There’s something about competitive sports that can inspire not only the best but the worst in people. From gambling to drugs to weird sexual fetishes, sports have always seemed to attract the double edged swords of fame and infamy. Fortunately, we as a species love a good scandal as much as a touchdown, so it works out pretty well all around.
Sadly we don’t have as much recorded history pre-20th century about individual athletes and their debilitating peccadilloes as we have all come to expect from our modern physical heroes, but we do have just about every other device ever created to capture their downfalls in spectacular HD now, so again, who’s complaining? You don’t even have to go back very far in time to see some epic demonstrations of athletes literally hitting the wall of shame in light speed. Some might have been predictably just a matter of time, while others were absolutely shocking in their ability to separate a celebrated athlete from their sordid, sleazy veneer of respectability. Regardless they have become part of the mythology of sport, and as such we can haughtily examine the 10 most nefarious athletes of all time.
10) Rosie Ruiz
You have to go all the way back to the 1980 Boston Marathon for the background on this story; an unknown participant named Rosa/Rosie Ruiz came out of nowhere to supposedly capture victory in record-setting time, despite having run only one previous marathon. Although she was crowned the winner, doubts about the legitimacy of her triumph began soon after and it was quickly revealed that not only had she not won the race, she hadn’t even bothered to run it.
Ruiz actually entered the race at the final stage near the finish line, emerging out of the crowd as the seemingly lead competitor when she was in fact a carefully planned fraud. No one recalled seeing her at any point during the race, she didn’t appear even remotely tired and could not remember details about the marathon route she claimed to have taken. Race officials found no trace of her in dozens of videos taken of the event while a photographer claimed he spoke with her on the subway when she was supposed to be running the route. It didn’t take long to determine that Ruiz had not in fact run the Boston Marathon and she was stripped of her victory soon after, though she remains synonymous with not only cheating but failure as well.
9) Pete Rose
‘Charlie Hustle’, as he is known, is MLB’s all-time hit leader and is widely considered one of its greatest players. But for years Pete Rose hid a troubling habit; he was routinely betting on games as a major league manager. An internal MLB investigation revealed that Rose was gambling up to $15,000 per day on a variety of sports including baseball. The findings were shocking; Rose was not only legally betting on dogs and horses, he was placing illegal bets on baseball, football and basketball games, including those of his own Cincinatti Reds. While no conclusive evidence ever surfaced that Rose had intentionally bet on the Reds to lose, the damage to his reputation was already done. He was placed on the league’s ‘permanently ineligible’ list for Hall of Fame induction in 1989 after having first denied ever gambling, ever gambling on baseball, ever gambling on the Reds and continues denying ever having bet on the Reds to lose. Charlie ‘Hustle’ indeed.
8) Tiger Woods
After having built a successful career and multi-billion dollar industry from his squeaky clean, All-American image of wholesome, clean-cut righteousness, it came as a rude awakening for the entire planet to discover that Tiger Woods was in fact a lecherous, serial philanderer who enjoyed some freaky sex with a cavalcade of women. It certainly woke up his wife who promptly bashed him in the head with one of his irons and divorced his cheating ass and he’s never been the same since.
In an instant, Woods’ carefully crafted boy next door persona and sports divinity were obliterated as tales of his countless affairs and ribald antics came pouring out of his obligatory divorce settlement media blitz. He lost dozens of lucrative sponsors and advertising contracts and his game has suffered dramatically. He’s no longer the dominant, indefatigable perennial favorite and hasn’t been almost from the moment his wife tried to take his head off on their driveway. Far from the top of his game, Woods may forever symbolize the risks that a celebrated few dare to take when fame, fortune and fantasies prove too meager for those who need a constant new thrill just to get out of bed every morning.
7) Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa
In the summer of 1998, MLB was gripped by the excitement of a record setting home run derby engaged in by two of the league’s premiere long ball hitters, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. Both men were chasing Roger Maris’s elusive record of 61 homers in 1961, and by September both were in contention to actually break it with 55 dingers each. Very faint rumors of something suspicious about all this was drowned out by the euphoria of a MLB home run race, but they never died out completely, and for a very good reason; they were true. Years later it would be revealed that both players (as well as countless others) had taken banned performance enhancing drugs. Fans were stunned, though not legitimately surprised, as baseball has a long history of problems due to illegal drug use. Fans were also outraged since MLB also has a long history of doing absolutely nothing about the rampant use of illicit drugs. Suffice to say that McGwire is still listed as having hit 70 homers that year and Sosa 66, though neither player can claim to have the respect that would normally deserve.
6) Tonya Harding
When U.S. figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was struck on the knee with a metal baton by a masked man after a practice session in Detroit, Michigan in 1994, little did she know she was about to become embroiled in an event that would transcend her athletic career. The attack occurred just weeks before the U.S. Championships, leaving Kerrigan heartbroken and opening an unlikely door for the 1991 U.S. Champion, Tonya Harding.
With Kerrigan’s knee injury forcing her out of competition, Harding took the national Championship and with it a spot on the U.S. Olympic squad. However it quickly became clear that all was not well; one of the accomplices told the FBI that Harding and her husband Jeff Gillooly had plotted to have Kerrigan attacked and gotten rid of, freeing up her spot on the Olympic team for Harding. After first denying all knowledge of the scheme, Harding eventually admitted to knowing about it after the fact, and would have been kicked off the team by the U.S. Olympic Committee, until she launched a $25 million unlawful dismissal lawsuit that promptly changed their minds. By then Nancy Kerrigan had recovered from her injury and went on to win the Silver medal at the Lillehammer Games, while Tonya Harding finished well out of medal contention and has become something of a cable television personality in the intervening years, though she did manage to stay out of prison.
5) Mike Tyson
In a meteoric career that saw both triumph and tragedy, Mike Tyson‘s 1992 conviction for rape has to be the low point of his life. Desiree Washington was a beauty pageant contestant Tyson had met during a rehearsal for the Miss Black America contest. After accepting a date with Tyson, she accompanied him to his hotel room where she claimed he sexually assaulted her. Tyson maintained his innocence throughout the sensational trial and continues to do so, despite having served three years in prison. He has recently claimed in a new book to have indulged in countless sexual trysts with women while in jail and though he made over $300 million in the ring, he’s now so broke that he says he’ll never pay off his IRS debts. After his release in 1995, Tyson returned to the ring with varying degrees of success, finally ending his career in 2005 with an out of shape and unsurprising loss to journeyman Kevin McBride. In a career full of controversy, this incident is likely to remain the most unsavory in Tyson’s troubled life.
4) Alex Rodriguez
In 2013 MLB’s Alex Rodriguez seemed to have it all; several World Series rings, a three league MVP Awards, a starting spot on his hometown NY Yankees roster and a guaranteed Hall of Fame induction. But for years there had been troubling rumors that A-Rod was jacked up on performance enhancing drugs, a charge he vehemently denied. However an investigation by the Miami New Times of a dubious medical clinic in Miami called Biogenesis found that dozens of MLB players including Rodriguez had tested positive for anabolic steroids such as testosterone among others. Though the news wasn’t exactly shocking, it was devastating for baseball which had been trying since the 1990s to root out the use of banned substances, with obviously unimpressive results. The league subsequently came down hard on Rodriguez, banning him for an unprecedented 162 games, meaning he won’t be eligible to play again until the 2015 season.
3) Michael Vick
In 2007 Atlanta Falcons superstar quarterback Michael Vick was indicted by the federal government for running an illegal dog fighting operation from property he owned in Virginia. The allegations were shocking; Vick was in charge of the scheme that saw him and his associates routinely crossing state lines for the purposes of dog fighting, raising and in many cases personally killing dozens of animals that he considered ‘unprofitable.’ He faced charges that could have seen him receive up to five years in prison. Vick was sentenced to 23 months in jail after a lengthy plea agreement and served 19 months before being released in 2009. He subsequently signed with the Philadelphia Eagles as their starting quarterback and has made the most of his second chance, but lost scores of endorsement contracts as a result of the immensely negative publicity surrounding his involvement in this despicable enterprise. What no one, including Vick, was ever able to explain was why a star athlete making millions of dollars a year would want to embroil himself in such a loathsome endeavor. Vick is currently playing with the New York Jets.
2) Lance Armstrong
Having won seven consecutive Tour de France races (1999 – 2005) and being a survivor of testicular cancer, Lance Armstrong was a sporting legend. His seemingly superhuman stamina, strength and success were not without controversy however, as rumors persisted that during that period, Armstrong was in fact relying on banned performance enhancing drugs. Though he maintained his ‘innocence’ for years, in 2012 the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency finally charged Armstrong with using steroids and threatened to strip him of his 7 Tour victories.
Though he was originally planning on contesting the charges, Armstrong soon relented when it was revealed that 5 of his American Tour de France teammates were expected to testify against him. Claiming fatigue due to his consistent denials of wrongdoing, Armstrong finally publicly stated he would no longer attempt to clear his name. On August 24, 2012 the USADA announced that Lance Armstrong had been found guilty of taking performance enhancing drugs, and would be stripped of his 7 Tour de France victories and other accomplishments from that time period. Though he continues to maintain his innocence, there are few that can claim that Armstrong didn’t bring this on himself.
1) O. J. Simpson
No one who witnessed the bizarre 1994 ‘White Bronco’ police chase on live television following the revelation that former football great and sports broadcaster O. J. Simpson‘s estranged wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman had been brutally murdered on the grounds of her L.A. estate, will ever forget it. Whatever Simpson’s thought process had been prior to having his friend Al Cowling drive him all over the state in some ridiculous attempt to prove his innocence, it actually wound up making him appear as guilty as sin. He finally surrendered to police at his L.A. mansion and thus began one of the most disturbing murder trials in the history of professional sport.
The victims had been savagely stabbed numerous times each, leaving a horrific, bloody crime scene. Despite hiring some high profile defense attorneys and pleading not guilty, you could count on one hand the number of people who didn’t feel convinced Simpson was responsible for the two murders. However in a trial that came to be known as much for its asinine ‘celebrity’ status as anything else, Simpson wound up being acquitted in one of the most obvious examples of legal injustice in living memory.
Not to be outdone, Simpson finally wound up behind bars years later after threatening to kill people he felt had ripped him off over some of his sports memorabilia. O. J. Simpson is currently languishing behind bars in a Las Vegas prison having been sentenced to 33 years in jail, but will be eligible for parole in 2017.