Off-the-Field Fouls May Leave Dallas Punting for New Icon

In the city that has long identified with its football champions, some fans are troubled by swings in Cowboys' moral compass

There has always been something mythic about the Dallas Cowboys. Maybe it's their remarkable string of playoff appearances. Maybe it's the famous cheerleaders. Perhaps it's the hole in the roof of Texas Stadium through which, some fans insist, God calls the audibles.

But this season, a series of player scandals involving drug abuse, topless dancers, drunk driving, and alleged sexual misconduct suggest that the football club known as "America's Team" has begun to reflect the nation's moral decay, rather than its frontier idyll.

For a city that has long tied its identity to this team, these are wrenching days. Many of the Cowboys' legendary figures, from former coach Tom Landry to tailback Tony Dorsett, have publicly questioned the team's direction.

Now that Dallas has been eliminated from the playoffs, there's little left to balance the ongoing investigation into an alleged sexual assault by two star players. In coming days, the pedestal upon which Dallasans have long placed their team is likely to sink, and this high-tech boomtown on the Trinity River may be left to fish for a new icon.

"Along with this team's success has grown a huge industry that has taken the place of pure sport," says Don Beck, director of the Fort Worth based National Center for Values and a longtime student of the Cowboys. "The team almost needs incidents now to feed this monster. I think we've reached the point of saturation."

Indeed, the Dallas Cowboys in recent years has become much more than a football team.

Since acquiring the Cowboys in 1989, Arkansas oilman Jerry Jones has pushed the limits of propriety and profitability by negotiating his own deals with corporate sponsors rather than going through the National Football League (NFL), and defying the league's salary cap by offering players massive signing bonuses.

No fewer than 30 radio shows deal with the Cowboys in North Texas, the team has sold out every home game in the 1990s, and the sale of team paraphernalia nationwide yields millions.

By all accounts, the team's financial success is due to the stewardship of Mr. Jones, whose knack for marketing not only has made the Cowboys the most valuable franchise in professional sports, but also has attracted and held star players who have guided the team to three Super Bowl victories in four years.

Yet according to Mr. Beck, Jones's interest in making money has come at the expense of maintaining the team's public image. In the past two years, the Cowboys have had seven players suspended for drug use - a number that represents more than half of the total suspensions in the entire league.

A league of 'gentlemen'

"The NFL was once a league of gentlemen who saw themselves in the game of football, not the business of football," Beck says. "Jones has changed all that. He has a fine money compass, but a horrible moral one."

Although Jones has been uncharacteristically silent about the team's most recent troubles, some analysts say that within the context of professional sport, the current brouhaha is not unique.

O.J., Harding, Rose

"It's not like the Cowboys invented this bad image for athletes," says Frank Deford, a well-known sports author and commentator. "They'll have to stand in line behind O.J. Simpson and Pete Rose. After all, Tonya Harding could put them all in her back pocket."

Mr. Deford notes that no charges have been filed in the recent scandal, in which a woman has accused Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin and lineman Erik Williams of raping her at gunpoint in Williams's North Dallas home Dec. 29. Mr. Deford warns that the media and the Dallas police may be jumping to conclusions in the same way their colleagues in Atlanta did with security guard Richard Jewell after the Atlanta Olympic bombing.

Yet many observers here, including Dallas Morning News sports columnist Frank Luksa, argue that Irvin and Williams have done much to forfeit their right to the benefit of the doubt.

Irvin pleaded no contest this summer to cocaine possession, and Williams pled guilty to a misdemeanor drunk-driving charge two years ago. In 1995, a 17-year-old charged Williams and a friend with sexual assault, but later dropped the charge after reaching a civil settlement with Williams.

Whatever the outcome of the current investigation, many fans here have been permanently disenchanted.

According to Beck, such incidents here and across the nation have already weakened the resolve of taxpayers at a time when more professional teams are seeking public funding for new stadiums.

But beyond that, he argues, such unwholesome images of athletes run counter to the growing social conservatism of people in Dallas and throughout America.

"A lot of people here are heartsick," he says. "They want to support the Cowboys, but they don't feel right doing it.... [These incidents] are causing people to look at professional sports and ask if they're making a positive contribution or not."

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