do you guys wear your pants down below your butt?''

It's plainly meant as a rhetorical question, but one rookie stands up to answer. ''Najeh Davenport, Green Bay Packers,'' he identifies himself. ''It's comfortable. That's what this generation is about. Kris Kross did it, and we do it.''

The other rookies laugh, and Fryar pounces: ''You're going to tell me you follow some little boy?''

Davenport keeps talking, digging a deeper hole. His tone, though, is less defiant than vacant. He used to cinch up his pants with his shoestrings, he says, but now he uses his shoestrings in his shoes. The other rookies start to jeer him; Fryar stops just short of cursing Davenport. Finally he sits down.

There are more scary stories. Marcus Spears, a veteran offensive lineman with the Kansas City Chiefs, tells the rookies about sitting out his first season with an injury. ''I turned to drinking a lot,'' he says. ''And on occasion, I'd smoke some sticky. We'd go to these strip clubs, and I would get so drunk, I'd drive home and not even know I drove home. Four, five, six times a week. And in the off-season, I really thought about trying to kill myself.''

Alongside Spears onstage is Luis Sharpe. The rookies are informed that Sharpe is attending the symposium ''through a special arrangement with his parole officer.'' With his short-sleeve shirt, plain tie and high-water pants, Sharpe has the determined look of a repentant. A onetime first-round draft pick and All Pro, Sharpe now lives and works at a drug-rehab center in Phoenix. In a grave voice, he recalls how he was making $2 million a year when he was shot twice and then -- though Sharpe doesn't detail his own crimes -- landed in prison. ''One day, a guard was killed,'' he says, ''and everybody was locked down. They took us outside, in the Arizona heat, laid us down with our hands behind our backs, on concrete for four or five hours. One guard came up to me and said, 'Yeah, Sharpe, you're not a Pro Bowl player now, are you?' ''

The rookies are edging forward in their seats. A couple of them dab at tears. Sharpe's voice is so brittle with longing and regret that you cannot help feeling for him -- and hope that your own life unspools in exactly the opposite direction.

Then, as if pained over the gloom he has cast, Sharpe offers a bouquet: ''I know that Christ is alive today, and that he wants to touch each and every one of your lives. So listen to the guys on this stage. And go to your Bible studies.''

The rookies applaud robustly. Marcus Spears and Irving Fryar, too, will tell the rookies that things got better only when they turned their lives over to Jesus. Again, heartfelt applause. At such moments, all the raunch and bravado washes away; the symposium feels like a church sleepaway camp.

If it is generally agreed that Jesus is the force that will lift up a football player, it is also agreed that two other forces exist only to bring him down. The first is the media. ''When you mess up, they'll be all over you like bees on honey,'' Greg Aiello, the N.F.L.'s chief media spokesman, warns the rookies. But without the media, Aiello reminds them, there wouldn't be fans, and without fans, there wouldn't be million-dollar paychecks. The All Pro receiver Keyshawn Johnson advises the rookies to play the media game before it plays them. When he was drafted six years ago by the New York Jets, he says, the first thing he did was investigate all the New York beat writers to learn their tendencies.

The other great destructive force? Women. ''The C.I.A. has nothing on a woman with a plan,'' Irving Fryar tells the rookies. ''There are women who have a plan to trap you. It's going to happen to somebody in this room.'' Marcellus Wiley, a San Diego Chargers veteran, advocates ''keeping a stable'' of women to avoid undue complications. ''You ugly?'' Wiley says to the rookies. ''Don't matter no more. Green, dog, it's all about the green, and you got green. The root of 'dating' is 'data,' and that means you gotta find out some information on her.'' In one of Zachary Minor's staged scenes, a ballplayer recounts to a teammate the fight he just had with his girlfriend. ''She wanted me to hit her!'' he screams. ''She wanted me to hit her!''

Later, through his rabbit-induced weariness, the Giants' lineman Jeff Hatch reflected on the symposium's teaching about women. ''If you came down from Mars and saw all this,'' he said, ''you'd think that women were an evil, evil species.''

Despite spending $750,000 on the symposium, the N.F.L. would not, as Ahlerich predicted, save all souls. On July 2, Rodney Wright, a Buffalo Bills rookie, would be arrested on felony hit-and-run charges. A week later, Najeh Davenport, the baggy-pants defender, was also arrested, on charges dating back to April. In the wee hours, Davenport supposedly entered a women's dormitory at a Catholic university in Florida, found his way into a sleeping student's room and, for reasons that remain unclear, defecated in her laundry basket.

But the vast majority of rookies I spoke with as the symposium wound down seemed grateful for the experience. A cynic might view the symposium as nothing more than the N.F.L.'s effort to protect its costliest investments. Any rookie who was willing, however, could learn a great deal -- about medical benefits and identity theft and investment strategy -- that could only better their chances for a sane life off the football field.

Now the symposium is over. Outside La Costa's main building, the rookies stand in the sun, waiting for the airport buses. I fall to talking with Larry Ned, a running back drafted by the Raiders. A sixth-round pick, Ned isn't banking on a marquee career. ''It didn't scare me,'' he says of the symposium, ''but it did put everything in perspective. I'll be all right, though. I'm a businessman. I have a formula I'm going to stick with, which is investing in things where there's high demand and low maintenance. Like storage bins in university towns. Laundromats in lower-income areas. Things like that.''

Alan Harper, a New York Jets fourth-round pick, also found the symposium helpful. As for dating, however, he already has a system in place. ''When you go to a club and you meet a lady, if you tell them you're from the Jets, they're going to think one thing: money,'' he explains. ''And we don't want them to think that. We want them to look at you for what you are.''

Harper glances over my shoulder, distracted. A dozen rookies have clustered in a tight, noisy swarm -- is it a fight? -- and are quickly joined by another dozen. After a moment, the object of their attention is revealed: a shiny black Cadillac Escalade. Its doors are open, its music pumping, its rims gleaming. Word spreads quickly that Keyshawn Johnson drove it down from Los Angeles. It has been fully customized, at a total cost of $105,000. And Johnson, at the center of the rookie swarm, is handing out business cards -- for the car-customizing shop he owns in Los Angeles.

Alan Harper returns to his nightclub story. ''So when me and Bryan go out'' -- Bryan Thomas, the Jets' first-round pick -- ''and we're talking to some ladies, when they ask, 'What do you do,' we say, 'We pick up garbage.' And if they're willing to talk to you if you pick up garbage, and take you for what you are, you might have something.''

How long, I ask, does he keep up the act?

''Once you talk to the girl, you get to know her a little bit,'' he says. ''You let her know, 'I play for the Jets.' Or, usually, when they see your car.''

What kind of car, I ask Harper, does he drive?

''An Escalade.'' He nods toward Keyshawn Johnson's. ''But mine's maroon.''