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Passion Plays
Grant Wahl
September 10, 2001
A growing number of coach are falling in love with—and sometimes marrying—athletes they train. Some of these relationships succeed. Others disrupt careers or leave teammates stumbling over hidden obstacles
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September 10, 2001

Passion Plays

A growing number of coach are falling in love with—and sometimes marrying—athletes they train. Some of these relationships succeed. Others disrupt careers or leave teammates stumbling over hidden obstacles

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The Fotopouloses tell a story of triumph and ordeal as they recount what they've been through since the day they met on a soccer field six years ago. "I remember saying, 'Is that our coach?' " says Danielle. "Right away I was, like, Whoa!" Before the under-19 national championship in 1995, Danielle and a teammate moved into the Fotopoulos home—George was living with his parents—so that they could attend two-a-day practices in Tampa without having to commute from their parents' houses in Orlando.

Danielle and George socialized in groups, but they say their romance began on a Sunday that summer, when Danielle accompanied George to a service at his Greek Orthodox church. They spent the afternoon talking about their families, ambitions and religions. (She's a member of the Church of Christ.) "After that, it took off," recalls George, who says that, initially, they had a chaperone on their dates, usually Danielle's mother, Donna Garrett.

The other Town 'N Country players, at first, were kept in the dark. "We were sneaking here, sneaking there," George says. "Everybody knew, but nobody knew. We weren't sure how the team and the community would accept it. If we'd lost early [in the national tournament], there might have been grumbling and accusations. But when you're winning, nobody says anything. After we won the national championship, we had a banquet, and we announced it [that they were together] to everybody. The response of the team was so awesome. Half of them were in the wedding party."

Wanting to be closer to George, Danielle transferred from SMU to Florida, where she would set the NCAA record for career goals. Neither Danielle nor George, however, has fully shed the stigma that can mark partners in a player-coach marriage. "Sometimes even now I'll be on the field and hear people scream, 'You married your coach!' " says Danielle. "One time in a [semipro] game, people were brutal. They were like, 'Yo, Fruitopia! Sleeping with your coach?' This was three or four years after we'd been married."

For two years, meanwhile, George could not get a college coaching job, even though his resume included two national club tides. At one point, George says, he had a pile of nearly 200 rejection letters from colleges around the country. "Ethically, I was in a gray area," he concedes. "I knew I'd get crucified, but how could I not get an interview? My friends in the coaching community would say, 'George, you married your player. You crossed the line, and now you have to accept the consequences' I know it cost me job opportunities, but when you fall in love, everything else is meaningless. If I'd had to make pizzas forever in my family's restaurant, I would have done it."

He didn't have to. In 1998, Tampa, his alma mater, hired him to direct its new women's soccer program; after two seasons there, he took over at LSU, leading the Tigers to a 15-6 record in 2000. Danielle rebounded from her own setback (being cut from the national team after the '99 World Cup) by scoring nine goals for the Courage this season. "If I weren't married to George, I wouldn't be playing soccer," says Danielle, who gave birth to their first child, Alexia, last November. "Before we met, I had never learned how to love soccer or study the game. Even now he'll train me. Having somebody who supports me that way is a great thing."

In other instances athletes have been forced to choose between their teams and their coach. Consider the case of Kristina Koznick, perhaps the best U.S. hope for an Alpine skiing medal at the upcoming Salt Lake City Olympics. A member of the U.S. Ski Team since she was a high school sophomore, Koznick, 25, has won more World Cup medals since 1996 than all other American women combined. In the summer of 2000 she left the team to train on her own. She says she did so because the institutional structure was too restrictive and unresponsive to her training needs. According to U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association officials, however, Koznick's romance with Dan Stripp, one of the team's assistant coaches, was at the root of the split. Stripp was dismissed in the spring of 2000 for what head coach Marjan Cernigoj termed "overstepping the professional boundaries between a coach and an athlete." Two months later Koznick quit and hired Stripp, 39, as her personal coach and manager.

Koznick and Stripp now acknowledge that they are dating, but they maintain they weren't involved until they had both left the team. The split doesn't appear to have hurt Koznick's performance much—she placed seventh in last season's final World Cup slalom standings and 16th in the overall results, making her the top American in both categories—but without the $150,000 in travel and training stipends she received annually from the U.S. Ski Team, she has had to seek donations, solicit corporate sponsors and sell T-shirts on her website (koznick.com) to offset expenses. Yet even as she pays out of her pocket to travel, train and sharpen her skis, she has no regrets. "I want Dan around," she says. "We have a great coach-athlete connection that I won't pass up. I just won't."

The ethically ambiguous nature of coaches dating players gives rise to a number of substantive questions. To wit:

?By its nature, can a romance between a coach and an athlete truly be consensual? According to some experts, who compare coach-athlete liaisons with those between doctors and patients or bosses and employees, the answer is no. "If one person is in a position of authority over another, the other cannot give consent," Kirby writes in The Dome of Silence, in which she makes the case that consent is impossible even when the athlete makes the first advance or when the couple is pursuing a long-term relationship. "Legal ages of consent vary from country to another," says Brackenridge, "so what we need is a moral agreement that says you cannot consent if there's a power imbalance."

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