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The Magnificent Seven: stars who overcame scandal

We all love a comeback story. As Michael Vick continues to rebuild his career, Nial Kelly reflects those who’ve recovered from scandal.

Image: Matt Slocum/AP/Press Association Images

1. Kobe Bryant

Though terms “sports star” and “scandal” appear to have gone hand-in-hand since the beginning of time, few athletes have been as successful in rehabilitating their image as LA Lakers star Kobe Bryant.

In July 2003, the then three-time NBA champion was arrested and charged with the sexual assault of a 19-year-old employee of a Colorado hotel. With wife Vanessa by his side, a tearful Bryant held a press conference to give his side of the story, admitting to having committed adultery but vehemently denying the allegations of assault.

By the time that Bryant’s case came to trial 14 months later, his accuser was no longer willing to testify, choosing instead to take a civil case against the star. For his part, Kobe issued a public apology, expressing regret for his actions without admitting any guilt or wrongdoing.

With the possibility of a significant prison sentence no longer hanging over his head, Bryant wasted no time in attempting to put the scandal behind him. In a remarkable show of solidarity, Lakers bosses had re-signed their man to a seven-year contract worth $136 million in July 2004, weeks before the charges against him had been dropped.

Although a barrage of companies were quick to terminate his endorsement deals, Bryant’s major sponsor, Nike, stood by the Lakers star. Tellingly, however, Bryant would not be featured in any of their campaigns for two years following the incident.

Instead, it was on the court that Kobe truly began to win the public’s affection once again, finishing as the NBA’s highest point scorer in 2006 and 2007 before passing a huge milestone on the road to redemption by representing the USA at the Beijing Olympics, bringing home gold in the process.

Now 32, Bryant is still playing some of the best basketball of his career, topping it off with his fourth and fifth NBA rings in 2009 and 2010 as he led the Lakers to back-to-back championships once again.

2. Eric Cantona

When Alex Ferguson brought Eric Cantona to Old Trafford in November 1992, he knew that he was signing a volatile personality as well as a talented footballer.

After all, this was the same Eric Cantona who had assaulted team mates at Auxerre and Montpellier, thrown a football at a referee whose decision he disagreed with, and referred to the French national coach Henri Michel as a “sac à merde” (a “bag of shit” to you and me).

Without doubt, Ferguson knew what he was buying into. Yet nothing could have prepared him for the events of 25 January 1995 as Cantona, heading for the dressing rooms following a red card, took exception to a taunt from the terraces and launched himself into the crowd to deliver some kung-fu retribution.

An eight-month worldwide ban from FIFA on top of his court-enforced community service fuelled uncertainty about Cantona’s future in football, raising questions about his team’s ability to cope without him. In the absence of their talisman, United had been pipped to the title by Blackburn Rovers on the final day of the 1994/1995 season.

When Cantona finally made his return against Liverpool in October 1995, it was like he had never been away. The upturned collar, the Gallic swagger, the nonchalant acceptance of the fans’ unwavering adoration.

Once the Sky Sports-driven hyperbole had finally stopped and the football had started, it took Cantona all of two minutes to remind United what they had been missing, his perfectly weighted cross picking out the run of Nicky Butt and allowing the young midfielder to put United one up.

Fearful that a strike either side of half-time from Liverpool’s own messiah, Robbie Fowler, would overshadow his return, Cantona duly obliged with a goal of his own, converting from the penalty spot to secure a 2-2 draw.

Nor was that the last time the Frenchman would come back to haunt Liverpool that season, his eighty-fifth minute winner in the FA Cup final at Wembley capping his comeback and sealing United’s second domestic double in three seasons.

Cantona would go on to win one more league title with United before retiring at the age of thirty, seemingly hanging up his boots to pursue the finer things in life

3. John Higgins

In May 2009, Scottish snooker star John Higgins joined an elite club, becoming only the ninth player to win the World Snooker Championship on three or more occasions.

A year later, his career lay in ruins following a News of the World sting operation in which he had seemingly agreed to lose specific frames in upcoming tournaments in return for a payment of £300,000.

As the story broke, Higgins moved quickly to defend his actions, claiming that he had no intention of actually following through with the match-fixing arrangements and that he had only engaged in the discussions out of fear for his safety.

Though the independent tribunal convened to hear Higgins’ case in September 2010 accepted his version of events and cleared him of match-fixing charges, the Scotsman was nonetheless suspended for six months and fined £75,000 for “giving the impression” that he was willing to accept performance-related bribes.

The backdating of Higgins’ ban meant that he was eligible to return to the baize in time to win a European Tour Players’ Championship event held in Germany in November. However, until he had a chance to redeem himself in front of the British public, the ghost of his scandal would still linger.

So it was that December’s UK Championship proved to be the perfect setting for one of Higgins’ most memorable victories yet. Having reached the final, the Scot found himself trailing by five frames to nine, needing to win each of the five remaining frames he was to deny opponent Mark Williams victory.

Even when Higgins conjured up a remarkable performance to overcome a sixty-one point deficit in the seventeenth frame, it was almost unthinkable that Williams would fail to somehow stumble over the finish line.

Yet that is precisely what happened, Higgins pulling off an audacious table-length double at the crucial moment of the final frame to seal a crowd-pleasing victory. World number one once again, “The Wizard of Wishaw” had put the dark days of 2010 to bed in the only way he knew how.

4. Kieren Fallon

As a six-time champion jockey who has racked up multiple successes in every major flat racing event, Kieren Fallon has certainly earned the right to be regarded as one of the best riders ever to saddle up a racehorse.

No matter where Fallon has gone, however, it seems that controversy has never been too far behind. After all, this is the man who once received a six-month riding ban after pulling a fellow jockey from his mount mid-race.

The greatest controversy of the jockey’s career would come in 2006 when he was one of eight people charged with a conspiracy to fix races and subsequently had his UK racing licence suspended. Though the decision of the courts in December 2007 that Fallon was not guilty due to lack of evidence was hardly the overwhelming exoneration which he sought, his licence was reinstated.

After a prolonged absence, it seemed that Fallon was free to return to what he did best – riding winners. The illusion was brief, however, with the Co. Clare native receiving an 18-month riding ban in January 2008 following a positive drugs test.

Following the expiration of his suspension in the summer of 2009, many would have understood and excused a decision by Fallon not to return to the saddle. Now forty-four years of age, he had nothing left to prove to the world of horse racing.

His insatiable hunger for success had never diminished though, and when he returned to the course in the closing months of 2009, he racked up fifty victories before the year’s end, adding a further 133 over the course of 2010.

The highlight of his comeback undoubtedly came at the Goodwood Stakes in October 2009. Few other jockeys could have steered the unfancied three year old Gitano Hernando to victory over a field of class competitors. Then again, there are few other jockeys quite like Kieren Fallon.

5. Roberto Durán

Although he is now regarded as one of the best pound-for-pound boxers of all time, the legacy of Roberto Durán lay in tatters in November 1980 following the Panamanian fighter’s sensational decision to quit a fight against Sugar Ray Leonard mid-bout.

In the first part of what would ultimately turn out to be a compelling trilogy, Durán had already scored a memorable victory over his previously-undefeated rival earlier that year, stripping Leonard of his WBC Welterweight Championship in June via a narrow unanimous decision.

When the pair met again at the Louisiana Superdome just five months later, the contest was every bit as close, Leonard opening up a slight lead on the judges’ scorecards by the middle of the eighth round.

What happened next remains one of the great mysteries of boxing. With seconds remaining in the eighth, Durán inexplicably turned away from his opponent, supposedly indicating to the referee that he did not want to continue by uttering the words “No màs, no màs” (“no more, no more”).

From a Latino fighter who valued his machismo as highly as the air of invincibility which he had picked up en route to a 74-1 career record, such apparent cowardice was almost unthinkable. Durán would later blame stomach cramps which had been brought on by his attempt to rapidly regain some weight in the hours before the bout. The truth, however, still remains a mystery.

Though Durán was back in the ring within months, it would be some time before he had redeemed himself in the eyes of the boxing world, decisively winning the WBC Light Middleweight title by knocking out American Davey Moore in the summer of 1983.

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The Panamanian would later go on to become a world champion in a fourth weight division, defeating Iran Barkley to win the WBC Middleweight title in 1989.

By the time of Durán’s final victories in the year 2000, the “No màs” fight of 1980 was no longer the career-defining scandal it had once been, seen instead as just another colourful incident in a proud professional career which spanned five decades.

6. Andrew Flintoff

Though many cricketing greats have played their part in famous English Ashes victories over the years, very rarely is one individual awarded the honour of having a test or a series named after his contribution.

Andrew Flintoff’s seven-wicket contribution to England’s Edgbaston victory in August 2005 ensured that “Fred’s Test” would be placed alongside “Botham’s Ashes” as one of those wins which will forever be synonymous with the man who inspired it.

If Flintoff’s performance throughout the 2005 Ashes would come to represent the pinnacle of his cricketing career, the Lancashire all-rounder would also be remembered for his infamous antics at the Cricket World Cup in 2007 when a late-night pedalo excursion saw him stripped of his vice-captaincy and handed a one-game suspension.

When both team and media sought a scapegoat in the wake of a sub-par English performance, Flintoff was an obvious choice.

While persistent injuries denied Flintoff the opportunity to reproduce his 2005 form on a regular basis thereafter, it was only right that his final test appearance should be to play in the 2009 Ashes on home soil, affording him the opportunity to exorcise any demons which lingered from the 5-0 series whitewash which he had captained the team to in 2006/2007.

With his legacy on the line, “Freddie’s” contribution to another memorable Ashes victory, and his five-wicket haul in the second Test at Lord’s in particular, ensured that he will rightly be remembered as a mischievous cricketing great rather than a clown.

7. Michael Vick

In 2001, the Atlanta Falcons used their number one draft pick to recruit a young quarterback from Virginia Tech, the first time ever  that an African-American athlete had been the number one selection. Before he had even thrown a pass in the NFL, Michael Vick had made history.

Vick’s early career performances quickly vindicated Atlanta’s belief in his potential, the youngster leading the Falcons to playoff appearances in 2002 and 2004 while picking up three Pro-Bowl nominations for himself.

As good on the ground as he was in the air, many felt that Vick was rapidly establishing himself as one of the best quarterbacks in the game. His achievements, however, quickly became irrelevant when in August 2007, he pled guilty to charges of involvement in a dogfighting ring and was sentenced to twenty-three months in prison.

With the Falcons exercising their right to terminate his contract during his incarceration, it was the Philadelphia Eagles who took a chance on Vick following his release in mid-2009, offering him a one-year contract to serve as backup to quarterbacks Donovan McNabb and Kevin Kolb.

Though he only started one game in 2009, Vick’s infrequent contributions, including a seventy-six yard touchdown pass in the Eagles’ wild-card matchup against the Dallas Cowboys, were sufficient to secure him a renewed contract for the 2010 season.

As McNabb departed for pastures new in the offseason, Eagles coach Andy Reid bravely gave Vick his shot at redemption, selecting him as the team’s starting quarterback ahead of Kolb for the 2010 campaign.

Playing with the drive of a man who knows that he is in the last chance saloon, Vick’s performances in leading the Eagles to a 10-6 record and the NFC East title have been nothing short of remarkable, including an inspirational display to overcome a twenty-one point deficit with only seven minutes to play against the New York Giants some weeks ago.

Though the past few weeks have seen Vick receive another Pro-Bowl nomination as well as steady support in his quest to be recognized as the league’s Most Valuable Player (MVP), in the eyes of some it seems that he should always be seen as convicted dogfighter first and footballer second.

Vick’s rehabilitation is far from complete. In fact, it is only just beginning.

About the author:

Niall Kelly

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