Athletes Who Damaged Their Careers With Drug Abuse

Today we live in a 24-hour news cycle, even for sports. And with so much coverage, there is a desperate need for stories. One type of story that generates grand attention is drug stories. And I’m not talking about performance enhancing drugs stories, such as those concerning steroids, HGH, or blood doping.  There are plenty of those stories out there and those stories sell. Just ask Jose Canseco.

But what about other drug stories? The ones where a player use marijuana, cocaine, or another recreational drug? It seems everyday you hear about some pro athlete getting caught with something illegal. Those stories are so commonplace, it’s basically a running joke and not news. But there is something deeper to these stories. For example, how are these substances affecting an athlete’s performance? There’s no easy answer. You can’t exact pinpoint a player’s lack of success on one factor. It’s not that simple. Still, it only seems logical to blame an athlete’s poor performance on drugs. At least in some circumstances. But which athletes? Certainly players like Lawrence Taylor, Michael Irvin, and Theo Fleury have had problems with drugs. Yet these guys  performed at high levels. Did their on-field performance even suffer? There’s no way to really tell. However, I’ll take my best educated guess and focus on the players that appear to have hurt their careers by drug use. Those that lost fame, fortune, and possibly a place in history. A grand what could have been?

This list looks at the ten athletes that damaged their career by substance abuse.  It attempts to factor in how much the drugs affected the athlete and how much it cost them. The better the athlete and the more damage done, the higher a player ranks on this list. But timing matters too. A guy like Ricky Williams, even as a notorious marijuana smoker, really didn’t run into legal problems until after he decided to quit football (the first time). So the damage wasn’t as significant for him. Now on to the list (sorry, no wrestlers):

10. Josh Hamilton, Baseball

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Josh Hamilton

Hamilton represents both sides of the coin on this one, the fall from grace due to drugs and then the resurrection after kicking the habit. He was a blue chip prospect and first overall draft pick in 1999 by the then Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The Rays then promptly signed him to a then-record $3.96 million signing bonus. At the beginning of the 2001 season, Hamilton was rated the best prospect in all of baseball. It was then that his career began to derail due to drugs and injuries. He would play only 27 games in 2001, and injuries limited him to 56 games in 2002. At the start of the 2003 season, Hamilton left the team for six weeks, later admitting that during that span, he tried every drug he could get his hands on. He would eventually take the rest of the season off for “personal reasons” after a 25 day suspension for violating Major League Baseball’s substance abuse policy. He would enter rehab, but it didn’t take. All told, Hamilton would quit and re-enter drug rehab eight times.

At the start of 2004, he was again suspended 30 days and fined for violating the MLB drug policy. The punishment indicated that Hamilton had already failed two or more prior tests. After failing yet another drug test, MLB had had enough, and on February 18, 2004, suspended him indefinitely. From 2004 until 2006, Hamilton did not play baseball at all. In June of 2006, MLB reinstated Hamilton, and he ended up playing 15 games for the short season A-ball Hudson Valley Renegades. Despite playing only 15 games since 2002, and having only 89 at bats above A-ball, the Chicago Cubs selected him third overall in the Rule 5 Draft after the season. The Cubs sold him to Cincinnati, and per the terms of the Rule 5 Draft he had to stay in the majors all year or risk being placed on waivers. Cincinnati decided to keep him in the majors, allowing Hamilton to finally make his major league debut in 2007, just short of his 26th birthday. A successful, but unspectacular rookie campaign followed. During the off-season he was traded to the Texas Rangers for Edinson Volquez. The redemption was complete in 2008 when he was named to the American League All-Star team. He also participated in the Home Run Derby, where he hit 28 home runs in one round, a record.

Hamilton will be 28 early next season and still has the time to put up an impressive career. But what might have been a Hall of Fame career was derailed for several years due to drug use. Unlike many on this list, Hamilton has a great opportunity for a post-drug use career.

9. John Daly, Golf

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John Daly

Daly turned pro in 1987, later joining the PGA Tour in 1991. He has won two majors in his career, the 1991 PGA Championship and the 1995 British Open. The former helped him be named PGA Tour Rookie of the Year in 1991. It also garnered him a fair bit of fame, as he won the event despite being the tournament’s ninth (and last) alternate. He was only allowed to play after Nick Price dropped out and no other alternates could make it.

Notwithstanding some success on the golf course, Daly was always a wreck off the course. The two majors he won earned him ten-year exemptions, and allowed him to keep his PGA tour card despite inconsistent play. In December of 1992, while drunk, he shoved his wife into a wall while pulling her hair. The PGA pressured him to go to rehab, which he complied with. Nevertheless, he continued to drink heavily and push himself recklessly. He once claimed that he drank a fifth of Jack Daniel’s every day when he was 23. In late 1993, Daly was given an indefinite suspension and again told to seek treatment for his alcoholism. In 1994 he missed the cut in two majors, and was disqualified from the Greater Hartford Open. At the NEC World Series of Golf, he wrestled in the parking lot with a 62 year-old fan. With another suspension looming, Daly voluntarily left the tour for the rest of the season. He also lost millions after companies dropped their endorsement deals with him.

Despite being good enough to win two majors, Daly went from 1996 to 2001 without a professional victory. In total, Daly has just five PGA tour wins. And his problems aren’t over, just recently on October 26th, Daly was taken into custody by Winston-Salem police after he was found drunk outside an area Hooters restaurant. What could have Daly been as a clean and sober golfer?

8. Pelle Lindbergh, Hockey


Pelle Lindbergh

Lindbergh was a Swedish goalie that represented his country in the 1980 Winter Olympics. He was drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers in 2nd round, 35th overall pick of the 1979 NHL Entry Draft. He briefly played for the Flyers in the 1981-1982 season, before staying up full time for the 1982-’83 season. Lindbergh was named the goalie of the NHL All-Rookie Team that year. Two years later, he would led the NHL with 40 victories and win the Vezina Trophy, the NHL’s award for best goaltender. He would become the first European goaltender in NHL history to do so. He was also a first team NHLer and would help lead the Flyers to the Stanley Cup finals.

On November 10, 1985, he drove his car into a wall, fatally injuring himself and also injuring two others. Toxicology reports disclosed that he had a blood alcohol level of .24 at the time of the accident, well above the .1 legal limit at the time. Despite his death, Lindbergh topped the fan voting for the 1986 NHL All-Star Game, becoming the first player chosen posthumously for an all-star team in a major North American team sport. Lindbergh’s brief, but successful career is another warning against the dangers of drinking and driving. Alcohol prevented a potentially great career from ever happening.

7. Darryl Strawberry, Baseball


Darryl Strawberry

Strawberry was the first overall pick of the 1980 MLB Draft by the New York Mets. He debuted in the majors in 1983, winning the National League’s Rookie of the Year award. From 1984 through 1991, he was an All-Star every year, producing at a high level. He was also a member of the Mets 1986 World Series team. After the 1991 season he was 29 years old and he had 280 lifetime homers. He seem destined for the Hall of Fame. It was not to be. After that season his personal problems caught up with him and he would not hit his 300th homer for another 6 years.

Strawberry later admitted his first experience with cocaine occurred in 1983, soon after he was promoted to the major leagues. He also admitted to drinking and occasionally smoking pot before reaching the majors. The combination took a toll on his personal life, as he faced accusations of spousal abuse and tax evasion off the field. By 1987 he was drinking virtually every night and was using more cocaine. By 1990 Strawberry had checked into alcohol rehab. It was a vicious cycle. The alcohol and drugs led to erratic behavior, which in turn led him to more drugs after he was criticized. In the end, Strawberry would end up being suspended three times by MLB after repeatedly using cocaine. He finished with just 335 career homers, and was a shell of his former self once he hit 30. There was no Hall of Fame induction for Strawberry.

6. Vin Baker, Basketball

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Vin Baker

Baker was selected by the Milwaukee Bucks with the 8th overall pick out of the University of Hartford in the 1993 NBA Draft. After four seasons with the Bucks, he was traded to the Seattle SuperSonics. Baker’s first five seasons in the league were strong, making the All-Rookie team his first year and the All-Star team in his next four seasons. In his sixth year, the 1998-99 season, there was labor strife and a lockout, which led to a shortened season. Baker later admitted that his binge drinking began during that year. He saw his weight balloon to near 300 pounds, and his game suffered tremendously. He was never again an all-star and never approached the statistics he put up during his first five years. After four seasons with the SuperSonics, he was traded to the Boston Celtics.

In Boston, there were reports that Baker smelled of alcohol at practice. His skill and athleticism had eroded and the team suspended him indefinitely, leading to his eventual release. Baker would go on to play for the New York Knicks, Houston Rockers, Los Angeles Clippers, and Minnesota Timberwolves before retiring. The stats tell the whole story. Baker was a force before his binge drinking, and an also-ran after it. A potential Hall of Famer, Baker became a poster child for the dangers of alcohol.

5. Dwight Gooden, Baseball

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Dwight Gooden

Gooden was drafted fifth overall in the first round of the 1982 MLB Draft. He spent just one full season in the minors, debuting at the age of 19 with the New Yorks Mets at the start of the 1984 season. He would go on to win the National League Rookie of the Year award that year and set several rookie records (Ironically, he won one year after Strawberry). In 1985, he was dominant, winning a Cy Young and leading the league in all the triple crown pitching categories: wins, ERA, and strikeouts. He remains the youngest Cy Young winner ever. But he would never be as good again. His decline has been attributed to many factors, but the two main reasons are early overuse and cocaine addiction. In 1986 he helped the Mets win the World Series, but no-showed the team victory parade. The team announced that their star pitcher had overslept, but years later, it was revealed that he was on a cocaine binge.

Rumors of substance abuse began to arise during the 1986 offseason, which were confirmed when Gooden tested positive for cocaine during spring training in 1987. He entered rehab, which caused him to not start a game until June 5. Despite missing one third of the season, Gooden actually had a solid year. Gooden would go on to suffer several injuries over the next few season, during which his career declined significantly. In 1994, Gooden again tested positive for cocaine and was suspended 60 days. He tested positive yet again while serving the suspension, and was suspended for the entire 1995 season.  Gooden’s playing career end in 2000, but he continued to have run-ins with the law over alcohol and drugs for the next several years.  In the end, what once looked like a sure fire Hall of Fame career ended as just another player.

4. Roy Tarpley, Basketball

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Roy Tarpley

Tarpley was selected by the Dallas Mavericks with the seventh pick of the first round of the 1986 Draft out of the University of Michigan. Tarpley made the All-Rookie Team in his first season and won the NBA’s Sixth Man Award the following year. He played for the Mavericks until October 1991, when he was expelled from the NBA for using cocaine, a violation of the league’s substance-abuse policy.

Tarpley would then play two seasons in Greece until he was reinstated by the league in 1994. But his NBA return was short-lived, as he was permanently banned from the league in December 1995 for using alcohol and violating the terms of a court-imposed personal after-care program. After being banned again from the NBA, Tarpley spent five years playing for professional teams throughout Europe. He possesses NBA career averages of 12.6 points and 10.0 rebounds per game. Tarpley applied for reinstatement again in 2003, but would never play in the NBA again. Becoming the first player banned from the NBA for drug use, and at an early age, garners Tarpley this high of a ranking.

3. Steve Howe, Baseball


Steve Howe

Howe was a first round pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1979 draft out of the University of Michigan. He debuted in the majors in 1980 at the age of 22 and would proceed to win the National League Rookie of the Year award (this award seemed cursed during the early 80’s). The following year, Howe would help the Dodgers win the World Series. Howe’s promising career, however, would soon be wrecked by cocaine and alcohol abuse. He would be suspended from baseball seven times in total.

The problems began to surface in 1983 when Howe checked himself into a substance abuse clinic. A relapse resulted in Commissioner Bowie Kuhn suspending him for the 1984 season. Howe was out of the majors again in 1986, and Texas released him before for the 1988 season for a reported alcohol problem. Howe did not return to the majors until 1991, and during the 1992 season, he became the first baseball player to be banned for life because of drugs. An arbitrator later reinstated him after the season, after which he pitched a few more years for the New York Yankees.

Howe pitched for 12 seasons in the major leagues over the course of 17 years, posting a 47-41 record and 91 saves in 606 innings pitched. He appeared in 497 games, struck out 328 batters and finished with a career 3.03 ERA. In 2006, Howe was killed when his truck rolled over. Toxicology reports indicated he had methamphetamine in his system, but the exact amount is unknown.

2. Diego Maradona, Soccer

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Diego Maradona

Arguably the most famous non-performance enhancing drug case in sports due to soccer’s worldwide appeal. Despite his drug problems, Maradona is still regarded by many as the greatest soccer player of all time. Most experts would choose either Maradona or Pelé. Maradona played for various clubs in his career, including Boca Juniors, FC Barcelona, Sevilla, and SSC Napoli. He also represented Argentina in a number of international games, including leading Argentina to victory in the 1986 World Cup. He also captured the Golden Ball award as the tournament’s best player.

Still, despite his considered success, Maradona has had several drug problems. A long running addiction to cocaine affected his play starting in the late 1980s, eventually leading to a fifteen month suspension in 1991 for testing positive for the drug. It also led to him changing teams. At the 1994 World Cup, he was sent home after failing drug tests, reportedly for ephedrine. And he would retire in 1997 at age of 37 after failing yet another drug test. In 2000 he collapsed of heart problems, and collapsed again in 2004 before kicking his cocaine habit. All told, Maradona was a fabulous player, but one who could have been even better without the drug issues.  His international success helps obscure some failures at the club level. Nearly half his career was affected by drug use, and for a player that fantastic, any time he wasn’t 100% was a shame for soccer and its fans.

1. Len Bias, Basketball


Len Bias

During the 1985-1986 season, Bias was an All-American for the University of Maryland, where his all around athleticism combined with his basketball skills prompted many to compare him to Michael Jordan. Comparisons with Jordan may have seemed optimistic, but remember that Jordan was only at the beginning of his pro career at that time. Nevertheless, Bias had made a similar impression on the fans, writers, and coaches of the ACC, playing only a few years behind Jordan in the same conference.

After his successful collegiate career, Bias was selected by the defending NBA champion Boston Celtics. He was the second overall pick in the 1986 draft behind North Carolina’s Brad Daugherty (Note that Bias won the ACC player of the year over Daugherty). Tragedy would strike less than 48 hours after the draft, as Bias would die as a result of a cocaine overdose. Bias would never play a game in the NBA, leaving many to wonder what would have been by combining his great talents with Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and the other Celtic greats of that era. Would Bias have been an all-time great like Jordan?