For Brad Hopkins, the news of Steve McNair’s murder began with questions.
“When I first started getting texts it was … ‘Is what happened to Steve true?’” the former Tennessee Titans’ left tackle said. “My first thought was he was sick or maybe there was an incident (related to) drinking or something.”
It was not long before he discovered that McNair was shot to death on July 4 and was found with a 20-year-old woman, who also died violently.
The investigation into the events surrounding the incident soon determined that McNair and the woman, Sahel Kazemi, were in “a dating relationship.” McNair, however, was a married man with four children.
That’s when the questions began for many of those who cheered the quarterback during his playing days and who admired a public life that included football camps, charity work and — most recently — a restaurant designed to offer a unique dining experience for those on a budget.
How can a man be in a relationship with one woman yet married to another? Were there other women? What did his wife know or think?
The truth is that, for professional athletes, infidelity is often a part of the lifestyle, albeit one that routinely is overlooked or ignored by those who idolize their competitive achievements, not to mention usually left unreported, except when additional factors make it impossible to ignore.
‘Culture of adultery’
In a 2001 presentation to the American Sociological Association, Steven Ortiz, an associate sociology professor at Oregon State University, discussed the “culture of adultery” with which wives of professional athletes must contend. His conclusion was the result of interviews with wives of 47 players in the four major professional sports — football, baseball, basketball and hockey.
“If you’re a man walking this earth, you’re tempted regardless,” former Titans’ running back Eddie George said. “It certainly magnifies those situations, being in the position of an athlete. But if you’re a man, whether you’re a politician, janitor, athlete, it doesn’t matter. You’re always going to be tempted.
“Steve is not the first, and certainly won’t be the last man to be in this situation. Unfortunately, in (his) situation, it magnifies it that much more.”
The atmosphere in which pro athletes live and work widely was considered off limits to the general public until former major league pitcher Jim Bouton wrote Ball Four, which included a memorable passage about how he and his New York Yankees’ teammates gathered on a hotel roof peering through windows into the rooms of women.
The late Wilt Chamberlain famously estimated in his autobiography, A View From Above, that he slept with 20,000 women, including more than a dozen in a single day. Of course, Wilt never married, once even suggesting the reason was that he knew he couldn’t remain faithful to one woman.
In recent years, details of athletes’ off-the-field lives increasingly have been revealed through court actions.
Seventeen members of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings, some of them married, were prosecuted for their actions during a so-called “sex cruise” in the fall of 2005. In the mid-1990s multiple players for the Dallas Cowboys used a house near the team’s training facility leased by one of them to engage in a full range of self-indulgent activities.
Spouses also have told the tales — via some high-profile divorce cases. The wife of baseball star Alex Rodriguez cited her “husband’s extramarital affairs” as the reason for her filing.
After NBA star Jason Kidd filed for divorce, his wife counter-sued and alleged a long list of affairs on his part.
The wrong ideas
“The love of the fans — it’s them cheering you, that’s what drives us,” Hopkins said. “Sometimes that attention can get misconstrued and people take from certain circumstances and situations — sometimes — the wrong idea. You get caught up in things like that, and unfortunately it progresses a lot faster than you can ever imagine — like a wildfire.”
It doesn’t help that there is no shortage of those who potentially could light that fire.
Distractions that can limit an athlete’s attention and time devoted to his family are plentiful — almost constant — even when he is in public with that family.
“A lot of people swarm celebrities just because they want to be seen or known or talked to,” Stephanie Haynesworth, wife of former Titans’ and current Washington Redskins defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth, said. “… It’s not just women. It’s men. It’s kids. It’s grandpas wanting autographs for their grandsons.
“Situations happen, (and) it definitely puts your marriage in the spotlight.”
Stephanie and Albert Haynesworth are currently separated, but according to Stephanie, “We get along great. So, we’ll see.”
In the days that followed McNair’s murder, no evidence — legal or anecdotal — emerged to suggest his marriage was failing or on the verge of ending. Family members and friends described McNair’s widow, Mechelle, as “very upset” and “distraught.”
Still, for those who played with McNair the shock of his passing was not enhanced by the nature of his relationship to Kazemi.
“Steve was a phenomenal individual who was not impervious to making human mistakes,” Hopkins said. “I don’t think that anybody should ever look past the remarkable things he did on the field, but he’s not remembered and not the focus of all this (scrutiny) because he’s this great character husband and because he never made mistakes.
“I am not one to judge anybody, any man, because I — like many other people — have made so many mistakes in my life. But I’m still here to rectify those situations. Unfortunately, he is not. … Steve’s only albatross right now is that he cannot make up for a mistake that he might have made.”