Athletes at Risk: Leagues, Players Scramble to Stay Safe
Los Angeles Angels outfielder Torii Hunter plans to try to keep a lower profile in public — as much as a multimillionaire athlete can, anyway. His sentiments are being echoed by the NFL, which is urging its players to “lower their profile as private citizens and try to avoid making it conspicuous that they are NFL players,” league spokesman Greg Aiello says. “In other words, don’t make it easy for people to target you.”
Two weeks later, the gunshot that killed Redskins safety Sean Taylor continues to reverberate throughout the sports world, as professional athletes are still coming to grips with how their wealth and celebrity can make them vulnerable targets for crime.
Taylor was fatally shot in his suburban Miami home Nov. 26 by a would-be robber. Miami police have said one of the four suspects arrested in the slaying apparently had done yardwork for Taylor and another had been in the home for a birthday party for Taylor’s stepsister.
Several pro athletes say Taylor’s slaying has led them to beef up security and made them more wary of those around them. And at a time when seven- and even eight-figure salaries aren’t unusual in major pro sports leagues, athletes say the slaying has led them to tighten their inner circles.
“We go to practice every day, and people know where we work,” says Dallas Mavericks guard Jerry Stackhouse, a 12-year NBA veteran who made $9.2 million last season. “They can follow us from the arena.”
Stackhouse says he often has his brother stay with his family when he’s on trips and keeps dogs in his yard, “as my first line of defense.”
Fred Taylor, who isn’t related to Sean Taylor, is one of at least eight Jaguars players TheFlorida Times-Union reports are licensed to carry a concealed firearm. He told the Associated Press even though his house is equipped with a surveillance system, Sean Taylor’s slaying has inspired him to get a dog that will “bite you till the death, right on that jugular.”
Among the Redskins, Samuels told SportsIllustrated.com he plans to buy a gun for protection. And fullback Mike Sellers says he’ll keep potential intruders guessing what they might encounter at his home.
“I have my ways,” Sellers says. “I guess they’d have to find out if they tried to break into my house.”
Tennessee Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck says Taylor’s killing made him realize it’s time to start activating his home’s alarm every day. “It went off during a storm and scared me, and I turned it off,” he says. “Definitely, I went back to using my alarm.”
Hunter, who signed a five-year, $90 million contract last month, says Taylor’s death points up how, “when you get money, you have a lot of friends who get jealous. They talk. They tell guys about what’s inside your home, and the next thing you know, you’ve got trouble.”
That, Hunter says, is “why I don’t have an entourage. I fly solo. In an entourage, trust me, not all of those guys are going to be looking after your best interest. There’s a lot of hating going on.”
A reminder of that came early Sunday morning, when shots were fired at Jamaal Tinsley of the NBA’s Indiana Pacers and several of his companions in Indianapolis.
The group had visited a nightclub where a group of men were giving Tinsley’s friends a hard time about the money they made, says Sgt. Paul Thompson, a spokesman for the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department. Pacers equipment manager Joe Qatato was treated for minor injuries and released from Methodist Hospital. No one had been arrested late Sunday.
Wary even of bodyguards
The NFL provides free security checks of players’ homes upon request and regularly holds seminars on how to avoid becoming a victim of fraud and extortion.
Major League Baseball, meanwhile, employs at least five members of law enforcement who are on call to provide security in each of the 30 cities with a team.
Kevin Hallinan, MLB’s security director for 21 years until his recent retirement, says the league encourages players to use those free resources rather than hire bodyguards who may or may not be trustworthy. Such security also is available to players in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, where many Latino players have offseason homes.
Hallinan says he discourages players from hiring their own bodyguards “because in many instances they hire their brother-in-law or a friend of a friend. If you think you’re being stalked, we’re going to take an interest and the price is going to be right.”
Chicago Bulls forward Joe Smith says he had personal bodyguards when he entered the NBA 12 seasons ago as the No. 1 overall draft pick but no longer uses them.
“I think that drew more attention than just me being out by myself, so I just kind of went away from that a little bit,” says Smith, who made $12 million last season.
Hallinan says MLB works with stalking expert John Lane of Los Angeles and during the last two decades has had about eight incidents that required full-time protection for a player or assistance from the FBI.
For example, Hallinan says, “We had a guy who was an ex-convict who had an infatuation for one of our players, and this guy had done some serious time for serious crimes. He was calling and showed up in the neighborhood where the player lived.
“It took a lot of resources,” Hallinan says, “but we ended up getting him. He went back to jail.”
Hallinan says his top priority was telling players, “It’s very, very important to notify us if their homes have been broken into or vandalized in any way.”
Sean Taylor’s home was broken into Nov. 17. He had not played the Sunday before he was shot because of an injury and had told the Redskins he was in Miami to check on his house after the initial break-in.
When burglaries or home intrusion occurred with MLB players, Hallinan says, “We would do an assessment of his property, working with the local police, and make sure we put something new into the game, whether it was an alarm system, a German shepherd, whatever. We were going to change something about the look of that house so the burglars would believe they couldn’t come back.”
The NFL, Aiello says, has always encouraged players to report to their teams and NFL security “any threat or incident of victimization.” He says league security wasn’t notified about the first break-in at Taylor’s home.
‘It’s a lose-lose situation’
This year began on a deadly note for pro athletes. In the early hours of New Year’s Day, Denver Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams was killed when his rented Hummer limo vehicle was sprayed by gunfire.
Gene Upshaw, head of the NFL Players Association, says that killing heightened his belief that athletes are being targeted. Upshaw says when a dispute flared at a nightclub, Williams responded exactly as he had been trained to during seminars provided by the NFL and the players association.
“They were trying to get out. They were in the limo,” Upshaw says. “He still lost his life. We all look back at that.”
Baltimore Ravens President Dick Cass says his team often addresses players’ safety.
“If you look at some of the worst incidents that have faced NFL players, they tend to be bars or nightclubs where there’s a lot of drinking, a lot of people and a sort of macho environment where people are trying to take on an NFL player,” Cass says. “That’s exactly the environment you want to avoid.”
New York Rangers forward Sean Avery, a combative player who twice has led the NHL in penalty minutes, says confrontations don’t always involve money.
“There’s always that guy that wants to go home and say they either beat up Sean Avery — or got beat up by Sean Avery,” he says. “It’s a lose-lose situation.”
Nelson Mercado, a bodyguard whose clients have ranged from entertainment figures Spike Lee and Stevie Wonder to Hall of Fame baseball players Reggie Jackson and Rod Carew, says athletes have to be careful about the status they gain as they excel on the field.
“The guy goes to the same nightclub he used to go to, and suddenly he gets more attention,” says Mercado, who works for the CTU security firm in Newport Beach, Calif. “He checks out a girl, and they come running over. Well that creates a lot of jealousy. … And soon you have danger.”
But Taylor’s death occurred at his home, as has been the case with other crimes against high-profile athletes.
In September, two men broke into the home of Houston Texans cornerback Dunta Robinson, tied him up and stole jewelry.
Last summer two NBA players, New York Knicks center Eddy Curry and Minnesota Timberwolves forward Antoine Walker, were robbed at their Chicago-area homes. Los Angeles Clippers guard Cuttino Mobley also lost $500,000 in cash and jewelry in a burglary.
“It now goes beyond going out,” Washington Wizards forward Antawn Jamison says. “You have to take precautions now as far as being at home. We really have to take proper precautions in terms of protecting our homes and making sure our families are safe.”
Playing in a league in which 21 players had salaries of $15 million or more last season adds to the risk, Jamison says.
“Every year the amount of money we make is in the newspaper, so people know we have money,” he says. “Our faces are everywhere. That makes us a big target.”
Kidnapping is ‘a growing threat’
Increased crime against professional athletes isn’t limited to the USA. In Africa, champion distance runners have been targeted.
Ondoro Osoro, the 1998 Chicago Marathon champion, was shot in the neck during a 2000 carjacking with his pregnant wife and young daughter present. Lameck Aguta, the 1997 Boston Marathon champion, was severely beaten while being robbed of $10,000 last summer and was left comatose for three months.
Tom Nyariki of Kenya, winner of several major international races, lost sight in his right eye during a 2003 carjacking at his home.
In 2005 in Mexico City, coach Ruben Omar Romano of the prominent Cruz Azul soccer team was kidnapped as he left practice in broad daylight and held for two months before he was rescued.
A year earlier in Venezuela, the mother of Detroit Tigers pitcher Ugueth Urbina, Maura Villarreal, was kidnapped and spent nearly six months in captivity before being rescued.
“Kidnapping is a very real threat. Certainly it’s a growing threat, even in this country,” says Larry Wansley, CEO of Infinite Security and a consultant to the Dallas Cowboys. “You go to some places, kidnapping is part of the national economy. People with celebrity status have to be on guard. I don’t say that to heighten paranoia, but to heighten awareness.”
Rising concerns about safety have led some pro athletes to arm themselves. Wansley cautions those who do that.
“A weapon is for only one purpose, and that’s to kill someone,” he says. “If you’re going to arm yourself, make absolutely certain you’ve been trained properly.”
NFL policy forbids having firearms on league property or at league functions, and the league is trying to make sure players don’t misuse guns when they are off the job.
Last season, the Houston Texans arranged a three-day firearms training course. Former Houston receiver Eric Moulds, now with the Tennessee Titans, says 40 to 45 players were instructed by about 15 local police officers.
Redskins coach Joe Gibbs says gun safety is “addressed non-stop” from the start of training camp.
Kelly Davis, a Chicago police officer who worked for three years as the bodyguard for flamboyant NBA player Dennis Rodman, says, “If you feel like you need to carry a gun … you need to hire security.”
During the Chicago Bulls’ championship years in the 1990s, he says, stars Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Ron Harper, Rodman and coach Phil Jackson had bodyguards. “Just because a guy is 6-9 and 300 pounds doesn’t mean he knows how to handle a situation,” Davis says. “The world has changed, and professional athletes are targets. They are the lambs, and there are plenty of wolves out there.”
Contributing: Mike Dodd in Chicago; Sean Leahy in Ashburn, Va.; Michael McCarthy in New York; Roscoe Nance in Washington, D.C.; Bob Nightengale in Nashville; Dick Patrick in McLean, Va.; Larry Weisman in Baltimore; Skip Wood in Jacksonville