Sunday April 9, 2000
American sport is facing a state of emergency because of the behaviour of its bad boys. It's not only dealing with troublesome lads but violent criminals, murderers, wife-beaters and racists.
Concern about the stars' position as role models last month provoked an emergency summit meeting of the National Football League - now known as the 'national felony league'. Other sports such as baseball and ice hockey are also affected by the trend.
The league called the summit to discuss the fact that, out of 103 NFL players arrested for crimes during 1998 and 1999, only 10 had been fined or suspended by the league.
A hero of the Carolina Panthers football team stands charged with first-degree murder, shooting the woman pregnant with his son. Rae Carruth is alleged to have been drunk when he allegedly opened fire during a domestic row.
Ray Lewis, the star of the Baltimore Ravens and one of football's prize possessions, waits in jail charged with a vicious double murder, a multiple stabbing outside a dance club in Atlanta on the night of the Superbowl, the Cup Final of US sport.
Tennessee Titans cornerback Derek Walker was convicted of assaulting the mother of his son. Leonard Little of the St Louis Rams was suspended after killing a woman while drink-driving, Steve Muhammed of Indianapolis is charged with two counts of battery against his pregnant wife Nicole - she crashed a car 10 days later and was killed.
Two players from the Buffalo Bills are charged with sexually assaulting two off-duty policewomen, and two others from the Kansas City Chiefs are named in an FBI affidavit on a drug-pushing ring.
Jumbo Elliot of the New York Jets awaits trial for assault, while his team mate Matt O'Dwyer allegedly kicked out a police car window after being arrested in the same incident.
Football is not alone. The saga of Darryl Strawberry of baseball champions New York Yankees - alcoholic, cokehead, prostitute client and alleged wife-beater - was back in public last month as 'The Straw' discharged himself from a drug rehab clinic.
Few professional sportsmen have the friendly fireside image of Kevin Stevens, the Mr Nice Guy of ice hockey, now with the New York Rangers. He was, like Gary Lineker, advertising potato crisps.
So the police in Collinsville, Illinois, were surprised when they battered down the door of a neighbourhood pimp wanted for questioning.
There, with what was described as a 'deer-in-the-headlights look' was our Kevin. 'I'm a crackhead,' said the dazed prostitute he was with, 'but he's a crack monster.'
Stevens's wife Suzanne is in the final months of a difficult pregnancy - he is under arrest and cleaning out at a rehab unit in Connecticut.
John Rocker of the Atlanta Braves presents the baseball authorities with other problems.
He said he wanted to 'put it all behind him' when he returned to Atlanta after having said he hated New York because of the foreigners, single mothers and homosexuals, and slammed one of his own black team mates.
'I'm not a big fan of foreigners,' he said, singling out 'Asians, Koreans, Vietnamese, Indians and Rus sians - how the hell did they all get into this country?'.
He was suspended for a close-season month and fined $20,000 (by an arbitrator called Shyam Das, a 'foreigner' born in England). But the matter hasn't ended there.
As the baseball season re-opened last month, the authorities were faced with the fact that their sport has provided an icon for America's most rabid neo-Nazi websites.
Among them is 'Stormfront', the most outrageous white supremacist organisation on the Web, which has a corner supporting Rocker:
'What the Jews and liberals fear most is the truth,' says the site, 'we need to support John Rocker.' Stormfront's director, Don Black, says Rocker 'pretty much says what most people feel'.
Rocker has been invited, but declined, to condemn his new-found neo-Nazi friends. Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner has refused to comment, unlike David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, who says Rocker's views are shared by 'millions of upstanding Americans'.
Even before he pitched a perfect ninth inning against Detroit on his homecoming for the Braves, Rocker was awarded a standing ovation by the fans.
The summit discussed measures amounting to a state of emergency: they include targeting 'at-risk' players by probing their backgrounds, psychiatric screening and pooling psychiatrists' information, and setting up psychiatric 'support groups' around each team.
'We're trying to re-assess our entire policy,' said commissioner Paul Tagliabue. 'The NFL cannot tolerate conduct that victimises other individuals and results in a loss of respect for NFL players.'
One psychologist hired by the NFL to conduct counselling sessions for its criminals is Frank Sepler, newly attached to the accursed Baltimore Ravens with the Lewis case to reckon with.
He told The Observer : 'Some pro athletes believe if they are good enough, the rules don't apply to them. My opinion is the world of sport creates that sort of mentality. You believe you are kind of above the consequences that most of us are held to.'