Jordan's former girlfriend shouldn't get another cent

By DeWayne Wickham, USA TODAY

Karla Knafel, a former lounge singer and fledgling actress, claims that basketball star Michael Jordan promised to give her $5 million when he retired to keep her from blabbing about an adulterous relationship they had a decade ago.

Word of this money grab first surfaced last month, when Jordan, who is one of the world's richest athletes, asked a Chicago court to block Knafel's "extortion demands." Last week, Knafel launched a counterattack. She filed a lawsuit in which she contends that Jordan voluntarily offered to buy her silence because he believed that she was pregnant with his child.

Either way, she shouldn't get another cent. If, as Jordan claims, Knafel is trying to extort millions of dollars from him, she should be dealt with in the same way that prosecutors in New York handled Autumn Jackson, the woman who claimed to be Bill Cosby's out-of-wedlock daughter. Sexual blackmail is illegal regardless of how titillating the circumstances.

Back in 1997, Jackson threatened to expose the adulterous affair the comedian had had with her mother if he didn't give her $40 million. Cosby admitted having an affair with the 22-year-old woman's mother more than two decades earlier but denied that he was Jackson's father.

Similar to Cosby case

Instead of giving in to Jackson's demands, Cosby reported her shakedown attempt to the FBI. She was convicted of extortion and given a 26-month jail sentence. Her conviction was later overturned in 1999 on a technicality. After the trial Cosby consented to a paternity test, but both Jackson and her mother refused to give blood samples.

In her lawsuit, Knafel said she became pregnant in 1990 while she was intimately involved with Jordan. At the time, she mistakenly believed the NBA superstar was the child's father - a contention she no longer makes.

Jordan, according to his court papers, paid Knafel $250,000 to keep their affair secret. Now Knafel wants a lot more money. But if what she says is true, Knafel's claim of a verbal contract with Jordan may bring her more grief than legal relief.

"The court can't play a role in condoning what is known to be an illegal act," said Charles Ogletree, the associate dean of Harvard Law School.

In her lawsuit, Knafel said she had sex with Jordan on two occasions after he was married, first in Chicago and later in Phoenix. At the time, adultery was a criminal offense in both states.

Knafel wants a court of law to force Jordan to honor the deal she says she struck with Jordan to hide what in essence was a crime. That would be an outrageous injustice.

Why sue now?

Knafel's story has a hollow ring.

Jordan announced the first of his two retirements from professional basketball in 1993. He returned to the game in 1995 and then retired again in 1999. Jordan ended his second retirement in 2001. But it wasn't until last week, more than a year after he joined the Washington Wizards as a player, that Knafel asked a court to enforce the verbal contract. She acted now, Knafel said in her lawsuit, because Jordan denied the existence of their deal in the court papers he filed last month. As a result, she says, Jordan has "anticipatorily breached" their agreement.

Jordan, of course, is not without blame in this mess. He admits he had a "relationship" with Knafel and was concerned enough about the harm it would do to his public image that he gave her a quarter million dollars in hush money. By making that initial payment, Jordan encouraged his paramour to think she could get away with sexual blackmail.

Sadly, this scandal comes at a time when Jordan's marriage, which was on the verge of a breakup a few months ago, appears to be on the rebound. He and his wife, Juanita, have been married for more than 12 years. The divorce suit that his wife filed nearly a year ago has been dropped, but the public backbiting between Jordan and Knafel will probably put a new strain on his marriage.

That's too bad.

Jordan's relationship with Knafel was an illegal union, and any agreement that they may have reached to keep it secret should be treated as an unenforceable product of that bad act.

DeWayne Wickham writes weekly for USA TODAY.