Once, a while back, every high school had a few -- the bad boys, the sexy, perpetually unhappy James Deans of the 20th century. They were accompanied by motorcycles and Camel cigarettes and a lot of girls saying that, despite the arrest for stealing hubcaps, they were actually sensitive or intelligent. A lot of girls did not say that bad boys were attractive because they were dangerous, exciting, sexy and a once-in-a-lifetime chance to escape the Mom-and-Dad proprieties of teenage life.

Now there are fewer proprieties and more bad boys taking media-glorified rogues as their models: rappers, professional snowboarders, actors or athletes who flaunt their roguery. In high schools, the outsiders are now the insiders: Boys who attract lots of girls, and treat them badly, aren't called bad anymore. They're called players.

Same old game, but less blame and a brand-new name.

"Player" is a label that kids instantly recognize as belonging to someone who prefers sports jerseys to leather jackets, who charms rather than alarms adults and resembles a bad boy in one significant way: attracting all kinds of girls who should know better.

"If James Dean walked in here, no one would notice," says Robert Payne, a Latin teacher for 30 years at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac. "Players," on the other hand, "are popular. They have multiple girlfriends and a reputation of not being sincere with them."

A player tells a girl he's misunderstood by everyone but her -- and makes her believe he can accomplish incredible things with her by his side.

He always seems to have money, even when he's stone broke.

Sometimes he drives a Ford Explorer, sometimes a souped-up Pontiac Grand Am, and sometimes he drives nothing, relying on girls to pick him up and take him to three or four parties every weekend.

The player carries at least two cell phones at all times, programmed to vibrate, not ring. If his girl of the moment happens to pick up one and scan his directory, he denies knowing how those 20 names got there. If he gets caught cheating, he says, "We're just friends," hands her a rose and she believes him, because she knows he'd never give a flower to that other girl.

"Players give off that aura of having been with every girl in school," says Marty McCord, a longtime counselor popular among students at Yorktown High School in Arlington. "It's not true, but that's the image."

Yorktown is an exceptional high school: highly rated academically with a diverse student body of about 1,600. Upperclassmen say they've never seen a fight there.

But it's also unexceptional in the fact that it has cliques, gossip and players such as Duane Tigney, star football running back who graduated this month and Numero Uno player, according to other students.

Tigney carries his 6-foot, 200-pound frame like a slow-moving river on a summer afternoon. In or out of school, he can't stop saying "hi," particularly to good-looking girls, with whom he chats as though he's got all the time in the world and wants to spend it only with them.

"When girls ask me what I'm doing, I say, 'You,' " he brags.

Tigney's not spittin' a game, says Thad Huston, sitting with Tigney and 10 other players in an empty room at school. Huston pulls out a cell phone camera and punches up proof.

A short guy always in motion, Huston admits his own guilt.

"I've been caught I don't know how many times," he says. "I had two girls after me, they found out about each other, but one of 'em is still pressin' on me."

Tigney knows the young lady in question. "I think some of them like that, to get caught," he says. "It's all a game to them, too."

Tigney and Huston belong to what its members call the Yorktown "brotherhood," a group of about 15 guys from different backgrounds who have played sports and girls since middle school. They observed the moves of their real older brothers at school, parties, even the ninth hole on a golf course where they'd hang out and drink Natural Light beer late at night.

"We wanted to live up to those guys," says Mark Landis, a slender young man with a sweet young face. "I think we surpassed them."

As legacy passes from generation to generation, the player image grows larger than life, in fact and fiction, marketed like crazy. Casanova and Kobe. Lord Byron and Johnny Depp, who threw out what may be the most insincere bait of all time in "Cry-Baby:" "No wonder we're together. I'm an orphan, too."

"Seeing all these people on the screen, seeing the women they're with, everyone wants to be a pimp," says Landis. "Like my man Brad Pitt, now he knows what he's doing."

Maybe the player is getting back at his mom. Maybe he's taking fatherly advice too literally. "My dad told me not to get too serious in high school," says Joe Albrittain, former football quarterback chosen "most attractive" by Yorktown's senior class.

Maybe emotional intimacy scares him. Maybe he's always liked to take risks. Maybe he does it for the status it gets him from other guys. And maybe, says Daniel Kruger, a social psychologist at the University of Michigan, his behavior is hard-wired.

Humans, unlike most mammals, evolved to prefer long-term sexual relationships and substantial involvement in child-raising by males as well as females. But in their earlier societies, up to about 12,000 years ago, males tried to spread their seed as widely as possible, under an evolutionary drive to increase the number of children who would survive. Remnants of that earlier instinct survive in what Kruger and other researchers call the personality of the "cad," as opposed to the "dad."

Private parties may be this generation's version of Pleistocene-era roving, and hooking up the predatory behavior of choice. "This hooking up is getting so out of control, it's ridiculous," says Albrittain. He blames it on alcohol, easily acquired.

Tigney gives good parties, his friends say. That's all they'll say, except to hint that he lives on the edge. His girlfriend was homecoming queen at Yorktown this past school year. She carried posters saying "Go Tigney!" to his games. He has been her beau for more than a year and a half.

He is asked if she knows about his various contacts. His friend Huston, listening to the conversation, interrupts: "She'll know when she reads the newspaper."

Of course, Tigney has an answer for that. Players always do.

"I'll sit down and read it to her myself," he says. "She'll still be my chick."

An Old Game

Singer and comedian Fanny Brice would have recognized Tigney's game.

"Two or three girls has he that he likes as well as me, but I love him," she sang in 1928's "My Man." Over the next few decades, dozens of other women made hits out of bad boy allure: "He's a Rebel," "Leader of the Pack," "Maybe I Know [That He's Been Cheating]," "Nothing but Heartache" and of course Carole King and Gerry Goffin's "Oh No, Not My Baby."

"We make so many excuses for these guys," says Dorothy Marcic, who chronicles this pattern in her book "Respect: Women and Popular Music."

Not always, of course. In 1966, Nancy Sinatra sang "These Boots Are Made for Walking"; in 1981 Pat Benatar warned "Treat Me Right"; and Cher, in 1992, warned her guy that he would cry over her in "Save Up All Your Tears." But by the late 1990s, Marcic says, stars such as Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears had put themselves right back in the players' hands by making themselves into sex objects.

"We're just so pitiful sometimes," Marcic says.

Kruger, the Michigan psychologist, prefers an evolutionary explanation. Females of long ago believed that if they mated with cads, their offspring, particularly their male offspring, would inherit the cads' confidence and strength and in turn pass them on to the next generation.

He calls this the "sexy son" hypothesis and sees remnants of it on campus today.

He and two colleagues asked 260 female students to read parts of several novels by the romantic poet Sir Walter Scott and pay attention to Scott's promiscuous "cad" and monogamous "dad" figures. Which type would they prefer to have a relationship with, he asked.

The students said that once they were ready to settle down and have children, they'd choose dads. If they had daughters, they'd prefer the daughters dated and married dads. But they would rather party with a cad.

Alexandrian Ashley Hines, recently graduated from West Potomac High School, understands that. In ninth grade, she sought out her then-best friend's brother. Until she wised up to his player ways, "he made me feel safe," she recalls. Other guys didn't mess with her -- a plus when you're a freshman in a big school.

Now she has a boyfriend who, she recently told several friends, "was a player -- before I got with him."

She left him behind on a recent school trip to New York but took his cell phone. That was a mistake. She received calls and text messages from other girls all weekend and, when she called her boyfriend to ask who the girls were, he always gave her the same answer: "I don't know."

"He's told me he isn't with them," Hines says. Does she believe him? "Yeah, I think so." Why does she stay? "He makes me feel like nobody else in the world exists," she says.

Some experts look to childhood experiences to explain this female fascination with the cad. "Whether we melt for wounded poets, melodramatic daredevils or charming con men depends on what kind of masculine role models we were exposed to," Beverly Hills psychiatrist Carole Lieberman writes in her book "Bad Boys: Why We Love Them, How to Live With Them, When to Leave Them."

Also: Think of the sense of adventure, tantalizing especially to the good girl. "He'd be kind of intimidating. He'd influence you to be bad. It wouldn't be boring," says a girl hanging out with her friends at Springfield Mall.

"Everybody would know them, so when you were with them, you'd be well known, too," offers another girl.

Not so fast, says the liveliest girl in the group. Her name is Felicia Cameron and she's a tall, athletic graduate of Lee High School on her way to Old Dominion University in the fall. She has seen a lot of playing and wants no part of it.

"I know a guy who's 21. When he was in high school, he had a sweetheart in one school and several other girlfriends in several other schools."

He would use the same techniques on each girl, she says. One was: "He'd find out from her friend what her favorite movie was, then he'd see her one day and say, 'My favorite movie is. . . . Have you ever seen it?' Pretty soon, he'd be into, 'You're the best,' and 'I think I'm falling in love with you.' "

In this lucky guy's case, none of the young women ever found out about the others, she says. But sometimes they do.

Cameron continues: At Lee's annual male talent show earlier this year, four young women who discovered they had been played by the same guy conspired to sit together. When the rake came onstage to Lil' Flip's song "Game Over!," they knew they had him. Together, they loudly sang the refrain, "Game over! Flip! Flip! Flip!" and watched, with considerable glee, as he slunk away.

Wanting What You Don't Have

Duane Tigney arrives at his senior prom with a beautiful brunette in a lavender party dress that is made to dance in. This is his full-time "chick"; her name is Laura Brookhiser, and she has her hands planted firmly on his lower back in a futile attempt to push him past all the girls whom he pauses to hug or kiss on the cheek.

They've already partied with about 20 other couples at Albrittain's, then in the stretch limousine, and together they move easily and suggestively on the floor of the Clarendon Ballroom. Even a call on Tigney's cell phone doesn't stop their dancing.

"While he's gone out with other people before me, and not been that faithful to them, [our relationship] is different," Brookhiser says. "He's never, like, done anything. He just flirts. It's okay, I guess."

"It's not that these guys play hard to get," Erin Dall-Silver says at the prom. "It's just that once someone has 'em, another girl wants 'em. Girls want what they can't have. At least I do."

Dall-Silver is Huston's date of the evening. Tall and regal in a strapless, tight, white Jessica McClintock gown, she says she and Huston have only been "talking" for three months and that she knew before she asked Huston to the prom that he wouldn't stick by her side. "I'd be upset if I found out he was kissing someone," she admits. She spends a lot of time at the prom looking for her escort.

As the prom winds down, a girl Tigney has flirted with more than once wanders over to talk to him again. Her date sees this and walks over as well, placing his right hand over the date's right breast.

One player signaling to another, perhaps: "This girl is my property."

Players' Conscience?

Away from their buddies, the players admit some doubts about playing. "I'm not saying having all these girls is right," Huston says one day at school. "It [is bad] for the girls. Sometimes I feel sorry for them."

Over lunch at a country club, Albrittain says: "I have a lot of respect for girls' feelings." The star quarterback says he hates it when other guys grab a girl's behind or call a girl "bitch" or "ho."

"I can see in the girls' faces, they don't like it," he says. He also dislikes the double standard: "If a girl hooks up three times at a party, she's a slut. If a guy does, he's a player."

Mark Landis claims that he and some of his friends are playing less frequently these days. Why? "We're sick of hurting our girlfriends, sick of the drama from doing the crap we were doing."

Maybe he will get hurt someday. Maybe they all will.

For sure, the cozy paradise of high school is over. These players will move into newer and bigger worlds. So will their girlfriends. High school status was determined by one set of rules. College will have another set, the working world yet another. Popularity will mean less, and achievement will mean more. Cliques will mean less, social class more.

For instance, Tigney, the number one player of Yorktown, will attend military school in hopes of getting his grades up high enough to get him into a football college. Meanwhile, Brookhiser, his girlfriend, will go to Duke University, a private school full of bright, rich boys and its share of players.

"I don't think we're going to break up," she says. Privately, Tigney acknowledges he's worried.

In his poem "To an Athlete Dying Young," poet A.E. Housman describes young stars whose fame fades as they mature. "And early though the laurel grows," he writes, "it withers quicker than the rose."

Michigan's Kruger says it this way: "These guys shine bright and then burn out. Their lives don't have that happy, settled-down ending."

Some settle contentedly into marriage, he says, but others don't or can't. Some cads don't make good dads.

Is this wishful thinking on Kruger's part? A lust for revenge from a non-player?

Kruger, who is happily married, admits that may be part of it.

"In high school, I'd see these guys in the locker room and couldn't believe girls would be attracted to them."

They were, but not forever. He continues: "When women are looking to settle down, they want someone who will be good to them and give them a long-term investment."

From left, self-described "player" Duane Tigney with Yorktown High friends Thad Huston, Mark Landis and Joe Albrittain on Albrittain's truck.