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Sports, crime and money: Athletes gone wrong

Friday, 9 Aug 2013 | 7:00 AM ET
New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez being led out of his home in handcuffs.
George Rozer | Boston Globe | Getty Images
New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez being led out of his home in handcuffs.

The new uniform color for some sports figures? For the ones convicted of crimes, it's orange—as in prison jumpsuits.

Sports, crime and money have long been intertwined. Babe Ruth once said, "If it weren't for baseball, I'd be in either the penitentiary or the cemetery."

In more recent years, well-known sports figures have been convicted of serious crimes, from ex-heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson (rape, road rage) to NFL quarterback Michael Vick (dog fighting) to former Penn State defensive coach Jerry Sandusky (child sex abuse).

But the pace of athletes making the police blotter seems to have sped up dangerously in 2013. In the last seven months, Aaron Hernandez of the New England Patriots, double amputee Olympic sprinter Oscar "The Blade Runner" Pistorius and ex-pro wrestler Brian McGhee have been charged with murder.

Others have been charged with crimes ranging from assault and drunk driving to gross lewdness.

(Read more: Highest-paid players in major American team sports )

The number of cases raises the question: Does the aggression needed to excel at sports' highest level lead to reckless, even criminal behavior? Or is the average arrest rate for, say, professional football players actually lower than the general population as the NFL says? Or are we just hearing more about this alleged crime wave in sports because of the 24/7 news cycle and rise of social media?

A wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers, Rae Carruth  was found guilty in 2001 of conspiring to murder his pregnant girlfriend.
Brian Bahr | Liaison Agency | Getty Images
A wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers, Rae Carruth was found guilty in 2001 of conspiring to murder his pregnant girlfriend.

Hernandez was seen as a rising star. He signed a $37.5 million, five-year contract extension last year that included a $12.5 million signing bonus—the most lucrative ever for an NFL tight end. In April, he signed a two-year deal to be the face of Puma's men's training category.

With quarterback Tom Brady throwing passes, Hernandez seemed ready to surpass injured teammate Rob Gronkowski as the most dangerous offensive weapon on the perennial Super Bowl contender.

That all changed when Hernandez became a prime suspect in the death of Odin Lloyd, who was found dead from five gunshot wounds at a North Attleborough, Mass., industrial park June 17.

Hernandez has pleaded not guilty. He's being held without bail on one count of murder, two counts of illegal possession of a firearm, two counts of illegal possession of a large capacity firearm and one count of carrying an illegal firearm, said Gregg Miliote, spokesman for the Bristol County District Attorney's Office.

The player is scheduled to be back in court for a probable cause hearing Aug. 22, Miliote told CNBC.

Including bonus money, Hernandez was slated to make an average of $5.7 million a year through 2018, according to Spotrac.com.

Jamie Sultan and Michael Fee, two of Hernandez's defense attorneys, did not return calls from CNBC seeking comment. The NFL declined to comment on his contract and bonus.

Puma's international spokeswoman, Nicole Fecteau, confirmed that the German athletic giant has dropped Hernandez. The company, which sponsors the world's fastest man, Usain Bolt, and golfer Rickie Fowler, has also scrubbed Hernandez's name and image from its website.

(Read more: Armstrong loses eight sponsors in a day)

Oscar Pistorius competing in the London Olympics in 2012
Getty Images
Oscar Pistorius competing in the London Olympics in 2012

Oscar "The Blade Runner" Pistorius

Oscar Pistorius, 26, is accused of allegedly shooting his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, to death at his home in Pretoria, South Africa on Valentine's Day.

At his bail hearing in February, the first double amputee runner to compete in the Olympic Games sobbed so loudly that Chief Magistrate Desmond Nasir told him: "Take it easy."

In an affidavit read by defense attorney Barry Roux, Pistorius said it was a tragic accident, that he thought he was shooting through his bathroom door at burglars. He did not enter a plea.

After eight days in jail, Pistorius was freed on $112,000 bail Feb. 22. But he was ordered to hand over his firearms and forbidden to leave the country or drink alcohol.

In March, another judge considerably eased his travel restrictions. That means Pistorius can compete internationally this year while his murder trial gets underway.

On June 4, Pistorius appeared in court briefly at a procedural hearing. But his case was postponed until Aug. 19 on what would have been Steenkamp's 30th birthday. At the hearing, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) of South Africa said it was preparing an indictment and hoped to start the trial by year-end.

When reached by phone, an NPA spokeswoman in South Africa declined to comment. Roux also declined to comment.

Brian "The Future" McGhee

In the most recent tragedy, former pro wrestler Brian "The Future" McGhee was charged with first-degree murder for allegedly stabbing his estranged girlfriend, Bianca McGaughey, to death outside her Tampa apartment on July 24, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.

Ending a wild high-speed chase across two Florida counties, McGhee, 29, crashed his Pontiac Grand Prix into a guardrail after police scattered spike strips across the roadway. The 6-foot, seven-inch, 270-pound former wrestler was arrested when deputies sent a police dog named Chino to pin him inside his car, according to the Hillsborough Sheriff's report.

McGhee is being held without bail, according to Debbie Carter of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. He has yet to appear in court or enter a plea because the state's attorney hasn't filed formal charges yet, said Denise Edwards, manager of the felony unit at the Circuit Criminal Division of Hillsborough County.

According to an affidavit filed by detectives with the Circuit Court of Hillsborough County, McGhee confessed to the crime to them and to his sister Brandi McGhee on the night of his arrest.

After initially refusing to talk, McGhee changed his mind and said he remember telling his sister he had killed the victim, according to the affidavit.

McGhee told police he remembered trying to kill himself by cutting his wrists with a kitchen knife, then driving to the victim's house for a final goodbye.

"The suspect said he blacked out and does not remember what happened after he saw the victim walking down the stairs," according to the affidavit. "He said he remembers driving around and his phone blowing up from people calling him."

The claims of attempted suicide, and distraught friends and family calling his phone, may explain one of the more macabre details of the case: A gruesome photo of what appears to be a slashed, bloody arm was posted to McGhee's Facebook page about an hour after he allegedly killed McGaughey. It wasn't possible to tell if the arm belonged to him or the alleged victim.

Getty Images

The doping crackdown

The three murder cases come at a time when other multimillionaire players seem to be generating more headlines for lying and cheating than for their accomplishments on the field.

On Monday, Alex Rodriguez, Major League Baseball's highest-paid player, was suspended without pay through the 2014 season for allegedly using performance-enhancing drugs. A dozen other MLB players were banned 50 games, without pay, for their links to the Biogenesis scandal.

(Read more: Yankees' A-Rod suspended for 211 regular season games)

For now, Rodriguez will earn his $28 million salary from the New York Yankees this season while he appeals. Oddly, A-Rod made his season debut Monday night in Chicago: site of the Black Sox Scandal of 1919.

MLB's latest doping crackdown came less than a year after Lance Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and banned from cycling for life for doping. Within days, Armstrong's $20 million-a-year endorsement portfolio evaporated as Nike, Anheuser-Busch, Oakley, Radio Shack, Trek Bicycle, 24-Hour Fitness and other sponsors either fired him or put his contract under review.

Armstrong's biggest sponsor, Nike, went so far as to say the cyclist had "misled" them for a decade.

(Read more: Balletta: After all the lies, can Lance Armstrong 'emerge strong?')

Among pro leagues, the NFL appears to have had the most players arrested so far this year. Since New Year's Day, 31 have made the police blotter, according to NBC Sports' ProFootballTalk.

Do pro athletes get arrested more than average citizens? Or do their alleged transgressions just get more publicity because they're rich and famous? Hard to say.

The FBI "does not collect professions" when compiling crime statistics, according to spokesman Billy Estok. "Because of the general nature of data, one cannot discern which crimes may have been committed by whom."

All these people are innocent until proved guilty. But the same "narcissism" and "sense of omnipotence" that drives politicians such as New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner to believe they can act recklessly and not get caught also affects sports figures, said Dr. Norman Wyloge, a New York psychoanalyst.

(Read more: The 10 greatest scandals ever tweeted)

Take the overweening ambition of some athletes, mix it with the all-American obsession with sports and money, and it's no wonder we're producing a country of self-entitled "monsters" who think they're above the law, he said.

"Right or wrong is not meant for them—they can do whatever they want because they're so special," said Wyloge, who treats celebrity patients. "The laws, to their way of thinking, are not made for 'SuperJock.' "

The NFL counters that the average arrest rate for its 3,000 or so players is 2 percent compared with three percent to 4 percent for the general population—and much lower than the 10 percent rate for the equivalent population of men ages 20 to 34.

Still, "one negative incident is one too many," the NFL said in a June 28 statement laying out its Personal Conduct Policy, which applies to all players, coaches and employees, including Commissioner Roger Goodell.

Financial havoc

Apart from the tragic human toll, the negative publicity sparked by criminal allegations can wreak financial havoc.

Teams and leagues that employ them can immediately take a hit from lost ticket sales, advertisers and sponsors. Season-ticket-holders become disgusted. Sponsors run for cover, pulling ads and removing their images from marketing campaigns. If those companies are publicly traded, their share price can be affected from being in business with an alleged criminal.

Madison Avenue learned its lesson the hard way with the Armstrong and Tiger Woods scandals, said Mike "The Reputation Doctor" Paul, a crisis PR consultant.

Today's endorsement contracts have stringent morals clauses that allow companies to quickly fire athletes they believe are acting unethically, whether the athlete and his agent agree or not. In this new environment, the court of public opinion trumps all. Teams, leagues and sponsors don't wait for the facts before dropping the hammer.

Don't believe it? Take sponsors' swift reaction to the arrests of Hernandez and Pistorius.

Even when Hernandez was just under investigation, sponsor CytoSport (makers of Muscle Milk) cut him loose. Within hours of cops' slapping on the handcuffs, the Patriots jettisoned him. Within a day, Puma, dumped his contract and the league stopped selling his jersey online.

Within weeks, the Pats invited fans to trade in their No. 81 jerseys for other player jerseys. More than 2,500 fans showed up for the swap, which cost the club $250,000. Team owner Robert Kraft said the Hernandez jerseys would be ground up and recycled.

The same thing happened to Pistorius. Before Valentine's Day, he was an inspiring global sports icon making an estimated $3 million a year from sponsors including Nike, Oakley, British Telecom and French designer Thierry Mugler. Once the first headlines flashed out of Pretoria, those sponsors started heading for the hills.

A Nike ad showing Pistorius firing off the starting blocks in a race was yanked from his personal website the same day. Ironically, the copy read, "I am the bullet in the chamber." Six days after his arrest, the Swoosh announced it had "suspended" its contract with Pistorius.

(Read more: Nike suspends contract with Pistorius)

Nike was believed to be paying Pistorius around seven figures a year. The Swoosh said it does not discuss details of its athlete contracts.

"We believe Oscar Pistorius should be afforded due process, and we will continue to monitor the situation closely," said Nike spokesman Gavin Thomas.

The teams, leagues and sponsors involved had "no choice" but to immediately cut ties with these scandal-plagued endorsers, Paul said.

"That's the rule [athletes] need to remember. When you do wrong, people think of their individual reputations before yours. Every single time."

Paul said he gives all his athlete clients the same million-dollar business idea: Start your own limousine-personal security service. That way, they and their fellow jocks don't have to worry about being arrested for drunk driving. And they don't have to go "strapped," or carrying a gun, into nightclubs because they will have trained bodyguards.

He's never had any takers.

Despite the lurid headlines, the legal cases against Hernandez and Pistorius are not slam dunks. Other players have beaten murder charges.

In 2000, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and two friends, Joseph Sweeting and Reginald Oakley, got into a brawl outside a Super Bowl party in Atlanta that resulted in the stabbing deaths of Richard Lollar and Jacinth Baker. The trio were charged with murder.

But Lewis' lawyers negotiated a plea deal in which prosecutors agreed to drop the murder charges in return for his testimony against his friends and pleading guilty to misdemeanor obstruction of justice. Lewis ended up with one year's probation. He was also fined $250,000 by the NFL for lying to police.

He went on to win two Super Bowls for the Ravens, including this February's Super Bowl XLVII against the San Francisco 49ers. The linebacker pocketed more career earnings at his position ($107.8 million), according to Spotrac, than any other active or retired except the recently retired Brian Urlacher of the Chicago Bears ($108.6 million.)

Now retired, Lewis is joining ESPN as a TV analyst this year. Sweeting and Oakley were later acquitted. The double murder was never solved.

(Read more: Athletes who became entrepreneurs )

O.J. Simpson returning to the courtroom in Las Vegas.
Getty Images
O.J. Simpson returning to the courtroom in Las Vegas.

The Juice

Then there's the long, strange road traveled by O.J. Simpson, the ex-NFL star turned Hertz pitchman and co-star of Hollywood films such as "The Naked Gun" and "The Towering Inferno." In one of the most closely watched murder trials in history, Simpson was acquitted of stabbing his estranged wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman to death in 1995.

But the former Heisman Trophy winner was jailed in Nevada in 2008 after being convicted of kidnapping and armed robbery revolving around the stickup of two sports memorabilia dealers at a Las Vegas hotel. He was sentenced to up to 33 years in prison.

The Pro Football Hall of Famer was recently granted parole on some of his convictions but must still serve four more years on other sentences ordered to run consecutively.

(Read more: The 10 best-selling NFL jerseys 2013)

Once the highest-paid player in the NFL, Simpson now makes prison wages cleaning equipment and coaching games in the yard of Nevada's Lovelock Correctional Center. If he gets out in four years, he will be 70 at the time of his release.

Michael McCarthy covers the sports business for Advertising Age in New York. He's been a sportswriter for USA TODAY, Newsday, NFL and SportsBizUSA. Follow him on Twitter @MMcCarthyREV.

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