Fall From Grace: Tragic Heroes of Sports

ByRON CLAIBORNE via via logo

Aug. 6, 2006 — -- Tour de France champion Floyd Landis's says he will appeal to clear his name, as his second test has come back showing higher-than-allowable levels of testosterone. But right now, it seems that Landis is just one more in a long line of athletes who have fallen from grace.

Like Icarus in Greek mythology, Dwight Gooden and his good friend Darryl Strawberry flew high as superstars on baseball's world champion New York Mets 20 years ago.

Likewise, Bjorn Borg was a five-time Wimbledon champion and one of the greatest tennis players of all time.

Art Schlichter was a first-round draft pick by the Baltimore Colts.

Mike Tyson was the heavyweight champion of the world.

But like the mythological Icarus, who soared too close to the sun and melted his wings, they crashed. Each of those talented athletes seemingly had it all and each of them lost it all.

Americans idolize their athletes. And their rises can be so dizzying that it sometimes seems inevitable that some will fall from grace

The reason, said sports agent Mark Lepselter, is that some athletes let their egos get out of control and they lose touch with reality.

"[They have] money and think they can do this, do that -- [with an] above the law attitude," Lepselter said.

"Make no mistake about it, money is the root of all evil, and ego is tagging along right along with it," sportswriter Stephen A. Smith said.

For some athletes, the temptation and decadent lifestyle can be too much. Gooden's demons were drugs and alcohol. Earlier this year, he was sentenced to a year and a day in prison for violating his probation by using cocaine.

Strawberry's downfall was also drugs and booze. Like Gooden, he served time for cocaine possession.

"Kind of a combination of immaturity on both guys' parts," Lepselter said. "Maybe a lack of savvy, and combined with hanging out with these unsavory characters [it] was a deadly mix for those guys."

"They had an addiction," Smith said, "and they were plagued by it. And they succumbed, and the results are the results."

The exact source of Borg's troubles is more mysterious. The results are not: He lost all his money. Last month, he came close to having to auction his Wimbledon trophies.

Art Schlichter's Achilles heel was gambling. He fell deeper and deeper into gambling debt and turned to crime. Schlichter currently is serving time in a prison in Indiana.

Mike Tyson's rise was spectacular, but his fall was a sad spectacle. His fight with Evander Holyfield will live in sports infamy. When it became clear he was losing, Tyson took a bite out of his opponent's ear. He also served jail time for rape and had trouble with domestic violence when he was married to actress Robin Givens.

"Mike Tyson had it all. He had the world at his feet," Smith said. "He had more money than a human being could imagine and still managed to blow everything. Everything."

Three years ago, it looked like sprinter Kelli White would become another name on the roster of athletes who fell from grace. In 2003, at 26, she was the winner of the world championship in the 100 meters and 200 meters. She was the fastest woman on Earth, but then a drug test revealed performance-enhancing drugs. She admitted it all.

"I think it was 'by any means necessary' was what was being said to me," she said. " 'By any means necessary you will be number one.' "

White was suspended for two years. Sidelined from the sport she loved, she had the time contemplate what had gone so terribly wrong.

"Winning is good but not at any cost," she said. "There has to be some kind of integrity."

White's mistakes cost her money and the respect of family and friends. She is another athlete who flew high and crashed -- but this time, one who saved herself before it was too late.

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