The biggest taboo in sports.

The stadium scene.
Dec. 22 2004 2:36 PM

Locker Room Affairs

The sordid history of the biggest taboo in sports.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

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.

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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."

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