Criminal element infiltrates US sports culture

John Carlin in Washington says the two Cowboys accused of rape are symptomatic of American football's dark side
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Michael Irvin, one of the most charismatic and talented players in American football, enters the new year contemplating the prospect of spending the next 20 years of his life in jail. The Dallas Cowboys wide receiver and Erik Williams, one of the team's best offensive linesman, have both been accused of rape.

A woman told police that on Sunday night, as Cowboy fans celebrated the team's weekend victory in the NFL play-offs against the Minnesota Vikings, Williams and another unidentified man raped her while Irvin held a gun to her head.

The Dallas police have not pressed any charges yet but after searching Williams' home on New Year's Eve they confiscated a gun and a homemade videotape depicting two men having sex with a woman. A police spokesman said that the woman who made the complaint had been taken to hospital shortly after she went to the police with bruises and abrasions on her body.

Irvin, the glamour boy of the Super Bowl champions, insists that he is innocent. "I'm looking forward to seeing how you guys go rewrite, reprint, rerun all these things about what happened Sunday night when you find out that I wasn't even at Erik's house," he said.

But he does have a record. Last year he was found guilty of drug possession and punished with a fine, 800 hours of community service and four years' probation. The judge who passed down the sentence warned him that if he violated the terms of his probation he would send him to jail for 20 years.

Williams, a fearsome giant of a man judged by many to be at least as valuable to the Cowboys' offensive game as touchdown king Irvin, was charged by the police with rape two years ago. The charges were dropped after the 17-year-old girl in question settled out of court.

It is tempting to conclude that you do not have to be depraved to play American football, but it helps. Consider just some of the events of December.

The police reported on New Year's Eve that they were investigating a woman's complaint that she had been sexually assaulted by a player of the Philadelphia Eagles, defeated in the play-offs by the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday; a University of Southern California player was charged with rape; four players on the Grambling State University football team in Georgia were accused of raping a 15-year old girl in a campus dormitory; two players at Virginia Tech, one of America's top college teams, were each charged on one count of rape and one of attempted sodomy. During the last year, 19 Virginia Tech players have been arrested for crimes ranging from rape to malicious wounding and assault and battery.

And then, of course, there's the case of arguably the greatest player of modern times, OJ Simpson.

There is clearly a rottenness in the state of American football. Many players appear unable to restrain the testosterone rage required on the field from spilling over into their off-game activities. The Cowboys appear particularly prone to scandal, with their head coach, Barry Switzer, hardly enhancing their image with his response to this week's events. "Both of them will play," he said.

Many American footballers, of course, are model citizens, some of them Dallas Cowboys. Take Bill Bates, a monstrously large linebacker with 14 years' experience in the NFL who is widely regarded in the game as decent and courteous in the Bobby Charlton mould. But the controversy generated by some of his more unseemly team-mates is clearly getting to Bates. In training on Wednesday, preparing for this weekend's play-off against the Carolina Panthers, he was wearing a baseball cap bearing the pointed message "Shut Up and Play".

Expanding on his feelings to reporters, Bates said: "For a guy who his whole life wanted to play for the Dallas Cowboys, you know, at times it really makes you sick to your stomach."

Troy Aikman, the no less gentlemanly Cowboys quarterback, struggled at a press conference to retain his diplomatic composure. Asked whether reports were true that he was considering retirement from the game, Aikman replied cagily: "I still love competing but there's some other things that have taken away from my enjoyment of the game."

Clearly the Cowboys have been traumatised by events off the field. Playing big games these days appears to have become an exercise in therapy as much as anything else, a balm of forgetfulness and merciful relief.

"I think we all enjoy getting out there on Sundays," Aikman said, "and putting everything behind us for three hours."