Sex and drugs scandal threatens to engulf Cowboy

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The Independent Online
Once again, a mighty name from American sport is in disgrace. Darryl Strawberry, Jose Canseco, Mike Tyson, John Daly - from wife-beating and rape to drug or alcohol abuse, the offences may differ. Rarely, however, the basic circumstances: a witches' brew of celebrity and media scrutiny, and an individual's arrogance and naivety that leaves him unable to handle it. Now Michael Irvin has joined the list.

Barely two months ago, Irvin stood on his sport's Everest, a linchpin of the Dallas Cowboys team that picked up its third Super Bowl in four years with a 27-17 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, a wide receiver coming off the best regular season of his career, 111 receptions for 1,603 yards in 1995. Of the most famous and valuable franchise of any US sport, he was one of the marquee names, along with Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Deion Sanders.

But a fortnight ago, Irvin hit rock- bottom, indicted on charges of cocaine and marijuana possession after he and former Cowboys tight end Alfredo Roberts were caught by police in a Texas motel room, along with two prostitutes and a range of drug paraphernalia. The cocaine charge alone carries a potential maximum of 20 years in jail and a $10,000 (pounds 6,800) fine.

Given that he is a first offender, Irvin could escape with probation, and his attorney, Kevin Clancy, insists he is innocent, victimised by police because of his fame. But if convicted, his reputation and NFL career would be in shreds. The league operates a strict anti-drugs policy, and at the very least Irvin would be subject to two years of constant random testing, as well as possible suspension.

Last week, the scandal took a bizarre twist when Irvin told listeners to a Dallas radio station that he had been a target for extortion. A threat was made to blow up his lawyer's office, Irwin said, unless he paid $120,000. A man sent to collect the the money was arrested. "We tell him we need to see his boss to get a receipt," Irvin told listeners. "He goes and gets his boss and they come back to get the money. Well, of course, they arrest them right there because it's extortion."

Irvin added: "There have been all kind of blackmail attempts on me and my family."

For the first of two grand jury appearances, the 30-year-old Irvin was the epitome of the flamboyant sports mega-star, decked out in a full-length black mink coat and signing autographs for the scores of fans who mobbed him on the court-house steps. But when he was summoned again two days later to provide more testimony, the mood - and the garb - were changed. No smiles, no autographs, just a sober double- breasted suit and tie, with Clancy doing the talking.

Speaking last week, Irvin said that his case had become "a media game", but added: "I'm not blaming anybody for my situation. I shouldn't have been in that room. God knows I wish it wouldn't have happened. I'm not blaming anybody. There's nobody I can blame but myself for that."

Irvin's is a poignant tale. One of 17 children, he grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, became a college football prodigy at the University of Miami before being drafted by the Cowboys in 1988. He now lives in the smart Dallas suburb of Carrollton with his wife, Sandi, a former cheerleader for the Miami Dolphins. A rags-to-riches fairy-tale, in short. Until 4 March and a motel in Irving, Texas.

"My client is being selectively prosecuted because of who he is and because of his stature as a player," Mr Clancy says - and probably he is. Athletes are idols and role models as few others, and if America's war on drugs is ever to succeed, children must learn that their heroes are not above the law. But there is scant sign of prosecutors using the plea-bargain to zero in on Irvin. Angela Beck, the 21-year-old woman who claimed to own the drugs, faces the same charges, and a glass container with cocaine traces was found in the footballer's overnight bag.

The only consolation for Irvin is that it could have been worse. Sammy Smith, a 29-year-old former NFL running back, faces from 20 years to life in jail after pleading guilty last month to cocaine possession and distribution charges. Two other Dallas Cowboys, Clayton Holmes and Leon Lett, were suspended last year for drug offences, although criminal charges were not brought, while the Steelers' own running back, Byron Morris, was also charged a fortnight ago in Texas with cocaine possession.