The Worst Career Decisions in Sports
A bad decision can define you, unfair as that may be.
Once you make a terrible decision, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done up to that point. It doesn’t matter if you’re a straight-A student, or a Fortune 500 CEO, or the biggest star in Hollywood. One mistake and you’re done. It’s all anyone will remember.
That, of course, applies to sports, too. An excellent coach has one bad season and suddenly, he rivals Isiah Thomas. A perennial All Star signs with a new team and has one bad season, and suddenly, his career is over.
Well, you know what they say. The news-consuming world thrives on controversy, bad news and screw-ups—unfortunately for these 20 people.
20. A.J. Burnett Becomes a Yankee
It tends to happen when a small-market player joins a big-market team. People expect a lot out of him, and sometimes—many times—he just doesn’t deliver, at least at the level he is expected to.
That’s kind of what happened when AJ Burnett hopped from the Marlins to the Blue Jays to the Yankees. He certainly showed a lot of potential with his first two teams: He posted an 87-76 overall record with a 3.81 ERA in 211 starts over 10 seasons.
The Yankees decided to take a shot on him; they weren’t expecting him to be CC Sabathia, but they were kind of expecting him to complement CC Sabathia. And for a little while, he did: The Yankees’ 2009 World Series campaign was his best season with the club.
But after that, things went south, and the team—and its fans—lost patience. Burnett went 21-26 over the next two seasons with a 5.20 ERA, he started throwing tantrums upon being pulled from games, he started throwing tantrums in the clubhouse, he lied about said tantrums in the clubhouse, and as everyone knows, tantrums and the stoic Yankees do not mix.
He was subsequently punished by being dealt to Pittsburgh in the offseason following the 2011 season.
19. Sam Bradford Stays in College
Now, this isn’t a bad career decision for the reason you’d think, because after all, staying in school certainly didn’t hurt his draft stock.
Although Sam Bradford elected to return to Oklahoma for his junior season after a Heisman campaign in 2008 and a trip to the national championship (where the Sooners lost to Florida), he didn’t see much time on the field.
The QB suffered an AC joint sprain in the Sooners’ first game of the year, and shortly after returning from that injury, he went down with a season-ending shoulder injury.
That meant no more football before the 2010 NFL draft, where he was selected by the St. Louis Rams with the No. 1 overall pick. Since then, his career has been largely underwhelming.
He hasn’t yet posted an over-.500 record, and he certainly doesn’t look like he’s going to do it this season. Who knows if he’d perform better if it wasn’t for those injuries during college? Who knows how those injuries will impact his future?
One thing’s for sure: Bradford would definitely prefer not to have those junior-year injuries and the long-term impact of that surgery hanging over him.
18. David Givens Ditches the Patriots
Where is David Givens now?
As soon as he ditched the New England Patriots for more money and the Tennessee Titans, the former-standout wide receiver’s career was as good as over. Like so many diamond-in-the-rough-type players who become stars in New England, Givens was a crucial part of the Patriots’ Super Bowl campaigns in 2004 and 2005.
He was one of the guys who made magic happen with Tom Brady, even though he didn’t seem all that good on paper. And for someone who never accumulated 1,000 receiving yards in a season, he sure got a lot of money from the Titans to take his talents to Tennessee.
In March 2006, Givens—who had spent five seasons with New England and turned into kind of a star in the process—ditched the Patriots and their proposed $18 million for a five-year, $24 million contract with Tennessee. And that was the last we ever heard of him.
Since signing with the Titans, Givens has registered 104 yards and zero touchdowns. That’s because he suffered a career-ending knee injury not even halfway into his first season with the Titans, and he now moonlights as an artist who draws pictures of Bill Belichick’s face.
17. Terrell Suggs Plays Offseason Basketball
I feel like as soon as you hear the words “offseason pickup basketball” combined with the name of virtually any professional athlete, you know the result is just going to be bad. Look at the case of Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs.
It’s still unclear whether he was really playing basketball when he was—he didn’t confirm it—but unless some tournament staff members are either insane or compulsive liars, it would seem that Suggs appeared to be playing basketball when he suffered a partial tear of his Achilles tendon in April.
Suggs is already back in action for the Ravens, which is pretty remarkable considering no one really expected him to be back until the very end of this season, if at all. And though his first game back was doubtlessly impressive—he registered four tackles, a sack and two quarterback hits against the Texans—he’s leveled off a bit since then.
It remains to be seen what the long-lasting implications of this injury will be, but when you’re one of the most crucial members of one of the best defenses in football, there is a rule: Try to avoid devastating offseason injuries. If that means avoiding highly competitive basketball, so be it. (If you're a big-name center in the NBA, it could mean avoiding bowling, tragic as that may be.)
The Ravens needed Suggs for the first half of 2012, and they’re lucky his absence didn’t utterly kill them. They may not be so lucky the next time Suggs goes down in the midst of an extracurricular activity.
16. Lloyd Carr Makes Tom Brady Compete for QB
These days, Tom Brady is a sure-fire Hall of Famer and one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the NFL. But back when he was in college, he was just a kid competing for—and losing—the starting job to Brian Griese.
Things didn’t go well for Brady at Michigan. For his first two years with the Wolverines, he backed up Griese. He wasn’t getting any playing time. He was seventh on the depth chart, and even after Griese graduated, he was still going to have to compete for the position with Drew Henson.
Brady was so lost and disappointed that he almost transferred to Cal, which was closer to his hometown of San Mateo, Calif.—but he stuck it out and eventually earned the starting job in the latter half of his college career.
Was Carr unaware of the talent that was right under his nose? Well, maybe. According to Sports Illustrated’s Michael Rosenberg, Carr said of Henson: "... Without question, he's the most talented quarterback that I've been around."
You have to wonder, then, what he thinks of the seven-time Pro Bowler and three-time Super Bowl champion he benched for two years.
15. Pete Carroll Tries to Coach in the NFL
Thus far, Pete Carroll hasn’t completely failed in his third stint as a head coach in the NFL—meaning he has not yet been fired. With the Seattle Seahawks, Carroll has not yet posted a winning record, but he could this season.
With the Patriots, Carroll achieved mild success (though certainly not by today’s Belichickean standards), but when it mattered the most—in the postseason—he and his teams couldn’t get the job done.
Once the team missed the playoffs in 1999 because it lost a whopping six of its last eight games after starting off 6-2, that was it for Carroll and New England.
Compare that with his accomplishments as the head coach of the USC Trojans (before the NCAA vacated most of them due to recruiting violations regarding Reggie Bush): Seven straight BCS bowl appearances, six BCS bowl victories, a BCS national championship, a 34-game winning streak and an overall 97-19 record.
Yet, in 2010, Carroll left it all behind for the Seahawks. Was it because of the sanctions? Carroll insisted it wasn’t. Was it because he sought the bright lights of the NFL? Maybe.
Perhaps Carroll wanted to challenge himself. But given his track record, and given the monster he built USC into from 2000-09, it’s hard to see why he’d leave all that behind for a league where he’s taken almost as seriously as Miley Cyrus.
14. Tony Romo (and the Jessica Simpson Debacle)
We all like to hypothesize about the curses of various WAGs. Brady hasn’t won a Super Bowl since Gisele. The start of Mark Sanchez’s 2012 campaign was doomed from the moment Us Weekly reported he and Eva Longoria were a thing. And Tony Romo’s career started nosediving the moment Jessica Simpson showed up to that Thanksgiving Day game in 2007, wearing that pink jersey.
Dallas Cowboys fans in particular would love to think that Romo’s career trajectory would have turned out differently if it wasn’t for his short dalliance with Simpson, because it’s easier than admitting he’s just way overrated.
But there’s no avoiding the fact that his biggest failure as a quarterback came directly after jetting off to Cabo with Simpson before the 2008 playoffs (instead of, I don’t know, preparing for them like every other QB): After a season in which Dallas went 13-3 in the regular season, Romo and the Cowboys bowed out to the Giants in their first postseason game.
And Romo has never been the same since. He’s gone 32-28 since that one good season.
13. Randy Moss' Entire 2010 Season
When Randy Moss became a Patriot, he seemed to be a different person than the troublemaker he was reputed to be. He was a team player, he didn’t do a lot of talking off the field and, of course, he helped the Patriots make that record-setting 18-1 run. And it seemed that shortly after the magic of the almost-undefeated season wore off, so did Moss’ new personality.
In his first three seasons with the Patriots, Moss started in 48 games and registered 3,765 yards with 47 touchdowns. At the beginning of 2010, though, the party was over.
Moss—who made no secret of the fact that he was unhappy the Patriots hadn’t yet extended his contract—embarked on an out-of-nowhere postgame rant to the media after beating the Bengals 38-24.
Instead of reveling in a big win, Moss stood at the podium and rambled, sometimes nonsensically, for about 16 minutes about feeling unwanted.
And to the surprise of no one, Moss was shipped to Minnesota a couple of weeks later for a second stint with the team that drafted him.
It did not go well. Moss lasted only four games with the Vikings before he was cut, and Brad Childress publicly said that bringing Moss aboard in the first place was “a poor decision," according to NBCNewYork.com.
Everyone knows that when you’re a Patriot, the worst thing you can do is complain about your contract situation, especially in the immediate aftermath of a big win.
Maybe if Moss had kept to himself, he and Tom Brady could have had a longer and more fruitful relationship and his entire career wouldn't have gone way downhill at the drop of a hat.
12. Alex Rodriguez Goes to the Yankees
This wasn’t a terrible career move for the reasons you may think. There’s no question that Alex Rodriguez made the Yankees a much better, much scarier team than they were before they acquired the shortstop-turned-third baseman.
But there’s also no denying that A-Rod’s reputation embarked on a nosedive that hasn’t quite concluded the moment he put on those pinstripes.
Perhaps A-Rod didn’t really change at all after becoming a Yankee; maybe the unrelenting media exposure in New York just exposed his flaws. But since coming to New York, A-Rod has become widely regarded as a whiner.
He’s been deemed a dirty player because of Exhibit A (above) and various other exhibits, such as this one. He suffered an ugly PED scandal and an ugly personal scandal when he divorced his wife in 2008. There are always rumors about the strained relationship between him and Derek Jeter.
When A-Rod became a Yankee, he went from one of the most beloved and respected players in baseball to one of the most ridiculed. He may have a World Series ring to show for it, but if he’d gone somewhere else, he could have one of those, too—and his reputation might still be intact.
11. Matt Leinart Sticks Around at USC
There are a lot of quarterbacks who have trouble deciding when is the exact right moment to leave college for the NFL draft. It’s hard to predict when their draft stock will be at its highest, or how much competition they’ll face from the rest of the draft pool.
For much of his career with the USC Trojans, Matt Leinart looked like a lock as a top pick in the NFL draft. In his first two years at USC, he threw for 6,878 yards and 71 touchdowns, and he won the Heisman after his 2004 campaign. Things certainly didn’t go poorly in his senior year, but he registered his lowest touchdown output (28) and his lowest quarterback rating (157.7) before losing to Texas in the Rose Bowl.
But that wasn’t exactly the problem. The problem was that Vince Young—the quarterback who showed him up big time in Pasadena—was also on the draft board, and the Tennessee Titans, owners of the No. 3 overall pick, wanted him, not Leinart. Leinart, in fact, plummeted to No. 10 on the draft board, falling to the Arizona Cardinals.
Perhaps if Leinart had departed for the NFL, things would’ve been different. Perhaps he would have gelled better with a different team. Instead, Leinart has had little to no success in six years in the NFL and is best known for breaking up Emily Maynard’s engagement.
10. Jason Williams Rides a Motorcycle
Jason Williams was one of the most promising prospects to emerge from Duke—and given how dominant Duke is, that’s saying a lot. (Also, I refuse to call him Jay Williams because that wasn’t his name during the only period of time he was relevant.)
After being named National Freshman of the Year in 2000, he led Duke the national championship as a sophomore, and he was the recipient of the Naismith Award in 2002. He was pretty impressive off the court, too, graduating in just three years and entering the NBA draft, where the Chicago Bulls selected him with the No. 2 overall pick in 2002.
And then, after competing in the pros for just one season, Williams rode a motorcycle in June 2003. There were several problems with this decision: One, he wasn’t allowed to ride a motorcycle, per his contract with the Bulls. Two, he wasn’t wearing a helmet. Three, he wasn’t licensed to ride in Illinois. And four, he crashed, suffering serious injuries that kept him out of the league for over three years.
He tried to make a return to the court, but the most success he had was signing a non-guaranteed contract with the Nets in 2006 before being waived prior to the start of the regular season.
Now, Williams talks on ESPN about other guys who are good at basketball. That could have been him if he hadn’t ridden a motorcycle. Conclude PSA.
9. Denver Broncos Hire Josh McDaniels
Like so many New England Patriots assistants that came before him, Josh McDaniels objectively looked like someone who could handle a head coaching job all by himself. He was young, he was fiery and he had a great relationship with the quarterbacks he’d handled as Bill Belichick’s offensive coordinator.
But almost as soon as he arrived in Denver in 2009 as Mike Shanahan’s replacement, things went south: He alienated then-quarterback Jay Cutler, who found out McDaniels wanted to bring Matt Cassel with him to his new home and almost immediately demanded a trade.
McDaniels was then stuck with Kyle Orton, and after coming out of the gates hot, his team finished the season 8-8 after starting off 6-0.
McDaniels then proceeded to alienate his second star player—this time, Brandon Marshall, who was traded to Miami at season’s end—and after starting off his second season 3-9, he was fired in December 2010.
So let’s review: In the time that McDaniels was head coach of the Broncos, the team lost its two biggest offensive stars and was left with virtually nothing less than two years after welcoming McDaniels into the fold. That ended well.
8. Brett Favre Gives the Jets a Try
Purely football-related reasons, this marriage didn’t work out all too well for Favre. The non-football-related reasons didn't help him, either.
It’s hard to say Favre should have retired when he said he was going to retire in the summer of 2008. That was when his 16-year career with the Green Bay Packers came to an end, and at the age of 38, it was a perfectly respectable time for Favre to walk away from the NFL. He was a Super Bowl champion and a legend. He’d accomplished more than most quarterbacks.
But he couldn’t quite walk away, and in a stunning move, he became a New York Jet once it became clear that the Packers were going full speed ahead with the Aaron Rodgers Era.
Though Favre insisted upon retiring after the 2007 season, he’d actually play for three more years—one with New York, two with Minnesota—before finally, finally hanging up his hat. And in two of those three years, he came close to accomplishing big things but never quite got there.
If Favre had just walked away when he said he was going to walk away, he’d still be a Packers legend. He’d still be one of the most popular QBs in the history of the game. Instead, he’s widely regarded as kind of embarrassing and desperate, even by Packers fans. And not only because of that other thing that happened while he was a Jet.
7. Albert Pujols Chooses the L.A. Angels
The world of baseball waited a long time for Albert Pujols to become a free agent. He had long been one of the most dominant hitters in the National League, posting a .328 average with 445 homers in 11 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals. He was a perennial All-Star during that time and won three MVPs, plus two World Series rings. At his very worst, he hit 99 RBI. Not too bad.
And then he left St. Louis to sign a ginormous 10-year, $254 million deal with the L.A. Angels, bidding farewell to the Cardinals and setting out for greener pastures. Or so he thought. If Angels fans were expecting to see him hit .330 with 40 homers and 115 RBI, they had another thing coming.
Pujols slumped just about as much as Pujols could slump, posting the worst numbers of his career: .285 average, 30 homers, 105 RBI. He went through the entire month of April without hitting a homer.
Pujols certainly wasn’t bad; those numbers just weren’t Pujols-esque numbers. Suddenly, Busch Stadium looks far more appealing.
6. Theo Epstein Signs John Lackey
Theo Epstein made a lot of bad signings during his much-celebrated tenure as general manager of the Boston Red Sox, but none of them ended up flopping quite as badly as the signing of former L.A. Angel John Lackey.
Epstein had a strange infatuation with Lackey, mostly based on the fact that he was freakishly effective in a (very) limited sample size at Fenway Park and was intermittently effective during the postseason.
Based on that substantial data, Epstein awarded Lackey with a bloated five-year, $82.5 million deal that he only got because he was one of the only big-name free agents during a weak offseason.
Lackey then proceeded to perform much the way Red Sox fans expected him to—he went 14-11 with a 4.40 ERA—and meanwhile, the Red Sox clubhouse completely imploded and the team embarked on the worst September collapse in baseball history.
Lackey then missed the entirety of the 2012 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and Epstein skipped town to accept a position inflicting misery on the Chicago Cubs for the next several years.
Unfortunately, he couldn’t take Lackey with him.
5. Tom Thibodeau Keeps Derrick Rose in the Game
This isn’t quite on Grady Little’s level (we’ll get to that later), but Chicago Bulls head coach Tim Thibodeau’s decision to keep Derrick Rose in the game in the waning minutes of an eventual Game 1 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers last April hurt. A lot.
Rose—who had been dealing with a host of injuries in 2011-12, including back spasms and a pulled groin—suffered a torn ACL with just over a minute remaining in a game that Chicago won 103-91.
Though it objectively seemed like the win was in the bag for the home team—Philly coach Doug Collins had already removed most of his starters—Thibodeau insisted that “the score was going the other way,” according to ESPNChicago.com’s Scott Powers, and he was just doing what he thought needed to be done.
Things could be very, very different for the Bulls right now if Rose had been removed from that game when victory seemed to be firmly within Chicago’s grasp. For one thing, the team wouldn’t have been completely deflated for the rest of that first-round series, which they lost without their star.
For another, they probably wouldn’t be in quasi-rebuilding mode right now. In one second, the Bulls went from a favorite to win the NBA title to a team on life support—still, even six months later—while it waits for its star to return.
And to think it all could’ve been avoided with one substitution by Thibodeau.
4. Portland Trail Blazers Draft Greg Oden
It’s hard to determine where Greg Oden went wrong. Did he come out of college too soon? Did the Portland Trail Blazers mishandle him in some way? Is he just the unluckiest person on the planet?
Regardless of where exactly he went wrong, Oden went from on top of the world to nowhere at all at an alarming speed.
After emerging as the best player in the NCAA in the 2006-07 season—despite missing the first month-ish of it with a ligament injury—and leading the Ohio State Buckeyes to the national championship game, he entered the NBA draft. There, the Trail Blazers selected him with the No. 1 overall pick. And that was pretty much the moment his career ended.
Oden missed the entire 2007-08 season after undergoing knee surgery in September. In February 2009, he chipped a knee cap. In November 2009, he suffered another knee injury and would miss the remainder of that season.
In November 2010, he underwent another knee surgery that would end his 2010-11 season. In December 2011, he suffered an unspecified injury that would essentially rule him out for that year, too. And finally, in March 2012, the team had had enough and waived him.
Oden’s line: 82 games, 60 starts, 773 points. Meanwhile, the guy the Trail Blazers didn’t draft—Kevin Durant—just led the Oklahoma City Thunder to the NBA Finals. Bummer.
3. Michael Jordan Plays Baseball
In case any of us were still wondering whether elite athletes could transcend any sport and excel in any professional league, Michael Jordan cleared things up for us in 1994, when he joined the Chicago White Sox on a minor-league contract.
His stint in the world of baseball was uninspiring, to say the least: He hit .202 with three homers, 51 RBI and 11 errors in Double-A ball. After a turn in the Arizona Fall League, that was it for Jordan and baseball. The following March, he returned to his rightful home: the NBA.
The reasons for Jordan’s foray into baseball are the subject of debate. Some say he needed a change because his passion for basketball had waned. Some say he was so devastated by the murder of his father in the summer of 1993 that he couldn’t bring himself to return to the NBA.
But whatever the case, baseball—or his ineffectiveness playing it—was all he needed to reinvigorate his desire for excellence. After his first retirement, he returned the Bulls and led them to three more titles, and all was right in the world.
2. LeBron James and The Decision
Joining the Heat wasn't LeBron James' worst decision. The Decision was LeBron James' worst decision.
At this point, it’s like beating a dead horse. We all know that The Decision was the most epic of all epic fails. We all know that even if LeBron James lies on his deathbed claiming he has no regrets in his life, he will be lying. The Decision was quite possibly one of the most damaging acts any athlete has ever inflicted on his own reputation.
Before The Decision, LeBron was one of the most—if not the most—revered and respected players in the NBA, not only by his own peers but by the fans. Cleveland loved him. The world loved him. He was the next Michael Jordan, and he acted like it.
And then he went on national television and announced to the world that he was ditching his hometown team in favor of the Miami Heat, the One Direction to Cleveland’s Emblem Three (look it up).
But that’s not the problem. Nobody can really blame LeBron for wanting to give himself a shot at a title with what would quickly become the league’s most formidable team. We can, however, blame LeBron for forever sullying his reputation by dumping Cleveland in front of billions of people and making himself look tactless and insensitive in the process.
If it wasn’t for The Decision, we all would’ve looked on with admiration as LeBron finally received his first championship ring. Instead, everyone beyond the borders of South Beach looked on with some combination of rage and helpless resignation.
1. Grady Little vs. Pedro Martinez
The date was Oct. 16, 2003. It was Game 7 of the ALCS, Red Sox vs. Yankees. It was before the days of the Cowboy Up Red Sox; it was before Boston finally crushed the Curse of the Bambino and won its first World Series since 1918. In those days, they were still the hapless Red Sox of old who had a knack for finding the most excruciating ways to lose, and lose excruciatingly they did.
It was the eighth inning of a 5-2 game, and Pedro—who was notoriously ineffective after having thrown 100-plus pitches—allowed hits to Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams. Then-Red Sox manager Grady Little left Pedro in the game. Pedro allowed a double to Hideki Matsui. Grady Little left Pedro in the game. Pedro allowed a game-tying bloop double to Jorge Posada. The game was tied. And Grady Little’s career as manager of the Boston Red Sox was hereby over.
There are a bajillion reasons why leaving Pedro Martinez in the game that night was a terrible idea. One of them was that it directly led to the demise of the Red Sox that season, who would go on to lose that game, and the series, on Aaron Boone’s extra-inning home run.
But the main reason was that it showed that Grady Little didn’t have enough gumption to stand up to Pedro Martinez and pull him when he thought the pitcher should be pulled. No team ever wants a manager who can’t stand up to his players.