When athletes are left to their own digital-dating devices

How athletes date in the digital age (2:53)

More than 100 million people use social networking to find love - or lust. And athletes are no different. Take a look inside the world of digital dating for athletes, where options are plentiful but possible pitfalls are just one click away. (2:53)

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's May 9 Fame Issue. Subscribe today!


THE SINGLE MAN with the sexy job is stuck. For starters, he is fairly thick, just large enough to have not seen his Adam's apple since never, and to have not enjoyed a ton of success with women on looks alone. When he catches their eye, it's his social status or bank balance they see -- because he is, in fact, an NFL lineman.

Tonight he's in San Francisco for Super Bowl 50, not for the actual game, which kicks off tomorrow, but to kindle a legit romance, which, to him, is the Big Game. His field of play: the Maxim party, the wackiest Super-soiree any of the regulars can remember. From the stage, Lil Wayne and his joint command a dance floor of hundreds. Up above dangles an aerialist. Down below is, inexplicably, a kangaroo. And all around are runway models, Instagram models and fresh faces bused in from across the Bay Area. When they're not milking the open bar, they're arm-tackling stars like Marshawn Lynch.

Now imagine how a guy who is often mistaken for an NFL star's bodyguard would find a match in this crowd. In years past, it was a long shot. But at the moment, the lineman is dancing with a pretty lady, who's very much into him. The kicker: She knew she was into him before she knew how he earned a living. How did that happen?

"Tinder -- it's the best invention ever," he says with a hearty laugh, as if he can't believe his good fortune.

Like 50 million other fish in the dating app's sea, he swims the murky waters in search of companionship, if not lasting love. Unlike the majority, he must go to extreme lengths to stay afloat, deploying an arsenal of tricks developed by the stars for the stars. But the qualities that make him an extra-large catch to virtual predators also come with outsize benefits. Of his five Tinder winners, he estimates he has a real shot with two. And that, in part, is why I'm not allowed to use his name or even true position. So I coined a handle: Tinder-Slaying Tackle. He thinks it's funny but not entirely accurate. "A girl I was with last week," he says, "I met on Twitter."

WHEN THE HISTORY of the early 21st century is written, it will kick off like this: All the world can be had on an app. Tickets to watch the Lakers lose? StubHub! A quinoa bowl with a side of boring? Grubhub! A bare-tushed Kim Kardashian? Everywhere! An IRL bare tush? Tinder! Or, if it's more your thing, Grindr! Or Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Vine ...

Mobile dating overtook online dating in 2012 and, based on a 2015 study by GlobalWebIndex, now claims more than 91 million users, but that number doesn't include platforms repurposed for romance. "Twitter and Instagram are basically dating apps now," says hockey journeyman Paul "BizNasty" Bissonnette, a professed app player. "Every athlete uses them to hook up, and if they say they haven't, they're lying."

Some 80 other athletes interviewed for this story support the claim -- jocks of all sports and stripes are using social media to search for a Ms. or Mr. Right, or at least Right Now. If you consider the pros' distinct advantages, including fame, fortune and sculpted bodies, and factor in the atypical challenges, such as long days in a unisex workplace and a life on the road, is it any wonder they press a screen when they want to press up against somebody?

"It's not like we need help, but social media makes women so accessible," says Washington receiver DeSean Jackson, who has used Instagram. "I'll send a comment, and if they reply, you ask for a date. It's easy."

Like Jackson, most athletes prefer Instagram for its wealth of intel. "Thirty photos can give you a pretty good idea of a person's personality and interests," says motocrosser Bruce Cook. "It might even be more organic than meeting a stranger at a bar," offers Olympic freeskier Nick Goepper, who tells the story of his recent journey down IG friends' tags. "This girl pops up," he says. "I thought, 'Huh, similar interests and friends.' Now we're planning a date over FaceTime. Social media is an awesome dating tool."

Meanwhile, sprinting bobsledder Lolo Jones has flipped Twitter-connects into many iDates. "Great-looking guys are all over social media," says the Olympian, who also dabbles on Tinder. "But I'm still single."

So how does Tinder work? Don't ask the Cavaliers. "It's big in younger locker rooms," guard Joe Harris says. "We're older, so Tinder is probably foreign to these guys."

"Teender? Show me," says big man Timofey Mozgov, snatching my phone. "All right, what is it? A game?"

Sort of. Swipe left if you don't dig her; swipe right if you do.

"I see, just random girls ..." Mozgov says, swiping rapidly, 10, 15 times, all to the right.

Um, dude, stop swiping?

"Trust me," he says, just as he strikes a match. "She likes you! OK, we send a message: 'Hi, can we meet?'"

The cavalier cupid is beside himself with laughter. "If you know girls like you, you don't need to do the dirty works! So easy. I wish they had it before I got married."

UPON LANDING AT an airport, pros can trumpet their arrival on Twitter, and by the time they reach the hotel, they have a virtual black book at their phone-side without having to venture into a foreign bar scene. "If you don't have to be at the club all night, you're not drinking as much," Cook says. And you're far less likely to land on TMZ. "If you're looking for girls on social media, nobody's gonna see you out, which keeps you out of trouble," says Sacramento Kings rookie Willie Cauley-Stein.

Tinder's location-specific search makes an athlete's road game easier, and longer stays increase the chances of consummating a match, so for MLB players, in particular, scores come in bunches. "Tinder is better for an area you're not familiar with, so that's how a lot of guys meet people," says Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer, who's off the market but estimates that a third of his single colleagues are right swipers. And that number spikes during spring training, when regulars can punch out by the fifth inning. The taken might kill that time with golf and pool parties. The single guys? "They're having lots of sex out here, and at least half are using Tinder to do it," says a Cactus Leaguer with the Giants. "It's like shooting fish in a barrel."

Patriots star Rob Gronkowski tried Tinder four years ago just for laughs, he says, "and I was matching like crazy!" I tell the "chickmagnet4life" -- seriously, that was his AIM screen name -- I'm not faring as well. It hits him like a bolt of lightning. "You're not killing it?" Gronk says. "You're not doing it right." The tight end offers two fixes: First, make like Mozgov, "Swipe right on everything. Get the ball rolling." Second, make like Dangerfield, "Make them laugh. Just Google 'Tinder pickup lines.'" (Sample: You must be a dictator, cuz I have an uprising.)

Entertainment aside, some lovelorn pros see Tinder as a means to enter the game sans their jersey. Offers Tinder-Slaying Tackle: "Do you like me, or do you like what I can do for you? Tinder gives me the answer." On Mr. Tackle's profile, you'll see his first name and photos but no mention of his NFL gig, a factoid he typically shares on the first date. "It's the best way to know she's not a groupie," explains one of at least four Broncos who Tinder undercover. Their misdirection play has a cheerleader in ex-teammate Terrance Knighton. "A lot of the guys over there who are on Tinder are looking for love, and that's hard to find in a club where people have the wrong intentions," says the Patriot. "Tinder weeds out those people. They just set up a semi-blind date with photos that aren't too revealing. It's working out for them."

It's certainly working in the NFL, where 53-man rosters of face-masked faces allow for swiping incognito. But in the NBA, a sport with 15-man rosters of trees with legs, a player's star can blow up his Tinder. Just ask former No. 1 draft pick Andrew Wiggins, who kept his account active through draft day and even later noted his temporary affiliation with the Cavs, only to watch his profile make as many blogs as his trade to Minnesota.

And for famous women, the dating app can be a nonstarter. Before Ronda Rousey met her main squeeze, fellow MMAer Travis Browne, the fighter dipped her toe in Tinder's water for a nanosecond -- and even used an alter ego, Brynn Campbell -- only to flee with a case of cold feet. Rousey aimed to avoid the inevitable backlash that comes with being a known woman on the dating app that snowboarder Jamie Anderson calls scandalous. The Olympian installed the app in Sochi in 2014 "just to crush on guys" but couldn't uninstall it fast enough after watching what happened to her friend Rebecca Torr, a snowboarder for New Zealand who dished on Sochi's Tinder scene in an interview. "She got a lot of heat," Anderson says. It's one of the reasons female iPlayers prefer to stay mum about their efforts, or away from them entirely. "No Tinder, no Match, nothing," says Christen Press of the U.S. women's soccer team. "I don't mind going up to people when I'm out. I have a better chance of getting a read on them that way."

In fact, to hear athlete lotharios tell it, Tinder runs a distant third in popularity to Twitter and Instagram, two vast seas with more than a billion fish.

COURTNEY FORCE FACED a conundrum. In 2012, the biggest name in NHRA Funny Car racing wanted a relationship, not a fling, but even when she did manage to find someone who wanted her for her, that person typically couldn't stomach her work schedule. As she thinks back on it now, dating a like-minded peer with similar work demands made perfect sense.

Trouble was, the California-based drag racer was crushing on an IndyCar driver who lived in Indianapolis. Their paths wouldn't cross except on Twitter, the Sadie Hawkins dance in the cloud. IndyCar's Graham Rahal picks up the story from there. "One day, out of the blue, I get a DM from Courtney. 'Hey, I'm in Indy. Looking for a place to grab a drink.'" (Correction: "There may have been an emoji," Force says.) Rahal responded with his digits, and "four seconds later, I get a text: 'Would you like to join?'" (Again: "It was longer than four seconds," Force insists.) Rahal had plans that night, so he passed, but he knew the deal: "Yeah, she was interested."

The drivers' roundabout way to the finish paid off. "We owe our marriage to social media," Rahal says. The thought embarrasses Force even now. "I hate to admit it, but if it wasn't for Twitter, I probably wouldn't have reached out," she says. "I'm really shy, and Twitter is a low-pressure way to connect."

For other stars, though, the volume of digital advances can often be overwhelming.

"Whether they think I'm attractive or like my status, lots of girls come at me on social media -- lots, lots," says Steelers Pro Bowler Le'Veon Bell. "You get used to it, and you handle it from there." How, exactly, does Bell handle it? "I'm a guy who likes conversation, especially with women, and obviously they like doing it with me." But as often as not, Bell phones a friend. "You have your agent reach out, see what they're about," he says. "I can take myself out of the process."

Left to their own 4G devices, athletes must figure out whether a suitor's motive aligns with theirs. But before a comment begets a convo, one key step remains: "I'll creep her photos, make sure she looks proper," says pro skateboarder Nyjah Huston, an Instagram player who's now off the market. "If I'm like, 'Damn, this chick's hot,' I'll be like, 'Cruise over and party.'"

No matter the platform, the party starts when one person sends a direct message -- or, as it's been popularized in memes, "slides into DMs." The allure is obvious. "We're trying to get away from all the eyes," says Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson, who flipped user-to-user communication into a "couple of dates, good and bad." And its reputation is that of pop culture legend. Just hit Play on Yo Gotti's "Down in the DM." The rapper describes the DM zone with bawdy lyrics that Pelicans big man Anthony Davis knows by heart. Still, "my DM's not popping," he says, furrowing his brow. "I don't know what my problem is."

Maybe the All-Star is playing it too cool. Athletes often shoot first. "With me, it's half and half," says Lakers rookie D'Angelo Russell, whose social score is so high, "I can't put a number on it, but there's plenty of times that you come across something that catches your attention. If she looks good, looks the part, you send a DM and go from there."

Cook, a paraplegic Nitro Circus rider, is often treated to DM convos that are one-way -- and character-free. "One girl just DM'd me a picture of her boobs -- that's it," he says. And then he gets the chair chasers. A recent example:

Girl: So you're paralyzed. Are your legs really skinny?

Cook: Skinnier than they used to be.

Girl: Can you send me a picture?

Cook: It's not really my pride and joy down there.

Girl: I think it's so hot when guys have big upper bodies and little chicken legs.

Cook: They're not that small.

Athletes like Cook know it's best to self-censor, as the virtual road to the bedroom is littered with the wreckage of DMs gone awry. One category, the "DM fail," is the result of a simple screwup, when the sender tweets what was meant as a DM, as NBAer Ray Allen presumably did in 2009 when he instructed his followers to think about him during intimate, ahem, me time. The more common class of disaster-by-DM involves a violation of privacy on the part of the recipient. There's a name for it. "The screenshot," says 76ers rookie Jahlil Okafor, which has been making athletes nervous since at least 2013, when now-Cavs guard J.R. Smith, the crown prince of digital dumb­assery, made a metaphorical plumbing tweet. (Just Google it.) "I was very immature and stupid," Smith says. "But I learned from it too: Watch what you say on social media."

Wise words, but athletes believe risks can be mitigated with Snapchat, nondisclosure agreements and intel gathering. "If I slide into DMs," Okafor says, "I usually do a good job of seeing if somebody else knows her."

A player's network can also help him leapfrog the worst of social networking's nightmares: catfishing. Roughly a quarter of the athletes interviewed for this story know of a colleague who's been had by a fake suitor. But today's tech-savvy jocks believe they have a nearly foolproof digital net to catch them. Step No. 1: "Get her on FaceTime within 36 hours," Okafor says. Explains Russell: "You can't fake FaceTime. If they make an excuse, you know it's fishy." When a suitor balks at a video chat, citing a common excuse like a poor Wi-Fi connection, fellas in the Bengals' locker room offer Step No. 2: "Tell her to send a picture of herself holding up two random fingers, and right now," says tight end Tyler Eifert. "Don't give her time to find a photo from who knows where."

The safety measures don't stop once a date begins: After "hello," check ID, because as Russell says, "a lot of the girls online are younger than they say they are"; bring your special someone back to a hotel, where cameras and security watch your back; and check the phone at the door lest you end up like James Harden and Julian Edelman, just two examples of athletes becoming unwitting subjects of selfies while asleep.

For some, that's all more trouble than it's worth. Cauley-Stein rolls "the old-fashioned way" and ideally outside of clubs, where DJs announce his arrival. "If I see you at a Wal-Mart and I like you, I'll be like, 'What's good?' I did that today at a gas station. It worked." The gas pumper didn't recognize the rookie, and that's just the way he likes it. "A girl who hits you up on Twitter knows who you are. You tell her to come to the hotel, she shows up with three dudes to rob you. This world's crazy."

INSIDE THE VISITORS' locker room at Staples Center, Magic guard Brandon Jennings lifts his head, holsters his phone and flashes a smile. "Social media has been good to me. I just had to figure out how to use it right."

In late 2012, Jennings caught the eye of actress Tae Heckard with a funny Vine persona that didn't reveal his NBA gig. Flirting in DMs led to an offer of courtside seats at a game. "She didn't know who I was until she got there," he says. Today, Heckard is the mother of his boy, born in November and nicknamed Deuce, so he sees the value in digital dating. "It gave me my son."

But when it comes to dating, Jennings has soured on Vine. He's decided that social media is a fool's game, useful only after initiating IRL contact at places like bookstores "so you can see the book she's reading." Jennings turns to apps "for an investigation," to help him sniff out the ill-intentioned. "Girls say, 'Don't judge me on my social,' but it tells me if you're about the money, the followers or about yourself," he says. "I'm looking for a nice girl. I'm not gonna get her with a DM."

As the clock ticks on his playing days, even Bissonnette, a surefire first-ballot inductee in the Digital Dating Hall of Fame, is happy to hang up his phone. The Ontario product has tallied countless scores through a 700,000-strong Twitter following -- "Girls find that number attractive, and I took advantage of that" -- but if you send him a nude selfie now, as one woman recently did, you'll get an entirely different reaction. "I told her I have a girlfriend," he says. But even if he were single, "I'm 31 now. I don't care about getting laid every single night." Could Biz­Nasty be hearing wedding bells?

"We'll see," he says. "True love is pretty hard to find."