There are few people in this world who receive the same stratospheric level of public adulation as that seen by successful sports stars. Sporting greats such as Muhammad Ali, Pele and Babe Ruth, for instance, became household names during their careers, and even many years after their retirements – or death, in Ruth’s case – they’re still revered across the globe.
On the flip side, though, all the extra attention means that athletes who are found to be cheats, frauds, match fixers or felons quickly become infamous villains despised around the planet. Here, then, are 20 of the biggest falls from grace in sporting history.
20. Lance Armstrong
Erstwhile golden boy Lance Armstrong went from beating testicular cancer to a record seven successive Tour De France wins. The Texan was also much admired for setting up the Livestrong cancer foundation and for his firm anti-doping stance. Sadly, in early 2013 Armstrong owned up – to Oprah Winfrey – about being central to what the U.S. anti-doping agency called “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.”
19. Michael Vick
Michael Vick’s reputation as an NFL quarterback star was shattered in 2007 when it was discovered that he had been helping to run a shocking six-year national dog-fighting operation. The Virginia-born athlete gave a guilty pledge to the charges of being involved in the fatalities of up to eight dogs and financing “Bad Newz Kennels.” Vick went to prison for a year and a half – but, amazingly, rejoined the NFL in 2009.
18. Oscar Pistorius
South African Oscar Pistorius hit the headlines in 2012 as the history-making first amputee to race in the Summer Olympics. However, the athlete’s worldwide respect came to a devastating end in 2013 when his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp was shot dead in his home on Valentine’s Day. The “Blade Runner” claimed that he guessed her to be an intruder, but in 2014 he was convicted of culpable homicide, which could soon be upgraded to murder.
17. Tonya Harding
In 1991 Tonya Harding became the first female U.S. skater to land a competitive triple axel. Her biggest skating rival was compatriot Nancy Kerrigan, who in 1994 was assaulted prior to the U.S. Championships. The men responsible – including Harding’s former husband – swore that Harding aided the plot and supported the strike, though she was only convicted of hampering the official investigation. Harding was banned indefinitely from figure skating and eventually sank into reality TV and sex tape shame.
16. Aaron Hernandez
The New England Patriots’ tight end Aaron Hernandez played in the Super Bowl XLVI defeat to the New York Giants and in 2012 penned a potential $40 million contract. However, his promising career ended abruptly as a result of the shocking murder that he committed the following year. A lengthy trial ultimately saw Hernandez convicted in 2015 of the gun killing of Odin Lloyd, earning him life without parole. He may also have to confront murder charges for a 2012 drive-by shooting.
15. Marion Jones
Marion Jones became the golden girl of U.S. athletics following her incredible five-medal haul at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Far from becoming one of the greatest American Olympians ever, though, she was instead unmasked as a drug cheat in 2007, having staved off dope-testers during the games. In 2008 Jones served half a year in a Texas penitentiary for lying under oath before a grand jury.
14. O.J. Simpson
The epic rise and fall of O.J. Simpson saw “the Juice” initially coming from nothing to being a hugely celebrated running back in the NFL and later a film star. However, in 1994 Simpson was accused of the double murder of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, with the 1995 trial cementing his worldwide notoriety despite the “not guilty” verdict. Then in 2008 Simpson was jailed for no less than nine years – and up to 33 – for armed robbery and intent to kidnap.
13. Mike Tyson
In 1986, at the fresh-faced age of 20, “Iron” Mike Tyson landed his first world heavyweight boxing title. Sadly, though, the self-proclaimed “baddest man on the planet” often lived up to that dubious moniker outside of the ring. Indeed, Tyson has been mixed up in a host of unsavory incidents – including the alleged spousal abuse of former wife Robin Givens – and in 1992 he earned three years in jail for raping the then 18-year-old Desiree Washington.
12. Tiger Woods
A 14-times major victor, Tiger Woods was once unstoppable. However, it all fell apart in November 2009, from which point a slew of mistresses began to come forward to allege affairs with the golfer, among them waitresses, a porn star and a nightclub promoter. Tiger lost not only respect and commercial endorsements, but also his wife and seemingly his form. In fact, since the scandals unfolded he’s failed to win a major – and recently couldn’t even make the cut for one. Ouch.
11. Alex Rodriguez
Alex Rodriguez is one of baseball’s biggest stars, so in early 2009 it was hard not to feel royally let down when the New York Yankees’ chief slugger finally admitted – after years of allegations – to having taken performance-enhancing substances during his time with the Texas Rangers, from 2001 to 2003. After a lengthy ban, though, he returned to the game for the 2015 season and has won over some doubters with his surprisingly selfless play.
10. Antonio Margarito
Three-time welterweight boxing champion Antonio Margarito entered the book of notoriety thanks to a disgraceful hand-wrap scandal. In 2009 Margarito was caught pre-fight with hand wraps covered in elements of the hard-setting plaster of Paris. His hands were re-wrapped for that fight, but immediately doubts were cast over several previous bouts – particularly the fighter’s surprising win over Miguel Cotto. In disgrace, Margar-cheat-o was suspended for a year, while he lost a rematch against Cotto fought in late 2011.
9. Ben Johnson
Jamaican-born sprinter Ben Johnson briefly won the world’s adulation in 1988 by winning the Olympic men’s 100-meter final. However, Johnson’s medal and two record-breaking times were taken off him just three days later following a positive drugs test. The speedster also failed two further tests, in 1993 and 1999 respectively. Incidentally, the 1988 final is now sometimes called “the dirtiest race in history,” due to the number of competitors revealed to have been doping at the time.
8. Roger Clemens
With two World Series crowns and mightily impressive pitching stats to his name, once upon a time “Rocket” Roger Clemens was firmly among baseball’s luminaries. However, in 2007 the damning Mitchell Report from the U.S. Congress named Clemens an incredible 82 times in connection with performance-enhancing drugs. Clemens’ subsequent under-oath denials led to a further perjury case, and although he was finally cleared of the charges in 2012, the damage to his reputation was done.
7. Floyd Landis
In 2006 Floyd Landis briefly succeeded former teammate and seven-time “winner” Lance Armstrong as the Tour De France champion – before he and the U.S. Postal Service team’s systemic cheating came to light. Landis finally fessed up in May 2010 following years of denials, counter-lawsuits and one particularly disgraceful personal threat against former champion Greg LeMond. Landis also indicated the culpability of many other professionals and Armstrong. And the rest, as they say, is history.
6. Barry Bonds
In August 2007 Barry Bonds became the outright leading home-run hitter in baseball history, but his brilliant career has been tainted by positive tests for steroid use. Bonds claimed to have taken the substances unknowingly, yet his trial testimony led to a 2011 conviction for obstruction of justice. Admittedly, he was cleared of this in April 2015, but he’s still derided by many for his role in baseball’s ugly doping era.
5. Hansie Cronje
Hansie Cronje was a well-respected cricketer who captained South Africa from 1994 to 2000 and led his country to the 1999 World Cup semi-finals. In 2000, though, Cronje was banned indefinitely from the sport for being part of a major scandal involving the throwing of test matches and selling of team information to Indian bookmakers. Two years later Cronje died in a plane crash, his reputation still in ruins.
4. Pete Rose
Pete Rose was a legend of the MLB, destined to make the Hall of Fame. Indeed, “Charlie Hustle” remains top of the leader board in terms of number of games played, hits, at-bats and outs. However, Rose’s reputation was severely tarnished when he was accused of betting on games for many years as both a player and a coach with the Cincinnati Reds. He is now ineligible for the sport – and, likely, Cooperstown.
3. Jayson Williams
Jayson Williams was a bona fide NBA star for both the Philadelphia 76ers and the New Jersey Nets, even making the All-Star team on one occasion. A leg injury curtailed the basketballer’s career at the age of 32, but it was his off-court activities that would make him notorious in sporting history. Williams landed in prison in 2010 for charges stemming from his attempted coverup of the accidental slaying of a chauffer in 2002 and a drunk-driving charge in 2010.
2. Mark McGwire
Mark McGwire was a power-hitting specialist like few others, with less at-bats per home-run hits than anyone in baseball, ever. Essentially, though, it was all something of a lie. Much like his contemporaries Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa, McGwire was a serious performance-enhancing drug taker, having copped to ten or so years of steroid use in January 2010. He did dubiously claim, however, that it was for health reasons. Still, the words “yeah, right” spring to mind.
1. Lenny Dykstra
Lenny Dykstra’s misdemeanors make for quite a rap sheet, with “Nails” having been involved in everything from grand theft auto and financial fraud to indecent exposure and hiding possessions related to a bankruptcy filing. The onetime New York Mets outfielder and self-educated financial investor has done time in prison for his various offenses, which have greatly overshadowed his successful baseball career.