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.

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."

At the end of the 2000 season, every New Orleanian and their mother (that includes my typically sports-averse mother) buzzed that Saints wide receiver Joe Horn had impregnated teammate Willie Roaf's wife. The rumor spread so widely that, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, 49ers coach Steve Mariucci asked Saints coach Jim Haslett about the Horn and Roaf tittle-tattle during a postgame handshake. After a few months of silence, Roaf scuttled the rumors by telling the Times-Picayune thathe was his daughter's real father. Horn confirmed Roaf's declaration. "We make mistakes sometimes," Horn told ESPN, "but that is one mistake Joe Horn did not make. I did not sleep with Willie Roaf's wife."

After Roaf punctured the rumor, the Times-Picayune's Dave Lagarde wrote that a gaggle of readers had accused him and the paper of covering up the affair. No one accused the Dallas Morning News of trying to keep their hands clean when the Dallas Mavericks' Jason Kidd and Jimmy Jackson stopped talking to each other. In March 1996, the Morning News reported that Kidd and Jackson were feuding over a woman. Jackson's response, as recorded by the paper: "That's [expletive]." Three months later, the Morning News said the woman was R & B singerToni Braxton. Kidd and Jackson both denied knowing her. When asked if she dated either or both of the Js, Braxton refused to reveal if either man was man enough for her. The next season, the Mavericks traded both players.

Wannabe locker room Lotharios have to overcome the practical challenges of sneaking around a colleague. One helpful reminder: Always lock the bathroom door. In 2002, Australian rules football star Wayne "The King" Carey got caught in the loo with the wife of a fellow North Melbourne Kangaroo at a team birthday party. As the Aussie press frothed over "the biggest story in the history of the game," the King retreated to his hometown of Wagga Wagga to sit out the rest of the season in shame. "I've made plenty of mistakes," he said, "but this is the biggest mistake I've ever made." Perhaps he should have further reassured the public by adding, "I did not sleep with Willie Roaf's wife."

One obstacle to shagging your teammate's wife is that you're usually on the road when he is. Indians outfielder Rick Manning cleared that barrier by cracking a vertebra in his back and staying in Cleveland while he mended. According to Terry Pluto's The Curse of Rocky Colavito, Manning convalesced with his teammate Dennis Eckersley's wife, Denise, while the Indians were on the road. Upon his election to the Hall of Fame this year, Eckersley told the San Francisco Chronicle that he was "devastated, really emotional" after finding out about the affair. "I'm most proud of that year," Eckersley continued, "winning 20 under that type of stress." Manning and Denise Eckersley later married.

One good way to cover up an affair is the old "we were rehearsing" trick. Pro wrestlers Kevin Sullivan and Chris Benoit, and Sullivan's wife, Nancy, a manager who performed under the stage name "Woman," traveled together on the World Championship Wrestling circuit in the late 1990s. According to a 2000 story by the Cox News Service, Woman and Benoit, known for his patented German suplexes, started an on-screen affair when Sullivan, one of the circuit's creative directors, decided a Woman scorned would be good for ratings. The affair turned real, and Woman divorced Sullivan and married Benoit. (Update: In 2007, Chris Benoit killed his wife, Nancy, and son, Daniel, before killing himself.)

None of these escapades come close to approaching the majesty of the world's hottest locker room affair. Yankees pitchers Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson first swapped wives in the summer of 1972 after a late, boozy dinner at the house of Yankees beat writer Maury Allen. That October, the lefties made the wife swap permanent and threw in the kids, dogs, and furniture for good measure. When the news broke in March 1973, the Yankees were besieged with mail. "Nobody was for it," a team spokesperson told the New York Times. "None of the letter-writers or phone-callers said, 'Good going, guys.' "

Yankees outfielder Ron Swoboda, who was at that first dinner, describes the spouse trading as an "early '70s era thing." Still, "it was so far outside the norm," Swoboda remembers. "It was beyond anybody's realm of reality—except it happened." In his book All Roads Lead to October, Maury Allen says that despite Peterson's insistence that this was a clean-cut "life swap," it "was a sex thing, mostly." The sex must've been pretty good. While Mike Kekich and Marilyn Peterson flamed out after a couple of months, Fritz Peterson and Susanne Kekich were still married as of 2000.

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