The Yachts Rock softly at anchor under the pale, watery sunlight of late fall. Big, seagoing things, they bob there along the waterfront known as the Crystal Coast, and the old men come down to the boardwalk and point to them, then out to sea, south toward the Caribbean. In the late 1970s, when the federal government authorized a multimillion-dollar renovation of the docks in Beaufort, N.C., the town became a prized anchorage for trust-fund sailors running the inland route on their way to the Bahamas. The yachts tie up for a while and then they go, the town's real money hoisting anchor and heading south.
Inland from the anchorage, the houses get smaller and farther apart as you conic into that part of town they call North River. Up past East Carteret High, past the Thomas Seafood Company and the little brick church of uncertain denomination, there is a dirt road. A long driveway, really, it is gullied by the rain. Cars and trucks rust along the side of it, and battered boats jut like ruined teeth out of the tall weeds. At the end of the road is a trailer home. There's a house rising up now behind the trailer. Because of one woman, this is where some of the big money came to Beaufort and stayed.
"I didn't really look on it as a contest," says Bettie Taylor. "I was a mother doing what was right for her child. I don't know anybody around here who wouldn't have done that. I don't know one woman who wouldn't go to bat for her child."
She is not a big woman; her son Brien towers over her. She is still young, 39, but she's stooped a little bit from working. Her voice is light and lilting. Wherever the steel is, and it is there as sure as sun and rain, you've got to look close to find it.
Last spring, the New York Yankees made Brien Taylor the first pick in the annual baseball draft. The team offered him $300,000, which is more money than anyone in North River had ever seen. Bettie Taylor looked at the offer, studied baseball precedent and turned the money down. She saw what the Oakland A's had given Todd Van Poppel the year before, and she saw that it was a lot more than $300,000, and she told the Yankees that, no, this wouldn't do at all and that Brien would go to college instead. The pressure mounted. Bettie was flogged in the baseball press. Some of her neighbors wondered if she had lost her mind. However, in August the Yankees came down to Beaufort, up the driveway through the weeds, and they gave Brien Taylor a $1.55 million deal. Some of the money has gone into the house that's going up behind the trailer, which to the Yankees these days must look a great deal like Appomattox Court House looked to Robert E. Lee.
"Like any business, you've got buying and selling," Bettie Taylor says. "Look at it that way, and Brien's a commodity. It's not a very pretty picture. I can appreciate where [the Yankees are] coming from. They're trying to do what's right for them. But I was trying to do what I know was right and fair for my child, and that's all I cared about."
This is a new phenomenon in sports, and sports is not entirely prepared to deal with it. Because young athletes are increasingly coming out of single-parent homes and an overwhelming number of those homes are headed by women, mothers are becoming more and more involved in the career plans of their gifted children. College coaches involved in recruiting saw this first. At Kentucky, Rick Pitino hired Bernadette Locke-Mattox as an assistant basketball coach in 1990, at least in part to have a woman who could approach the mothers of prospective Wildcats. "You're seeing [involved mothers] more than you did 10 years ago." says Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams. "I think a mother is more likely to be concerned with the human being who is her kid, while the father might see the athlete more."
As these athletes move toward professional careers in their sports, their mothers inevitably collide with the huge corporate enterprises that are professional teams. And the people who run these enterprises are not used to dealing with assertive women or with the fact that a mother's perspective on her child's welfare might be different from their own, largely male, perspective.
"A mother will probably have more of a tendency to think about the real interests of her child," says Carl Lindros, whose wife, Bonnie, has become a controversial figure in Canada because of her conspicuous involvement in the career of their son, hockey wunderkind Eric Lindros. "I think the mother might have a broader sense of things, particularly if the father was involved in the sport himself. He might be actualizing his own dreams through the kid, whereas the mother won't focus on anything except the well-being of the child." The fact that both Bonnie Lindros and Bettie Taylor have husbands makes them no less determined to secure the best future for their children.
Because the sexism laced through American culture is closer to the surface in sports than it is elsewhere, there's considerable resistance to the involvement of women in their children's careers. The sports world seems to classify women as either disposable or a nuisance, a continuum fairly well defined at one end by Margo Adams and at the other by Lisa Olson. In both of their celebrated cases, sports had an opportunity to confront its fundamental attitude toward women. In both cases, sports botched the job and went blithely onward. Indeed, every one of the male athletes interviewed by SI in the immediate wake of Magic Johnson's announcement that he had contracted the AIDS virus described a world in which women were either prey or predators and professional athletes were naïfs struggling with temptation.