SPORT IN ANOTHER COUNTRY; High moral cost of win-at-any-price mentality

Rupert Cornwell, in Washington, reports on the extraordinary trial of Michael Irvin
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The Independent Online
Technically, just one man is on trial. It was after all Michael Irvin, superstar wide receiver of the Dallas Cowboys, who on March 4 was discovered in a hotel room with two topless dancers and, more important, criminal quantities of cocaine and marijuana. Michael Irvin, and only he, was target of the bizarre $30,000 (pounds 19,300) contract we now learn was later taken out by a Dallas police officer - apparently in response to threats made by Irvin against the officer's girlfriend, herself another topless dancer working the flashy clubs where the Cowboys stars would go for a little R&R.

Splendid stuff, and more than enough to distract the country's attention from weightier sporting matters like the Olympics. But the Irvin case is more. Morally, an entire team is on trial - along with its owner, the city whose emblem it has become and, more generally, an arrogant, above- the-law attitude that is corroding American professional sport.

Irvin, a child-man who rarely thinks further than himself, is one embodiment of that ethos. But his culture is a team's culture, shaped in turn by the culture of its oilman owner, Jerral Wayne "Jerry" Jones. He is Dallas' special entry in the pantheon of American sports moguls, a veritable JR of that mostly unloveable breed. For him, winning is an end that justifies every means. Hence his end-run around the NFL's $37.2m cap on total team salaries, designed to prevent the league being utterly dominated by a few big-market teams who buy up the best players. But in 1995, Jones contrived to pay his stable of stars $62m, including $13m to the defensive back Deion Sanders alone. Instead of wages, he doled out huge signing bonuses, respecting the letter if not the spirit of the law.

The win-at-any-price approach has paid off on the field: three Super Bowls in four years, and emergence of the Cowboys as the most valuable franchise in US sport, worth an estimated $272m. Off the field however, it is another matter.

Gazza's birthday high jinks on Cathay Pacific are monastic self-control alongside the continuing excesses of the Cowboys. Since 1994, two players have been suspended for drug violations, two charged with drunk driving, and two more accused of sexual assault. And now Irvin, the latest example of the absence of a moral compass at the highest levels of sport in the United States.

The 15th of 17 children from an impoverished family from Fort Lauderdale Florida, he learned at school (where larceny charges were dropped to keep him on the team) that there is one code of behaviour for sports stars, another for everyone else. "Can I tell you who I am?" Irvin asked police called by a desk clerk to check the suburban Dallas hotel room where he was cavorting. For his grand jury hearings, he turned up in a white limousine and a black ankle-length mink coat, as befits a Dallas Cowboy. Just for the record, Irvin is also married with two young children.

Or take Nate Newton, the Cowboys offensive lineman, explaining the "White House," a local residence allegedly rented on occasion by Irvin and a colleague for a more private form of R&R. "We've got a little place over here," Newton told the Dallas Morning News, "where we're running some whores in and out, trying to be responsible, and we're criticised for that too." Not, however, by anyone in authority at the team.

A moment then, perhaps, for Jones and the team coach, Barry Switzer, to show a little contrition, and point out to their millionaire charges that some basic and universal standards of human conduct do exist ? Not a bit of it. For Jones, Irvin is hapless victim of his own and the Cowboys' celebrity. Did the team have a drugs problem, Jones was once asked. No, he answered, it was the league which had the drug problem, with its over- strict testing rules.

In fact the NFL, custodian of one of the most violent sports on earth, is a pussycat when dealing with its errant stars. A rehab course, maybe a short suspension, was all Irvin might have expected. And, at least until the sensational injection of a murder plot into proceedings, the law would probably not have been much tougher. Technically, he faces a prison sentence of up to 20 years, but usually a first offence for cocaine possession is punished by probation. Who knows, if the court buckles down, it can wrap up matters in time for Irvin to report to the Cowboys' training camp on July 17. Just as if nothing has happened.

But this time, among the wider public something has changed. One sports souvenir shop reports a 50 per cent decline in Irvin memorabilia, and in the Dallas media, normally the loudest cheerleaders for America's Team, the question is asked: what does a city gain if it wins the Super Bowl but loses its soul? Which leads, inescapably, to one conclusion. The best cure for Michael Irvin, Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys, would be losing. Not just one game but whole seasons, and seasons after that. If only.

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