Five coach limousines pulled up to the intersection of Tuxedo Boulevard and Piper Road, one after the other, their arrival causing ripples of excitement along the shore of Lake Minnetonka. Just after 9:30 on the night of Oct. 6, numerous people--including Minnesota Vikings players and dozens of female companions--spilled out of the vehicles and walked briskly down a narrow pathway through tiny Chester Park. Shivering in the early autumn chill, the large group whisked past the park's bright yellow slide, stepped onto a slatted wooden dock and boarded one of two white, 64-foot cruising yachts, the Avanti and the Avant Garde.
With maple trees framing a clear sky, the small waterfront community of Mound, Minn., was a tranquil place. The festive summer boating crowds had left, but this Thursday night--in the middle of the Vikings' bye week--was special: The team's annual rookie party was set to launch from Al & Alma's, a supper club and charter company that regularly hosts moonlight cruises on the lake. The crews of the two boats (one captain and three servers for each) eagerly awaited the players' arrival. Purple balloons decorated the yachts. One female server had brought a camera, hoping to snap a photo of an NFL star.
But the ensuing party was hardly what the Al & Alma's employees expected. In the days that followed, crew members would paint a sordid picture of what took place for police investigators, who were gathering evidence that could lead to misdemeanor lewd-conduct charges against some players. By last weekend investigators had come to believe that some of the passengers on board the yachts were strippers flown in for the event.
This "love boat" scandal, which would have rocked any pro team, was especially jarring to the Vikings, a franchise adrift both on and off the field. On Sunday, following a tumultuous week that included intrasquad bickering, an angry dressing-down of players by owner Zygi Wilf and the potential extinction of the team's prospects for a proposed $790 million stadium, the Vikings sank even lower, suffering a 28--3 defeat to the Chicago Bears on the shores of Lake Michigan. With a sloppy, listless performance at Soldier Field, the Vikings--a 2004 playoff team regarded by some before the season as a Super Bowl contender--fell to 1--4 and cemented their status as the biggest flop of 2005.
"I'm shocked," said free safety Darren Sharper, who signed with Minnesota last March after eight years with the Green Bay Packers. "I came here and thought we were going to have a chance to win a championship. Right now it doesn't look like we have a chance to win. We're not playing well; we're not making proper decisions."
Acknowledging his team's "lack of focus and concentration," embattled coach Mike Tice conceded after the Bears game that the controversy surrounding the party had hurt the Vikings' effort. "If I was to say it didn't affect us at all," Tice said, "I'd be lying to you." Both Tice and his boss, Wilf, a New Jersey real estate developer who purchased the team from Red McCombs for a reported $600 million last May, seem to be grasping for ways to address the team's multitude of problems. According to one Minnesota player who was present last Friday for Wilf's "intense," profanity-laced address to the team, the owner at one point vowed he would discover which players were responsible for planning the boat party and threatened to remove them from the roster.
Since September 2002, when star wideout Randy Moss (who was traded to the Oakland Raiders last March) bumped a traffic officer with his car and later pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors, Minnesota fans have endured a slew of off-the-field embarrassments (box, page 50), including sexual-assault allegations, a ticket-scalping imbroglio involving Tice and some of his assistants, and the introduction of the term Whizzinator into the football lexicon, courtesy of running back Onterrio Smith.
Just when it seemed things couldn't get more surreal, there came news of the boat party. Stephen Doyle, a Minnesota attorney who represents the cruise company, alleges that his clients witnessed graphic sex acts by a number of passengers, with some crew members invited to participate. (Though it is not clear how many of the 90 or so passengers were Vikings, crew members gave the police the names of 17 players they said they saw during the cruise.) Many Minnesotans are appalled. "Maybe if this happens in L.A. or New York, folks would say this is just another day in the life of an NFL player," says Dean Johnson, the state's senate majority leader. "But not in Minnesota. There are still moral expectations here. I never thought I'd live long enough to want to see Randy Moss come back to Minnesota to be a role model."
Four-time Vikings Pro Bowl center Matt Birk, who was not on the cruise, could only shake his head at his teammates' having sullied the franchise's reputation yet again. "We put the fun in dysfunctional," said Birk, who is on the injured reserve list with a hip ailment. "You look at all the off-the-field stuff that's gone on over the past few years, and it's laughable. I think everybody on that boat knows he screwed up, and the only thing I can hope comes out of this is that, with guys having to do some explaining to their wives and dealing with damage to their reputations and perhaps facing criminal penalties, this will scare them straight."
On Sunday, at Wilf's behest, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue flew to Chicago for a 90-minute meeting with the Vikings' owner. According to league spokesman Greg Aiello, Tagliabue told the owner he had inherited a staff that "lacked discipline, structure and accountability." (On Sunday the Vikings hired retired FBI agent Dag Sohlberg as the team's full-time director of security.) Aiello said the NFL is monitoring the situation and that players who took part in the party could face discipline under the league's personal-conduct policy. He said Tagliabue was "disappointed because [the controversy] impacts on the respect that the public has for the NFL and its players."