Adrift on Lake Woebegone

A night of debauchery aboard two yachts is the latest scandal for the Minnesota Vikings, a once proud franchise that has become a rudderless ship
October 23, 2005

Five coach limousines pulled up to the intersection of Tuxedo Boulevard and Piper Road, one after the other, their arrival causing ripples of excitement along the shore of Lake Minnetonka. Just after 9:30 on the night of Oct. 6, numerous people--including Minnesota Vikings players and dozens of female companions--spilled out of the vehicles and walked briskly down a narrow pathway through tiny Chester Park. Shivering in the early autumn chill, the large group whisked past the park's bright yellow slide, stepped onto a slatted wooden dock and boarded one of two white, 64-foot cruising yachts, the Avanti and the Avant Garde.

With maple trees framing a clear sky, the small waterfront community of Mound, Minn., was a tranquil place. The festive summer boating crowds had left, but this Thursday night--in the middle of the Vikings' bye week--was special: The team's annual rookie party was set to launch from Al & Alma's, a supper club and charter company that regularly hosts moonlight cruises on the lake. The crews of the two boats (one captain and three servers for each) eagerly awaited the players' arrival. Purple balloons decorated the yachts. One female server had brought a camera, hoping to snap a photo of an NFL star.

But the ensuing party was hardly what the Al & Alma's employees expected. In the days that followed, crew members would paint a sordid picture of what took place for police investigators, who were gathering evidence that could lead to misdemeanor lewd-conduct charges against some players. By last weekend investigators had come to believe that some of the passengers on board the yachts were strippers flown in for the event.

This "love boat" scandal, which would have rocked any pro team, was especially jarring to the Vikings, a franchise adrift both on and off the field. On Sunday, following a tumultuous week that included intrasquad bickering, an angry dressing-down of players by owner Zygi Wilf and the potential extinction of the team's prospects for a proposed $790 million stadium, the Vikings sank even lower, suffering a 28--3 defeat to the Chicago Bears on the shores of Lake Michigan. With a sloppy, listless performance at Soldier Field, the Vikings--a 2004 playoff team regarded by some before the season as a Super Bowl contender--fell to 1--4 and cemented their status as the biggest flop of 2005.

"I'm shocked," said free safety Darren Sharper, who signed with Minnesota last March after eight years with the Green Bay Packers. "I came here and thought we were going to have a chance to win a championship. Right now it doesn't look like we have a chance to win. We're not playing well; we're not making proper decisions."

Acknowledging his team's "lack of focus and concentration," embattled coach Mike Tice conceded after the Bears game that the controversy surrounding the party had hurt the Vikings' effort. "If I was to say it didn't affect us at all," Tice said, "I'd be lying to you." Both Tice and his boss, Wilf, a New Jersey real estate developer who purchased the team from Red McCombs for a reported $600 million last May, seem to be grasping for ways to address the team's multitude of problems. According to one Minnesota player who was present last Friday for Wilf's "intense," profanity-laced address to the team, the owner at one point vowed he would discover which players were responsible for planning the boat party and threatened to remove them from the roster.

Since September 2002, when star wideout Randy Moss (who was traded to the Oakland Raiders last March) bumped a traffic officer with his car and later pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors, Minnesota fans have endured a slew of off-the-field embarrassments (box, page 50), including sexual-assault allegations, a ticket-scalping imbroglio involving Tice and some of his assistants, and the introduction of the term Whizzinator into the football lexicon, courtesy of running back Onterrio Smith.

Just when it seemed things couldn't get more surreal, there came news of the boat party. Stephen Doyle, a Minnesota attorney who represents the cruise company, alleges that his clients witnessed graphic sex acts by a number of passengers, with some crew members invited to participate. (Though it is not clear how many of the 90 or so passengers were Vikings, crew members gave the police the names of 17 players they said they saw during the cruise.) Many Minnesotans are appalled. "Maybe if this happens in L.A. or New York, folks would say this is just another day in the life of an NFL player," says Dean Johnson, the state's senate majority leader. "But not in Minnesota. There are still moral expectations here. I never thought I'd live long enough to want to see Randy Moss come back to Minnesota to be a role model."

Four-time Vikings Pro Bowl center Matt Birk, who was not on the cruise, could only shake his head at his teammates' having sullied the franchise's reputation yet again. "We put the fun in dysfunctional," said Birk, who is on the injured reserve list with a hip ailment. "You look at all the off-the-field stuff that's gone on over the past few years, and it's laughable. I think everybody on that boat knows he screwed up, and the only thing I can hope comes out of this is that, with guys having to do some explaining to their wives and dealing with damage to their reputations and perhaps facing criminal penalties, this will scare them straight."

On Sunday, at Wilf's behest, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue flew to Chicago for a 90-minute meeting with the Vikings' owner. According to league spokesman Greg Aiello, Tagliabue told the owner he had inherited a staff that "lacked discipline, structure and accountability." (On Sunday the Vikings hired retired FBI agent Dag Sohlberg as the team's full-time director of security.) Aiello said the NFL is monitoring the situation and that players who took part in the party could face discipline under the league's personal-conduct policy. He said Tagliabue was "disappointed because [the controversy] impacts on the respect that the public has for the NFL and its players."

The rookie party is a longstanding Vikings tradition. First-year players are required to pay for a team activity, planned by certain veterans, that typically takes place during the bye week. In past years, said one former Viking, the party consisted of "us eating 32-ounce steaks and downing Heinekens" at a downtown restaurant. Recent parties have continued at a bar or a club.

"That s---'s been going on every year," said another former Viking, "and every year it has escalated." In 2004, the player said, he attended the dinner portion of the party, which was held at a glass-enclosed restaurant in the Mall of America, overlooking Camp Snoopy, an indoor amusement park. The player said the party included dozens of women who had been flown in for the event. "It was, like, nine at night, and they were supposed to close down the mall to accommodate the party," the player said. "But people were seeing Vikings through the restaurant windows and made a point of looking in as they left." The player said he left the party, which later relocated to a downtown Minneapolis club, after witnessing a shopper with two preteen daughters ascending an escalator near the restaurant. "The restaurant had set up a deejay booth," he said, "and right as the three of them came up the escalator, a big ol' stripper was up there on the mike doing an explicit rap." The stripper's lyrics, the player said, detailed her aptitude for performing a certain sexual act.

Indeed, what surprised several former Vikings about the allegations surrounding this year's party was not that such conduct might have occurred, but that it purportedly happened in such a public context. "This ain't the first time Vikings players have been on Lake Minnetonka with some [women]," one former Minnesota player said. "I went out there several times with a few other guys and some strippers, when all of us were single, but we would go on a boat that one of the guys owned, so everything happened in private. Those [Al & Alma's chartered] yachts are for romantic cruises; it's where you'd take a girl you'd just started dating, to have a few drinks and stare at the big houses. To have a wild party out there.... It doesn't take a genius to figure out that's a horrible idea."

None of the eight crew members aboard the Avanti and Avant Garde, five of whom are women and most of whom are in their early 20s, has spoken to the media, and they declined SI's interview requests through Doyle, whose law firm was contacted by the owners of Al & Alma's when they saw a television news crew in their front yard. Details of what allegedly occurred come from Doyle, who sat in on all police interviews with the boat employees. A law-enforcement official with knowledge of the investigation confirmed the general outline of the crew members' allegations.

From the moment the passengers boarded, crew members were buzzing around every corner of the three-level yachts, filling drink orders and serving food--doing what some of them did on as many as 200 cruises each summer. Soon after the boats pulled out into Cook's Bay (the first one just before 10 p.m., the second 15 to 20 minutes later), the servers noticed that many of the women had changed into G-strings and lingerie. These scantily clad women moved into the main cabins and other parts of each boat and began dancing for some of the male passengers, removing what little clothing they had on and grinding on the men. Crew members told police that the lap dancing soon escalated, with male passengers and some dancers groping each other.

The floor was covered with dollar bills, crew members told police, and at least one female server was asked by male passengers to dance for money, a request that was declined. Servers were yelled at for not pouring drinks fast enough and for running out of Grey Goose vodka. Partygoers began performing more-salacious acts, including one that took place on the bar and another involving a sex toy as onlookers shouted out encouragement and instructions.

Not all of the passengers were engaged in the debauchery. Some drank or shot dice. A few, including one identified to police as a Vikings player, apologized to the crew for the actions of others. But in various parts of the boats, sex acts were being performed in the open. After the two captains communicated with each other and with the boat owners on shore, they cut short the event and returned to the docks around 11:20 p.m. As the partygoers departed in their limos, crew members were left to clean up the mess on the boats--including used condoms, empty containers of lubricant and sex-toy wrappers. "These are innocent young people," Doyle said on Sunday, while watching the Vikings' loss to the Bears at a Minnetonka sports bar. "Most of them have never been in a strip club, never seen a lap dance before, and then they witness this."

as he sat in a coaches' meeting at the Vikings' facility on Monday, Oct. 10, Tice saw Tom West, the team's assistant director of public relations, standing outside the door and correctly assumed he was about to receive bad news. When West informed him of a report by local TV station KARE detailing the boat-party allegations, Tice recalled, "my stomach flipped." It was another setback for the fourth-year coach, who even as he guided the Vikings to a playoff appearance in 2004, was telling players he expected to be fired at season's end. Three players who were with Minnesota in 2004 say that during one contentious late-season meeting Tice offered to fight any team member who wanted a piece of him.

The tension carried over into 2005, which began with lopsided defeats to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Cincinnati Bengals. A day after the Vikings' 30--10 loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Oct. 2, Tice delivered a speech to his players about not giving up. Several veterans told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that they felt the coach had delivered the opposite message; one stated that Tice had "quit on us." Still, Wilf has publicly pledged to retain Tice, who is in the final year of his contract, for the duration of the season. It could not have been easy for the coach to discuss the incident for the first time with Wilf, on the morning of Oct. 11 at the Oak Ridge Conference Center in Chaska, Minn., where the owner had convened a two-day team retreat at which he had already planned to introduce an organizational code of conduct.

One reason for Wilf's ire over the allegations was that they likely derailed his quest to get public funding for a proposed stadium in Anoka County. The Vikings have been rebuffed in their attempts to replace the 23-year-old Metrodome for nearly a decade, but Governor Tim Pawlenty had gotten behind Wilf's plan, and there was talk of a special legislative session at which the Vikings' proposal, along with plans submitted by the Twins and the University of Minnesota, would be discussed. Now, said Johnson, the senate majority leader, "the lights have been dimmed on that." Stadiums for the Gophers and the Twins are considered a higher priority, so this latest embarrassment might be reason enough for politicians to table Wilf's deal for a year or longer. "They need to stop doing these bad things," said state representative Andy Westerberg, the sponsor of the Vikings' bill. "How can you trust someone if they keep doing things wrong?"

as players filed out of the nearly silent visitors' locker room in Chicago on Sunday, some vowed to start correcting their mistakes on the field, taking solace in the fact that they remain a mere game out of first place in the NFC North, football's worst division. "We would love to have come in here after a s--- week and played well enough to have something to smile about," halfback Michael Bennett said quietly as he headed up a corridor toward the team buses. "If we focus on football and let everything blow over, we can still realize our goals--to win our division and go to the Super Bowl."

But as Team Turmoil trudges onward, beginning with Sunday's game against the 1--4 Packers at the Metrodome, the lofty goals voiced by Bennett seem almost inconceivable. The Vikings' challenge, for the moment, is simply to stay afloat.

Litany of Trouble

A timeline of Vikings turmoil

SEPTEMBER 2002

Wideout Randy Moss is arrested after using his car to push a Minneapolis traffic officer. He later pleads guilty to misdemeanor counts of careless driving and obstructing traffic.

FEBRUARY 2003

Two women allege they were sexually assaulted at Arctic Blast, a Vikings charity event in northern Minnesota. Former Vikings running back Ted Brown is later indicted for first- and third-degree criminal sexual conduct in connection with one of the allegations. He reaches a plea deal in September '05 in which he would perform community service but admit no wrongdoing. At the event, executive vice president Mike Kelly is arrested and later pleads guilty to a charge of careless driving.

MAY 2004

The Vikings settle a suit brought by the other alleged sexual assault victim at the February '03 Arctic Blast fund-raiser.

JUNE 2004

Linebackers E.J. Henderson and Michael Nattiel and tight end Steven Farmer are arrested after a brawl outside a Minneapolis nightclub. No charges are filed.

FEBRUARY 2005

Wide receiver Kelly Campbell is arrested in Atlanta after marijuana and a stolen handgun are found in his car. He reaches a deal with the Fulton County District Attorney to avoid trial and is released by the team in September.

MARCH 2005

Coach Mike Tice admits having scalped some of the 12 Super Bowl tickets allotted to him. The NFL fines Tice $100,000. Two of his assistants are fined $10,000 apiece for scalping.

APRIL 2005

Running back Onterrio Smith is caught at the Minneapolis airport with the Original Whizzinator, a fake penis and bladder that is used to beat drug tests. In June he is suspended for the 2005 season for his third violation of the league's substance-abuse policy.

AUGUST 2005

Defensive tackle Kevin Williams is charged with fifth-degree domestic assault after a dispute with his wife at their home. He pleads not guilty; a court date was scheduled for Oct. 18.

SI.COM

More football coverage, including Michael Silver's Open Mike, at SI.com/nfl.

PHOTOGLEN STUBBE/MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE (BOATS)SEASICK Salacious reports about the party aboard the Lake Minnetonka yachts (far left) sent shock waves through football-mad Minnesota, leaving the already troubled Tice (inset, opposite) to deal with even greater distractions, Vikings players struggling to cope on the field and new owner Wilf (above) desperate to restore his club's image. PHOTOJIM GEHRZ/MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE (TICE)  [See caption above] PHOTOMINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE (PAPER)  [See caption above] PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER (BENCH)  [See caption above] PHOTOMINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE (PAPER)  [See caption above] PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER (WILF)  [See caption above] PHOTOMINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE (PAPER)  [See caption above] MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE (PAPER)SINKING FEELING Facing a Chicago crowd that reveled in its rival's travails, the Vikings sought strength in unity on Sunday, in vain: A desultory 28--3 loss dropped the projected Super Bowl contenders to 1--4, with fading hopes for respectability this season. TWO PHOTOSDAMIAN STROHMEYER (2)  [See caption above] TWO PHOTOSDAMIAN STROHMEYER (SIGNS)  [See caption above] PHOTOST. PAUL PIONEER PRESS  [See caption above]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)