There is a long list of athletes who have appeared on reality shows, or even been given disastrous shows of their own (not referring to anyone whose initials are T.O., but...). However, this article focuses specifically on athletes who have made appearances as, essentially, regular contestants on competition reality TV shows. Full disclosure – I will not be discussing any appearances on Dancing With The Stars, because there are so many athletes, many fairly high profile, who have appeared on that show that it really merits its own list. Additionally, on Dancing With The Stars, athletes seem to have a certain advantage, in that they’re accustomed to grueling training. Dancers are athletes as well, so they have a certain common mentality that allows athletes to thrive on this show (unless, of course, they possess two left feet and absolutely no rhythm, but that’s a different matter entirely).
A more interesting dynamic emerges when athletes – whether well-known or comparatively low profile – appear on competition reality TV shows. On these types of shows, physical strength is often perceived as threatening because of the advantage it gives a contestant in challenges.There is also a certain social dynamic in these types of shows. While sometimes one's status as a former or current professional athlete may help them if a fellow contestant is a fan, it can also hurt them if a fellow contestant believes they have an unfair advantage or resents their fame.
There is also the often discussed issue of an athlete’s finances. While many tout that they go on shows such as Survivor and The Amazing Race for the experience, at the end of the day, basically every contestant has their eye on the prize that accompanies winning the show. When choosing between an individual with a regular, ordinary job and an athlete, many feel that the athlete doesn't deserve to win solely because they've already made a lot of money in their life.
The athletes who go on these shows definitely vary in their rankings – athletes are, after all, people, and their performance on competition shows depends on both their individual strengths and their ability to interact with their fellow contestants. The following list focuses on athletes who have appeared on Survivor and The Amazing Race, because both of these shows have interwoven physical and social components that allow for the greatest variation. On reality shows that are entirely about the social, the athlete’s physicality is never really seen as a threat, so it doesn't affect their outcome in the game to quite the same extent.
10 Jeff Kent
Jeff Kent, a five-time All Star, is a retired Major League Baseball player who was on Survivor: Philippines. Kent, who won the NL MVP award in 2000, has played for the Toronto Blue Jays, New York Mets, Cleveland Indians, San Francisco Giants, Houston Astros, and Los Angeles Dodgers. He kept his identity secret on Survivor, not revealing he was formerly a professional athlete. His appearance on the game was volatile (quite frankly, to be expected with his history of getting into scraps with everyone from players to press), with a controversial Obama slam in his exit interview when he was voted out in tenth place.
9 Jimmy Johnson
While he only played college football, Jimmy Johnson is an extremely well known NFL coach, and as such had similar reactions as many of the former professional athletes encountered. He was voted out very early, the third person out in his season Survivor: Nicaragua. However, he was also the oldest contestant by far, competing when he was in his late 60s. Johnson, who transitioned from a college coach to head coach of the Miami Dolphins and Dallas Cowboys, has two Super Bowl Championships under his belt. Many contestants playing with him were dazzled by his celebrity, and in his brief time in the game, the show featured many of his motivational speeches as he tried to apply his inherent ability to coach football players to his fellow contestants.
8 Brad Culpepper
Former NFL defensive tackle John Broward “Brad” Culpepper was a contestant on Survivor: Blood vs. Water, the season won by pro cyclist Tyson Apostol. Culpepper played for the Minnesota Vikings, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Chicago Bears. Culpepper only placed fifteenth in the season, getting voted out early. He played with his wife Monica Culpepper, and many other contestants directed harsh comments about Brad towards her (though she got the last laugh, as she made it to the finals and came in second place). Brad’s alpha-dog attitude seemed to rub a lot of contestants the wrong way; in his case, even though he was physically very strong at a point in the game where physical strength is generally an asset, socially what worked on the field didn't quite translate to the reality TV arena.
7 Cliff Robinson
Cliff Robinson, a former NBA player, was on the current season of Survivor: Cagayan. Robinson has had a long career in the NBA and made the NBA Playoffs in 17 of his 18 seasons in the league. He was drafted in the 2nd round of the 1989 NBA Draft by the Portland Trail Blazers, with whom he played for 8 seasons. He also played for the Phoenix Suns, the Detroit Pistons, the Golden State Warriors, and the New Jersey Nets before retiring in 2007.
Robinson was immediately recognized as a professional athlete on the show, an association that seemed to help him at first, as fellow contestant Yung “Woo” Hwang was dazzled by Robinson’s celebrity and was initially determined to keep Cliff in the game as an ally. However, one of the main rallying points that other contestants used to vote him out (putting Robinson in 14th place for the season) was his past as an athlete. Younger contestants pointed to his fame and fortune as a reason for his ousting. He had already earned and achieved so much, they argued, that it wouldn't be fair for him to win.
6 Gary Hogeboom
Gary Hogeboom, a contestant on Survivor: Guatemala, is perhaps better known in sports fan circles as a former NFL back-up quarterback. Hogeboom, drafted in the 5th round of the 1980 NFL Draft, played for about a decade with the Dallas Cowboys, Indianapolis Colts, Phoenix Cardinals and Washington Redskins.
Hogeboom was very aware of the potential impact his former athlete status would have on his game, and actually played under a claimed alias (Gary Hawkins) and told other contestants that he was a landscaper. Drama arose courtesy of eventual winner Danni Boatwright, a contestant who recognized Hogeboom immediately because of her past work in sports radio; while there have been post-show comments from other contestants that they were aware of his true identity (obviously the cameras cannot capture everything and there’s a possibility that Boatwright informed them in undocumented conversations), he kept his athletic past a secret until his elimination, when he revealed in his final confession that he was a former NFL quarterback. Hogeboom came in seventh place.
5 Tommy Czeschin and Andy Finch
Friends and pro snowboarders Tommy Czeschin and Andy Finch pulled out a fourth place finish in The Amazing Race 19, and were noted for dominating their season, having won 6 out of 12 legs of the race. Both are former Olympians – Andy having participated in the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics and Tommy in the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. Czeschin and Finch have also both won numerous titles over their snowboarding careers.
4 Marcus Pollard
Marcus Pollard, formerly a tight end in the NFL, was on a team with his wife Amani in The Amazing Race 19. Despite not having played college football, Pollard was signed as an undrafted free agent and played for the Indianapolis Colts, Detroit Lions, Seattle Seahawks, New England Patriots, and Atlanta Falcons. Football continues to be a big part of Pollard’s life, as he is currently Director of Player Development for the Jacksonville Jaguars. He and his wife Amani placed third in their season.
3 Tyson Apostol
For a more unusual breed of professional athlete, we can turn to Tyson Apostol, a former professional cyclist in Austria, Belgium, and Switzerland. Apostol has appeared on three seasons of Survivor before winning in his third appearance on Survivor: Blood vs. Water. You know what they say – third time’s a charm. He has spoken in interviews about how his natural athleticism helped him in the competition and while I’m not going to tally up his challenge wins across all three seasons, it’s safe to say he racked up an impressive amount.
2 Jonathan “Bates” Battaglia and Anthony Battaglia
Brothers Bates and Anthony Battaglia are both professional hockey players and managed to snag first place in Season 22 of The Amazing Race, taking home a $1,000,000 dollar prize. Bates is a left winger who has played on various teams in the NHL, from the Carolina Hurricanes to the Colorado Avalanche, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Washington Capitals. He retired in 2012 after a stint with the Swedish Karlskrona HK. Anthony, also a left winger (who gets the position during family hockey games?), last played in the Federal Hockey League for the Dayton Demonz before retiring just months ago in February of 2014. He has spent time in the ECHL and CHL.
1 Ethan Zohn
Ethan Zohn played soccer professionally for the Hawaii Tsunami and Cape Cod Crusaders and, in 2010, was ranked 14th in the USL Second Division’s Top 15 of the Decade. His first appearance on a competition reality TV show was on Survivor: Africa, when he managed to snag the first place title and accompanying $1,000,000. His status as a soccer player didn't particularly affect his interactions with other contestants – while a professional player, he wasn't quite on the level of a Beckham or Balotelli. However, his physical condition definitely helped him in competitions. With part of his survivor winnings, he stayed true to his athletic roots and founded an organization called Grassroot Soccer, which uses his favorite sport to involve individuals and raise both money and awareness for HIV/AIDS. Zohn appeared once more on the show’s All-Stars season; however, his status as a winner affected his chances and he only managed an eleventh place finish. Not content to limiting his competitive nature to one show, he returned to reality TV after a battle with cancer as a contestant on The Amazing Race with girlfriend Jenna Morasca, also a Survivor winner. They team finished in tenth place.