In 2004, Alicia Keys melodically told us (in her popular single, “Karma”) that “what goes around, comes around, what goes up, must come down.” This existential truth does not evade the world of sports, where athletes personally ensure that their falls from grace are rough and painful.
Most fans by now are familiar with the “Madden Curse,” which spells doom for anyone on the cover of the popular football video game. (The over/under on Drew Brees’ season-ending shoulder injury is at Week 9.) There is also the Sports Illustrated cover jinx, which has wreaked havoc for Peyton Manning, Stephen Strasburg, and the 2003 Chicago Cubs. (And, really, haven’t the Cubs suffered enough?) Beyond both of these especially eerie forces, however, there exists an even more powerful determinant of athlete misfortune.
Fewer and fewer sports figures are getting away with acts of reprehensible behavior these days. Sure, maybe some won’t be caught right away, but it’s only a matter of time before their past comes back to haunt them. The Karma Police patrols every stadium, locker room, and nightclub these men and women step foot in, and they don’t always distribute warnings.
Take a look at Reggie Bush. This summer, after a two-year investigation involving Bush’s time at USC, the NCAA concluded that the running back had received more than $300,000 from sports agents hoping to capitalize once he went pro. Bush is now safely away from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, playing in the Louisiana Superdome for the New Orleans Saints. But his historic collegiate career is left with an ugly tarnish, as Bush was stripped of his 2005 Heisman Trophy and USC received a four-year probation (including a two-year ban from postseason bowl games).
A damaged legacy and less hardware for Bush’s mantel was certainly not due justice, at least by the judgment of the Karma Police. So, last Monday night, during the first game since Bush officially “forfeited” the Heisman (in a futile attempt to maintain some dignity before it was officially taken away), he broke his right fibula, which will cause him to miss at least the next six weeks of the season.
Currently in the Karma Police lineup are NBA guard O.J. Mayo, who is also suspected of having received illegal gifts while at USC, and Pete Carroll, who left his position as the Trojans head coach this season because of what some believe to be his involvement in the scandal. Luckily for Bush, misery loves company, regardless of the fates for Mayo and Carroll.
Last year, the world of baseball came to a shocking halt when Alex Rodriguez, who was arguably entering the debate for best player of all time, admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs during a three-year span with the Texas Rangers. (“Admitted” is a relative term—he had already failed a drug test.) A few weeks later, A-Rod was diagnosed with a torn labrum in his right hip, requiring surgery and forcing the Yankees third baseman to miss the first month of the season.
The New England Patriots were caught taping the New York Jets’ defensive signals during a 2007 regular season game. Initial punishments came down—coach Bill Belichick was fined $500,000 for his role in “Spygate” and the team lost its first-round draft pick in the next NFL Draft. But there was more in store at the hands of the Karma Police. The Patriots lost the Super Bowl that season, falling to the New York Giants in what was considered an epic upset (which hindered on an otherwise unknown Giants receiver, David Tyree, making a miraculous catch against his helmet). During the 2008 season opener, quarterback Tom Brady injured his knee and missed the remainder of the season.
The Karma Police does not issue a statute of limitations in its litigation. No matter how far removed an athlete may be from his controversial past, he is not safe. Mark McGwire, the former MLB slugger who briefly held the single-season home run record*, admitted earlier this year to having used steroids during his historic chase with the St. Louis Cardinals. (The same people who were surprised by this news were the same people who had never heard of Mark McGwire.) He was also named the hitting coach for St. Louis this season. The Cardinals, frequent postseason contenders and National League Central Division favorites, have had a disappointing season and will be spectators this October.
Still, karma does not solely revolve around punitive measures. It also rewards those who conduct themselves properly and who make the right decisions. Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, whose public record is clean enough to eat off of, has five World Series rings and has been the face of the most famous franchise in sports for the past 15 years. Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Jamie Moyer (though currently injured), who is one of the more respectable players in the game and who runs a charity foundation for children in distress, is still playing baseball for a living at the age of 47—with a low-80s fastball, no less.
So, what’s to be learned from all this? Athletes—and coaches, general managers, cheerleaders, whoever—should be wary of their questionable behavior. It’s bad enough to get caught publically, but newspaper headlines eventually fade. The Karma Police record, however, is inerasable.
Nevertheless, a few have managed to slip through the cracks. After all, Ron Artest now has an NBA championship ring.