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Without question, professional athletes worldwide are worshipped. Growing up, children try to emulate their agile moves, don their apparel, and praise their extraordinary feats of physical prowess. As adults, the fascination continues. They inspire, motivate, and offer society breaks from the real world.
Every once in a while, however, and it seems more often than less lately, that real world – the cold, harsh, tragic one – collides with the hero world. Thus, the tragic hero is born and suffers. Godlike becomes god-least. This is the sports idol who had it all, but through some unwise choice or act along the way, exits the exalted state of grace. Some recover, but most fall, with the sin of the tragedy eclipsing the gleam of the legend. Does anyone talk about OJ's football exploits anymore?
The following list arguably consists of the most famous super athletes who have such fallen from grace. There are others, but these come to mind without thinking.
Heading the top of the list of disgraced athletes is none other than O.J. Simpson, who was acquitted for the murders of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, following a trial called the Trial of the Century in 1995.
Simpson, known simply as OJ or the Juice, had it all, on the field and off: a legendary football career that produced two All-American selections and a Heisman Trophy Award at the University of Southern California, countless rushing records in the National Football League, and good looks and a magnanimous personality that lead to a successful broadcast and movie career after retiring from the NFL in 1980.
Although acquitted for the murders, events leading to the trial, during the trial, and after the trial captivated the nation. Who could forget the white Ford Bronco police chase, the colorful trial characters, and the eventual imprisonment of OJ for armed robbery in 2008.
Today, Simpson is a free man, a sad, broken football god unknown for his football talent but ties to murder and robbery.
Lance Armstrong is synonymous with the Tour de France, winning the mother of all road-racing cycling events a record seven times from 1999 to 2005. However, if you look in the record books for those years, Armstrong’s name is not listed. That’s because all those victories were stripped after an investigation by the United States Anti-Doping Agency had determined in 2012 that Armstrong used performance-enhancing drugs during his career. He also was slapped with a lifetime ban from competing in sports that follow the World Anti-Doping Code.
Armstrong’s tragedy is intensified more not by his illegal activities but by the adoration he received by bravely battling and defeating testicular cancer in 1997 after doctors had declared a 20-to-50 percent chance of survival. The legend was set, a hero who miraculously defied all odds to accomplish remarkable victories. Unfortunately, his roller coaster cycling story crashed on the final turn.
After resigning from his self-started cancer foundation in 2012 and admitting his wrong-doings on Oprah in 2013, Armstrong faces a government lawsuit set for May of this year that could cost him millions. He has reached out to fellow teammates and associates for apologies with little sympathy or conciliation.
It can be argued that Mike Tyson’s life was tragic from the start, took a bite (no pun intended) into the inviting lights of stardom and fame, then quickly scampered back to the familiar confines of despair. In the ring, victories far outnumbered the losses but outside, life’s punches were far more devastating than the champ’s vicious uppercuts.
Iron Mike survived the mean streets of Brownville, Brooklyn as a boy to become the youngest boxer to win the World Boxing Council (WBC) heavyweight championship at 20 years, four months, and 22 days. He amassed 50 wins, 44 by knock outs, and earned the nickname as the baddest man on the planet, which stemmed from his mostly first-round crushing of opponents. Bets on Tyson fights revolved around not if victorious but how soon opponents would wind up on their backs.
In what many consider the biggest upset in modern sports, Tyson lost his undisputed championship to Buster Douglas, an overweight heavyweight who managed to deck Tyson in the 10th round and claim victory on a count-out in 1990.
Leading up to the loss, Tyson’s personal and professional life was a growing mess, his humiliating split with actress-wife Robin Givens, contract disputes, and the severing of ties with manager Bill Clayton and trainer Kevin Rooney taking its emotional toll. The real tragedy, however, was a year later, when the iron one was arrested for the rape of 18-year-old Desiree Washington. He spent a little less than three years in prison.
To his credit, Tyson reclaimed the WBC heavyweight championship in 1996 by beating Frank Bruno, but what followed was a bizarre compilation of events that involved biting off a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear, bankruptcy (how do you lose $300 million), more scrapes with the law, and drug issues.
Tyson today remains in the public’s eye through various non-boxing projects, but like Simpson an Armstrong, he’s known more for the darkness than the heroic shine.
Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa
The great McGwire-Sosa home run race of 1998 to surpass 61 and restore the fans admiration and trust in America’s pastime following the damaging strike of 1994 and first-ever loss of the World Series was the clutch home run that Major League Baseball was praying for, but….
McGwire and Sosa’s race to break Roger Maris’s single season mark of 61 home runs did ignite the fan base, with McGuire outslugging Sosa, 70 dingers to 66, to smash the record. Three years later, Barry Bonds, hit 73 homers.
Baseball was back, but something did not look right, like the growing physical attributes of the players. Soon, everyone was looking at baseball cards more for player anatomy changes and sudden statistical abnormalities.
During a congressional hearing in 2005 on steroids and performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), several ballplayers, including McGuire and Sosa, appeared to answer questions. The hearing was quite comical: McGuire repeatedly stating that “I’m not here to talk about the past,” and Sosa appeared to have forgotten how to understand and speak English.
As it played out, all three players, including many others, and in fact everyone who played baseball during that era, suffered black eyes and humiliation. Despite putting up Hall of Fame numbers, neither of the three, along with other “steroid-era' players with comparable feats, have failed to reach the coveted halls of Cooperstown.
In hopes of saving baseball, McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds, unlike Tinkers, Evers, and Chance, will forever be known as the poster boys for modern baseball’s dark age.
Maybe Tiger does not belong on this list. With the way his golf stock has been rising lately due to play at recent outings, the Valspar Championship and the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Woods’ past transgressions may reach par – or at least, deserve a mulligan in life.
Granted, Woods’ story fits a classic tragic-hero story theme: fame to shame. Tiger, one of the most successful golfers in history, cast a fixation like no other athlete. Everyone, golf fans or not, knew that Woods was something special, a phenom at 20, after winning three PGA events and his first Masters in 1997.
He went on to dominate his sport like no other professional athlete had done in other sports from 1997 until 2010. Along the way, he amassed a fortune and world-renown fame for his 79 PGA tour wins, including 14 majors, the youngest career golfer to win each of the four professional major championships, and spent more time in the number one ranking than any other golfer in the sport’s history.
Then one day in November 2009, Woods crashed his SUV close to his home in Florida, two days after the National Enquirer published a story that Tiger was involved in an extramarital affair. Tiger was married to Elin Nordegren, a former Swedish model, since 2003. During the next few days, women came forward with claims of having affairs with Woods. An embarrassing voicemail allegedly left by Woods to a one of these mistresses also added to the saucy story.
The growing scandal led to a break from golf, a divorce, a stint in a rehabilitation program, and the loss of many of advertising sponsorships. Woods eventually returned to golf but played poorly and fell in the ranking to 58 in the world. He bounced back in 2013, but a series of injuries hampered or sidelined him from several years of golfing events. The public whispered “washed up.” In 2017, Woods was arrested in Florida for driving under the influence and admitted to having enrolled in a treatment program to assist with an unidentified issue.
2018 may be the year of Tiger’s roaring comeback and return to state of grace. Some are picking him to win the Masters, which begins on April 5. The golf world is watching, and advertisers are hoping, and fans are primed to forgive.
As much as some love to watch success squandered, most love a good comeback story. The way back to grace is long, hard, and difficult, but to those athletes who have fallen, it’s all they have left. They are significant reminders that super-human cannot shun just being plain human.
Other Athletes in History with Marred Images:
· Pete Rose
· Alex Rodriguez
· Roger Clemens
· Shoeless Joe Jackson
· Tanya Harding
· Oscar Pistorius
· Ray Rice