ANTHRAX AND SPORTS
RETURN TO SENDER
Few Americans receive more mail from complete strangers than athletes. Each day the average professional team gets loads of envelopes addressed to players—love notes, autograph requests, baked goods, hate messages. No surprise, then, that the anthrax scare has sent chills through locker rooms across the country.
Major League Baseball, the NBA, the NFL and the NHL have all advised their teams to take basic precautions before handling mail. A number of clubs, like the 49ers and St. Louis Cardinals, now have their mail-room workers using gloves and surgical masks. The New York Giants have gone further, offering players a biohazard container in which to put mail they think looks suspicious. In early October the Cardinals held a team meeting at which the players were asked if they wanted to continue receiving mail sent to them through the team. Only a handful said yes. "The rest didn't want to bother anymore," says Joe Walsh, the team's head of security. "So all fan mail addressed to players is being returned to sender."
The Lakers, who receive at least 1,000 pieces of mail a day, have hired consultants to assess the safety of the team's mail handling. L.A. no longer accepts any envelope that lacks a return address; for now, those letters are being held in a post office. Says NFL spokesman Greg Aiello, "You're going to see more teams using outside services to take care of their mail."
All of which means fans reaching out to their idols by traditional means probably aren't connecting. "I'm positive there's mail from kids across the country that's being tossed," says Kevin Byrne, spokesman for the Ravens, whose mail is being checked at the stadium by moonlighting Baltimore firefighters. Says Timberwolves forward Kevin Garnett, "Fan mail is important, and I try to answer as much as I can. At the same time, with all the things that are going on, you have to take precautions." Lakers forward Rick Fox is even more careful: "I'm not messing with it. I haven't touched my mail since September 11."