Who's next? me? please not me, Lord. Please!
Once they got past their expressions of sadness, that, pretty much, was the reaction of male professional athletes to Magic Johnson's admission last week that he had acquired HIV. Johnson says he was infected through heterosexual activity, but let us not dress this up too much: Magic's history is one not just of sexual activity but of promiscuity. He doesn't know from whom he contracted the virus and, probably, couldn't begin to guess. His sexual partners have been, by all accounts, including his own, legion.
Nothing new in that. Wilt Chamberlain recently wrote in his autobiography A View from Above that since the age of 15 he has had sex with 20,000 different women—an average of 1.37 women a day for 40 years. Preposterous? Perhaps, but even if Chamberlain's ledger is off by a few thousand, he was one of the most visible athletes in the U.S. during the height of the sexual revolution, and he was not bashful about participating.
Far more astonishing in the age of AIDS is the assertion by a player in the NBA's Eastern Conference—not an All-Star and not yet 30—who estimates that he has slept with 2,500 different women, and counting. It isn't all boast. There are dozens like him in all the big pro sports. "Let's face it," says Seattle SuperSonics forward Eddie Johnson, "athletes are whores. We're paid to use our bodies. So sex becomes the same thing after the games. We become like dogs sometimes, and we all talk about the same women in every city. Just walk outside the locker room in any arena. The women arc all there waiting."
"You can get sex every night," says New York Mets infielder Kevin Elster. "On the road. At home. It doesn't matter. We're next in line, I guess, after the gays and drug users. The Magic thing has put fear into all of us."
Elster is correct that homosexual men and intravenous drug users are those most at risk of contracting AIDS. According to the Centers for Disease Control, out of the 174,000 recorded cases of men with AIDS in the U.S., nearly 113,000 contracted the disease through sexual contact with another man. Another 33,000 got it from intravenous drug use. Only 4,300 men—2.5% of the total number of cases—are believed to have acquired the virus through sex with a woman, as Magic says he did.
Elster's statement sidesteps the fact that there are gay athletes. It is likely that the percentage of homosexuals among male athletes is the same as it is among the general population, about 10%. And there is every reason to believe that free and easy sex on the road is just as available to the gay athlete as to the straight one.
There have long been rumors that Magic has had homosexual as well as heterosexual encounters, but he declared last week that he is not gay. However he acquired the virus, the odds are alarmingly high that he has unknowingly passed it along, because he seldom practiced what he will now preach—safe sex. He did not wear a condom. His wife, Cookie, has so far tested negative for HIV, which often takes months to show up in the bloodstream. But many other women have been with Magic, and a woman is 20 times more likely to become infected with the virus after having intercourse with an HIV-positive male than a man has of becoming infected after sex with an HIV-positive woman.
Obviously, whether you are male or female, heterosexual, bisexual or homosexual, the odds of acquiring HIV increase with promiscuity—the more partners one has, the more likely it is that one of them will be infected. And, of course, the odds of a man encountering an infected woman increase if a man is active among women who are themselves promiscuous. Promiscuity is common enough among professional athletes. So is sharing partners. It is possible that there are other athletes who have already acquired HIV from the same source as Magic did. Or, chillingly, will contract the disease from someone who was infected by Magic.
Says George Andrews, who was Magic's agent during his first eight seasons in the NBA, "About five or six other players are puking in the sinks right now, what with the way some of these guys share women."
"This has to scare everybody," says Atlanta Hawk forward Dominique Wilkins. "The more I think about it, the more scared I am. In fact, I'm scared to death."
A lot of players are. In hockey, football and basketball locker rooms across the country, players watched Magic's press conference in stony silence born of fear as well as compassion. "The first thing you heard the next morning was 'I need to get tested,' " says Chris Hale, a cornerback with the Buffalo Bills.
Players' loved ones had much the same reaction. "My mother even called," says SuperSonics forward Michael Cage. "She was crying, 'Michael, have you been tested? How did the test come out? Are you O.K.? Are there any other players who have tested positive?' "
Might athletes actually begin to reassess their sexual habits? Well, some may. "What happened to Johnson has opened my eyes in a major, major way," says Mike Lodish, a nosetackle with the Bills, "to the point of my considering becoming celibate until I choose to get married."
Says Atlanta Falcon wide receiver Andre Rison, "I think maybe there was too much going on. The Lord decided to stick a sense of urgency into this thing. I guess He just needed a hell of a good man to get the message across."
"Hell yes, the players are worried," says another pro athlete, a prominent NBA player. "The groupies scene is as alive as ever. There are nightclubs in certain cities where there are always women looking for athletes: Atlanta, Dallas and Salt Lake City. The Forum Club in L.A. I know cases where women have sat outside the arena with the hood of their car up, like they had car trouble, and tried to get a certain player to help them. If he doesn't, they follow him home. Now that's temptation."
"We don't even have to try," says Phoenix Sun guard Kevin Johnson. "We come into town, and the women come out in force. They know who we are, how much money we make. They throw themselves at us. They call the hotel, they follow the bus, they meet us at the airports. The women hover and wait to try to get you."
Often it is the same women, time and again. "I see the same ones hanging around now that I saw five years ago," says Chicago Bulls forward Horace Grant. "They're passed down from rookie to rookie. Once you've been around the league a while, you know their act."
"I remember one time we were talking in the locker room, and the name of a woman from Seattle came up," says an NBA player in the Eastern Conference. "Another player overheard it and said, 'Wait a minute, you know her?' And a third player said, 'You know her too?' Three different guys, and they'd all heard the same lines from her."
Only three? How about the woman whom the Los Angeles Times wrote about last week who was said to have invited a pro basketball player back to her home on the condition that he give her a pair of autographed sneakers. When the player complied, he found approximately 100 other pairs of sneakers in her closet that had also been autographed by NBA players.
Says Wilkins, "I get letters from girls that say, 'Call me when you get to my town.' They send me naked pictures with their name and phone number on the back. I show them to the guys, and we laugh about it. But it ain't so funny now, is it?"
"You don't have to be Magic Johnson," says defensive end Dexter Manley of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "As a pro football player, the availability is there whether you're single or married. I know players who went to certain bars and brought back two or three different women during curfew. If you're in this league long enough, you know women all over the country willing to yield to your request. Were they the same women yielding to the requests of, say, the Philadelphia Eagles the week before? Maybe."
To be sure, even before Magic's bombshell, some pro athletes were doing less catting around in bars and traditional pickup joints. Fearful of negative publicity, which can cost them endorsement deals, and generally more aware of the perils of alcohol abuse and the prevalence of drugs in bars, players have become somewhat more discreet when it comes to picking up women. "Some players with an image to protect will get other guys to bring a particular woman to them," says Manley.
One relatively recent phenomenon is the practice that one baseball team calls "importing." Rather than have a one-night stand with a stranger, a player will fly in an out-of-town girlfriend—as Wade Boggs of the Boston Red Sox did in his notorious relationship with Margo Adams—to join him on the road. "I'm sure the safety factor enters into this," says one team executive. "With the high salaries today, players can easily afford it."
Escort services are usually discreet and expedient, though using them seems to be the exception with athletes rather than the rule. However, escort services can pose a different sort of risk for players, as Magic's former Laker teammate James Worthy discovered last year. The service he called turned out to be a police undercover operation. In addition to being publicly embarrassed, Worthy was fined $1,000, sentenced to one year's probation and ordered to perform 40 hours of community service.
But not all players shun the bar scene. "Some of us will call a hooker once in a while, when you just don't want to wait," says one baseball player, a National Leaguer. "It depends how many hormones are working. But most of the time, you go out to the bars. You like the challenge, the thrill of the hunt. When you go with a hooker or someone easy, it's like the hunter going to the store to buy dinner."
For most players the hunt involves no more than opening the door to their room or stepping onto the hotel elevator. One NBA trainer tells of the time two of his team's players, one married and the other single, got on a hotel elevator in Phoenix with an attractive young woman. "They asked her if she was busy, and she said no," the trainer says. "One of the guys, the one who was married, took her to his room. Actually stole her from the other guy with a spin move in the hall."
"I can't tell you how many phone calls a player gets at the hotel," says Grant. "Or people come up to you in the lobby or restaurant and say, 'I saw you on TV.' "
That's all? I saw you on TV, let's go to bed? What kind of women are these? "They have all types of backgrounds," says Grant. "Some like the life-style. Others want money—not necessarily cash, but dinner at a fancy restaurant, for example. In the backs of their minds there's always a possibility that it could lead to a permanent love relationship. A few use the excuse that they're addicted to sex. There arc some gold diggers out there too."
"They want the thrill of being with an athlete," says Wilkins. "And they don't want safe sex. They want to have your baby, man, because they think that if they have your baby, they're set for life. That's the hard fact of it, because if they had a life, they wouldn't be hanging around the hotel or showing up at the back door of the arena trying to pick up a player." A number of prominent athletes have been served with paternity suits in the past few years, and who knows how many other such suits have been settled quietly?
So when will athletes wise up? The consensus seems to be never, even after what has happened to Magic Johnson. "The biggest problem in our universe for men is our weakness for ladies," says Tampa Bay linebacker Jesse Solomon. "They know if they have a knockout body, they can get what they want by giving us what we want."
"It really has nothing to do with the women or the travel," says Hale. "Athletes, married or not, are very promiscuous."
So what about safe sex? "I would hope each guy, before he decides to get into a relationship at a bar, might say, Well, Magic got it, so if I'm going to sleep with this girl, I'm going to use a condom." says Phoenix Cardinals nosetackle Jim Wahler. "But in the heat of the moment, guys don't exactly think."
"They keep talking about safer sex," says linebacker Matt Millen of the Redskins. "I think that's a joke. What you have to start talking about is abstinence and a little morality, maybe."
But morality, much less simple judiciousness, does not seem to enter into the thinking of most professional athletes. "Right now, it's easy to get caught up in the ordeal," says Bulls center Will Perdue. "Everyone says, 'I won't let it happen to me.' But the impact will fade. Everybody has an ego, and let's face it, it's difficult to say no to a beautiful woman."
"You would think this would open everybody's eyes," says Indiana Pacer guard Vern Fleming. "But I don't know. It's hot right now because it was Magic. What about three months from now, during a road trip in February? Is everybody still going to be thinking about Magic?"