The locker room affair, the biggest taboo in sports.

Previously published Slate articles made new.
Feb. 3 2010 12:43 PM

Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Teammate's Wife

The locker room affair, the biggest taboo in sports.

The British press is reporting that John Terry, the captain of England's national soccer team, had an affair with teammate Wayne Bridge's girlfriend and paid for his mistress' abortion. Back in the United States, it emerged this week that former American soccer captain John Harkes was dismissed from the 1998 World Cup squad due to allegations that he was carousing with teammate Eric Wynalda's wife. Back in 2004, Josh Levin explained that "[s]leeping with your teammate's wife isn't typically the best way to build team unity." The original article is reprinted below.

There are only a few locker room commandments. No music after a loss. The most comfortable chairs go to the veterans. The rookies carry the bags and buy the doughnuts. And no man should covet his teammate's spouse, nor his girlfriend, nor even his mistress. If an athlete wants to play it completely safe, he should never follow the lead of Karl Malone and, in full Western regalia, sidle up to his ex-teammate's 22-year-old Latina wife and tell her he's "hunting for little Mexican girls," allegedly take note of his remarkable similarity to her "daddy," and allegedly ask, "Do you like me?"

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

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In 1970, journeyman pitcher Jim Bouton's tell-all book Ball Four peered into the less wholesome side of team sports, outing Mickey Mantle as a peeping tom and exposing pretty much every baseball player as a womanizing souse. Thirty-five years later, the libidinous athlete has become a harmless cliché. But the locker room affair—now, that's still a thrilling taboo.

Anna Benson, FHM's pick for "baseball's hottest wife," grabbed attention recently by floating the idea of an illicit clubhouse romp during an appearance on Howard Stern's show. If her husband, Mets pitcher Kris Benson, ever cheated on her then she would "do everybody on his whole team," she told Stern. After a bit of egging on, Benson agreed that this hypothetical locker room gang bang would also include coaches, groundskeepers, and bat boys. The New York Post's headline the next day: "MET WIFE: I'M A TEAM PLAYER."

Sleeping with your teammate's wife isn't typically the best way to build team unity. Neither is suggesting, like Karl Malone, that you'd love to spend quality time with your teammate's wife if given the opportunity, preferably while wearing a cowboy hat. Such a breach of clubhouse conduct is enough to allow Kobe Bryant to portray himself as the victim of poor sexual etiquette. "The comments that [Malone] said," Bryant lamented, "I don't know any man in this room that would not be upset about that."

But other professors of locker room ethics argue that Malone, not Bryant, is the aggrieved party here. "[G]uys like myself inside locker rooms, we get so upset when we hear foolishness like that in something coming out of Kobe's mouth," proclaimed Deion Sanders after Bryant tattled to the press. "He's broken every rule or ordinance you can think of as a player."

Sanders is right: Libel and invasion of privacy laws tend to keep the press from circulating anything but innuendo about alleged sexual trysts as long as athletes and their sex partners keep their mouths shut. For every locker room affair published in the newspapers, a half-dozen more rumors—most typically of the form "Player A is screwing Player B's wife"—float through the press box and make their way onto online message boards.

Sometimes the whispers get so loud that one of the subjects goes public to defend his reputation. In 1996, practically everyone in North Carolina had heard the gossip that University of North Carolina point guard Jeff McInnis had been sleeping with Phil Ford's wife. In his book A March to Madness, sportswriter John Feinstein delicately alludes to Duke fans razzing McInnis about "personal animosity between him and assistant coach Phil Ford." As that year's NBA draft neared, McInnis broke the official silence when he told the Charlotte Observer that Orlando Magic staffers had quizzed him about the allegations that he was leaving school early due to the fallout from an affair with Ford's wife. His answer: "Nothing ever happened. She is often hugging players. … The Duke people blew the whole thing up."

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