Calvin Hill was stuck in traffic in suburban Virginia near Dulles Airport one day a few years ago. As the former NFL running back waited in a long line at a light, he glanced in his rear view mirror and spotted several cars, traveling on the shoulder, coming up rapidly behind him.

Hill thought about where he was -- just minutes from Redskin Park -- and what he knows about professional athletes, and said aloud what came to mind: "That's probably a couple of the Redskins."

When the cars whizzed by, Hill recognized the drivers.

"Sure enough, it was," he said. "Everyone else was waiting in line, but not them."

The boyish impatience of several Redskins offensive linemen never will make headlines, but it does represent the lighter side of a recurring problem among the nation's professional -- and college -- athletes.

Just this year, these occurrences involving professional athletes dotted the sports pages: the Washington Capitals' involvement with a teenage girl in a limousine after the team party in May, the New England Patriots' abuse of a woman reporter in September, charges of rape against former Georgetown basketball star David Wingate and an airport outburst by tennis's John McEnroe in which he broke the finger of an airline employee.

Once, reporting about athletes was confined to what they did on a playing field. Now, when athletes break the law, you read about it -- in detail. If athletes go beyond the bounds of decency or good judgment, you read about that too.

From childhood, the nation's top athletes lead lifestyles different than the rest of society, experts say. They play and they practice and their siblings wash the dishes. By the time they're adults, some of these athletes are playing by a different set of rules than the rest of society.

Is it any wonder, then, that some of them believe -- in fact, feel entitled -- to do things that other people never would do?

"After athletes slide by in college, they hit the pros and are given $500,000 a year," said Hill, now a vice president with the Baltimore Orioles. "Then we ask them to be positive role models? It just isn't logical."

Hill, who played most notably for the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins and now watches his son, Grant, play basketball at Duke, says athletes are not unusual in most of what they do.

"But they are unique in the sense that they are allowed to get away with more," he said. "It's a seductive thing. Those who want to break the rules know they can get by because of who they are."

There appear to be no statistics that would indicate athletes cause more trouble than any other group in society. But, with the possible exception of movie stars, no group's misbehavior is as minutely detailed.

"Once again, athletes are being judged by the actions of a few," said Reggie Williams, who played linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals and was a Cincinnati city councilman. "I don't think a great many athletes do expect to get away with anything, and yet there is a prevalent culture that begins with elementary school and goes on from there. You've got the parent, the teacher, the coach saying to the athlete they are special, and that insulates them from some of the consequences, from the playground on."

As a schoolboy (and now a schoolgirl), an athlete is "identified as being good and is allowed to slide by," said Hill. "People cover for them."

At home, the athletes' parents continue to give them special treatment, said Richard Lapchick, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston.

"You go into any home of any teenager who is a good athlete and you probably will find a parent who is more lenient with them than with the other brothers and sisters," Lapchick said. "The parents get someone else to take out the trash."

They go to college to play sports and study, usually in that order, and find what author Murray Sperber calls "wall-to-wall tutoring."

In addition to the well-documented tales of academic leniency, shiny foreign cars and other inducements not available to other students, college athletes apparently are not even learning how to make plane reservations or rent a car.

Team trips, especially for football and basketball players, involve being told when and where to report, hopping on a bus and being driven to the door of a plane. They never have to hold a ticket, check into a hotel or decide what time to eat or when to go to sleep. Coaches take care of all that.

"They live in a hermetically sealed cocoon," said Sperber, an Indiana University professor of English and American studies who wrote "College Sports Inc.," a critical look at college sports.

So when a tiny percentage of them becomes professional athletes, "we've created monsters," said Williams.

"Many athletes live in a bubble," said tennis player Pam Shriver, "and when they finally get out, they are surprised: 'Oh, wow, the real world.' "

When Hill was playing, he wondered about different rules for different people. After he was traded to Washington, he was being driven by Assistant General Manager Bobby Mitchell to the doctor for his physical. Mitchell was stopped by a police officer and given a ticket for going over the speed limit.

Hill was shocked.

"I said to Bobby, 'That guy's going to give you a ticket? You're Bobby Mitchell.'

"That's the mind-set of the athlete."

In the years right after he left the NFL, Hill still coveted the perks of the job. When he would fly west from Washington, and his choices of connections were Chicago's O'Hare Airport or Dallas-Fort Worth, he always would pick Dallas.

"The ticket agents still knew me there and they would always upgrade me," Hill said. "It wasn't wrong, and I knew it wasn't reality, yet I'd still do it."

It's the life athletes come to expect and then find hard to shake.

"You get the best tables. People are always picking up the tab. If you're driving over 55 and you're pulled over, the police recognize you and tell you to have a good game Sunday and let you go," Hill said.

"In training camp, your life has been completely itinerized. They tell you when to go to sleep, when to get up, when to eat, what to eat, when to practice, how many wind sprints to do. You never have to drive to an airport. You never have to buy your own ticket. You're royalty. But unlike Queen Elizabeth, who has someone putting out four or five outfits for her each day, you're not royalty for life. An athlete is a king or a queen only for as long as they can run and jump."

Everyone has a story. Sperber used to be a sportswriter in Montreal. He covered the North American Soccer League team there and one day was traveling home with them from a game in Tulsa, with a connection in Chicago. The team had a couple of days off after it got back. So, in Chicago, Sperber suggested to one of the players, a 24-year-old from Milwaukee, that he should not get on the plane to Montreal, but go visit his family little more than an hour's drive away in Wisconsin.

The player, Sperber said, liked the idea -- until he was told he would have to change his ticket and rent a car. The added expense wasn't the problem. He was afraid to make those changes.

"It was too much for him," Sperber said. "He just got on the plane and went to Montreal. Here's a guy who had gone to Marquette on scholarship and had played soccer. But even on the soccer team, not one of the glamour sports in this country, he apparently didn't know how to change a ticket."

Three years ago, the Orioles discovered one of their players carried all the money from his paycheck in his pocket, Hill said. "The whole concept of putting it in the bank and writing checks was foreign to him."

The team solved the problem by sending coach Terry Crowley with the player to the bank to open an account.

"Athletes become very trusting," Hill said. "This is why they are easy prey for unscrupulous people."

All of this is not particularly new. But what is different is the media's -- and the fan's -- interest in what athletes are doing. The stories are legendary now: Babe Ruth publicly drank and socialized with women on train trips in front of reporters. But it's also legend that the reporters said to one another, "Gentlemen, I guess none of us saw that."

Now, athletes are fair game. The intensity with which members of the media investigate non-sports stories has carried over to the playing field. Male reporters don't wink at the indiscretions of male athletes anymore; they write them down. And there are more than 500 women covering sports now too.

"We put those people up on such pedestals, then if they slip a little ways, it's a big fall, whether it's a major thing or a minor thing," said NCAA Executive Director Dick Schultz.

"With the attention of TV and Madison Avenue, it's noticed," Hill said. "The PR guys know that when an athlete does something, it doesn't help the team's image. They are no longer insulated from the public."

In some ways, this scares them, the experts say. Sperber's "cocoon" image connotes a soft, secure place where an athlete escapes from the real world.

"Elite athletes are just so separated, they can't help but expect and want to be treated differently," Sperber said. "One thing that has struck me from watching and analyzing athletes is that they live in such a black-and-white world.

"Coaches see things only in black and white and this translates to the players. In a world of ambiguities, sports is black and white. In this world, they don't hear a lot of criticism from the outside world either. When they do, it surprises them."

Recently, a star linebacker in the NFL was involved in a domestic disturbance. His wife called the police. As he later talked about what happened to reporters gathered around his locker, he said, "I see a lot of guys with wedding bands on their hands, so I'm sure you know what I'm talking about."

Said Sperber: "{He} is so totally in that world that he doesn't know that's not the way it is."

"Sometimes, not just athletes, but entertainers, anybody, suddenly reaches a certain plateau and thinks they have privileges that aren't available to other people," Schultz said. "Sometimes, people start to take themselves too seriously and think they're more important than they are and feel they've reached a level that, now, they can expect some special things."

The solution to this problem is to bring athletics -- and athletes -- back down to earth, many say. But in these times of billion-dollar TV contracts for college sports, it might be impossible. Williams, the former Bengal, believes education is the answer and that it has to come early, in the home, from parents.

"Athletics were never as high a priority for me as academics were," he said. "I sat the bench in high school and went to the Ivy League {Dartmouth} where there are no athletic scholarships. This allowed me to be much more objective about it, to watch some of the great athletes I grew up with become spoiled."

Schultz said athletes should not be kept apart from other students on campus.

"The only way we're going to get rhyme or reason out of this is we have to try to make the athlete as indistinguishable from the rest of the student body as we can," he said. "That's very difficult to do, but we need to work for that."

Lapchick said it is essential athletes learn that their pro careers likely will be short -- if they happen at all. They also "must learn to contribute to society."

Shriver would love to see some sort of "code of conduct" written into professional athletes' contracts.

"It's probably not a realistic idea," she said, "but I wish we could do something. You hear athletes say it's not fair they are singled out when they do something wrong. Well, I don't buy that. If you're in the public eye, you're probably getting paid more money than the average person. Accountability is a part of the life."

Lapchick said he hopes the nation's preoccupation with sports might turn out to have benefits at the high school level.

"This society has gone so crazy that you just don't have a handle on kids in high school," he said. "But you do have a handle on kids in high school when they are in sports. Because of their love of sports, they'll listen to their coaches. That means you can train them, and that they may become positive role models."