The first televised sporting event was a college baseball game in 1939. Since then, athletes on television have become a part of the fabric of American life. As they became household names it was commonplace to see them show up on game shows, late night talk shows, and even network sitcoms. As TV evolved and more and more networks emerged, it was only natural for sports and entertainment to cross over even more.
If a sports star was appearing on a show, everyone had better believe the network was promoting it, and you better believe I was tuning in. The '90s in particular were a hotbed for athletes popping up in TV shows. Heck, some of us grew up with a cartoon that starred Wayne Gretzky, Bo Jackson, and Michael Jordan.
These days, you could probably find an athlete cameo on just about every sitcom currently airing. The HBO show ‘Ballers,’ might as well just be called ‘Athlete Cameos: The Series.’ Any pro worth their salt has at least two national commercials running. It’s almost as if you aren’t a huge sports star UNLESS you get a few side acting gigs. No one wants to stay in their lane, and with the money that’s probably being thrown their way, who could blame em?
That’s the catch though, these are men and women who trained their entire lives to play a game, not act. For every classic athlete cameo, you could probably count five that were so awkward they deserve to be turned into internet memes.
Without further delay, here are 10 athlete cameos that stunk, and 5 that were pure gold.
15 Stunk: Lebron James And Warren Sapp (The Simpsons)
Every time a celebrity has voiced themselves on the Simpsons, you can just tell they have never stepped foot in a recording booth. When ‘The Simpsons’ gets athletes to cameo, they tend to do it in bunches. That’s what happened in a particular episode which featured Lebron, Yao Ming, Michell Kwan, Warren Sapp, and Tom Brady. In the episode, Homer basically goes viral for a celebratory dance he does at a fair.
This somehow leads to the previous list of athletes seeking Homer out to create dance routines for them. Lebron sounds particularly stiff when asking Homer how he can get the fans fired up after a dunk. This leads to Homer starting a “showboating academy.” Warren Sapp speaks six words, and it sounds like he can’t even read. It’s a shame because the other three manage to spit out some funny lines that were written for them. Lebron and Sapp sound so unnatural it’s just painfully noticeable.
14 Stunk: Barry Bonds (Beverly Hills 90210)
Without even knowing the details, just let the idea of this cameo simmer in your brain. What the heck was Barry Bonds doing on ‘Beverly Hills 90210’ in the first place? I’ll tell you what he was doing, he was… acting? I think the craziest part of this cameo is that Bonds wasn’t playing himself, but rather a character named “Barry Larson,” who was apparently also a baseball player. Maybe Barry’s entire baseball career to that point was just him method acting for this big role.
Barry and his dad – played by another actor, I guess Bobby Bonds wasn’t available – show up to a golf outing and talk some smack to Ian Ziering’s character Steve and his father. By athlete standards, Barry Bonds isn’t the worst actor in the world, but it’s just a really bizarre minute of film in retrospect.
13 Pure Gold: Shaquille O'Neal (Curb Your Enthusiasm)
Whether you think he has off-court talent or not, Shaq’s acting gigs are always memorable, and his guest role on ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ is far and away my most memorable. In the aptly titled episode, “Shaq,” Larry scores court-side seats to see the Lakers, a team he hates. While stretching his legs, he manages to trip Shaq and injures him in the process. In classic ‘Curb’ fashion, everyone just assumes Larry did it with malicious intent because, well that’s just where the conflict comes from on this show - It’s Larry against the world.
In this episode, it’s Larry vs. Shaq, the Laker organization, and their fans. After getting booed out of the Staples Center, Larry finds out Shaq is a big ‘Seinfeld’ fan and brings the Diesel every episode of the show on tape. This is Shaq in his element, bouncing comedic jabs off a comedy legend. They have really great chemistry. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, Shaq’s favorite ‘Seinfeld’ episode is 'The Contest.'
12 Stunk: Alex Rodriguez (Shark Tank)
Ok, this one is admittedly a stretch. I just wanted to throw a few jabs at ARod. Can you really “cameo” on a reality show? Here’s my beef with Alex Rodriguez being a shark… These angel investors have put in years and years building and investing in businesses, and I’m supposed to hold ARod on the same level? Don’t get me wrong, the man obviously has money, and has had success investing throughout his career, but the man also cheated on multiple accounts.
I’m not sure I’d feel all that comfortable with him as a business partner. To date, his only investment has been with the Gronkowski Brothers for an ice shaker bottle. It’s still early in the game for ARod’s post-baseball ventures, so ARod Corp might become one of the biggest names in the game... but why is this dude on ‘Shark Tank?” Come on.
11 Stunk: Troy Aikman (Coach)
One episode of "Coach" that sticks out was the season six episode that Troy Aikman cameoed on. Coach and his wife are struggling to have a child and go on the search for a donor. Coach lays out all the attributes he wants out of a potential donor, somehow lands on Troy Aikman, then everything goes off the rails. There’s a point where they openly talk about Troy Aikman’s "juices", then Coach actually calls Aikman’s mom to ask for Troy’s number.
All of a sudden in the next segment Aikman is at Coach’s house agreeing to give Coach and his wife a “donation.” Coach’s wife turns the offer down in the end, because even she thinks it was weird. Aikman wasn’t exactly an Emmy winner on this show. This was right after his second Super Bowl, so he was still a little stiff (no pun intended) in front of the camera.
10 Pure Gold: Wade Boggs (It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia)
Arguably their funniest sports related episode ever was “The Gang Beats Boggs.” The old story goes that Wade Boggs once drank up to 70 cold ones on a cross country flight, and the entire premise of the episode is… well, each member of the Gang wants to beat that record. There’s a funny through-line where Charlie thinks Wade Boggs passed away, so he dedicates all his drinks to his memory.
As Charlie continues to pound them, “the ghost” of Wade Boggs appears in the seat next to him. The hallucination, played by Boggs himself, encourages Charlie to continue drinking. Inspired by the “late” Boggs, Charlie goes on to drink 71 beers, breaking Boggs’ disputed record. This was a great premise for an episode and a golden cameo by Wade Boggs.
9 Stunk: Chris Bosh (Entourage)
Despite an illustrious career that will probably see him enter the Hall of Fame, it can be argued Chris Bosh was actually underrated on the court. Off the court, his acting “skills” should be rated NSFA… not safe for anything, really. I won’t even knock Bosh on his wooden dialogue, or general obvious discomfort in the scene, it’s the premise of the scene that bothers me most.
Towards the end of the show’s run, it basically became a non-stop commercial for a brand that the character Turtle was spearheading. Chris Bosh’s scene is essentially that – a commercial right in the middle of an episode. Not only that, it always bugged me that every famous person on Earth knew Turtle by name. The dude drove around a guy who was in a few movies, yet rubbed elbows with every celebrity in LA. At least the cameo is a nice time capsule to remember his dread-lock days.
8 Stunk: Michael Phelps (Saturday Night Live)
Athletes hosting SNL is nothing new. It shouldn’t be a shock that most of them can’t act, but there’s always hope that the sketch writers will put them in a funny situation to salvage the episode. This was a tough list to whittle down, but I chose to single out a true “fish out of water” – Michael Phelps. Take a guy who has spent basically every day of his life in a pool, give him 6 days to prepare and then have him host a live comedy show… what could go wrong?
Just as the show was returning from commercial into a sketch parodying his famous high caloric diet, Phelps cleared his throat of a disgusting phlegm ball. It was embarrassing. The crowd laughed, you could tell he didn’t realize they were live again, and it ended up being the “highlight” of the episode. The slimy cough has since been edited out of re-runs.
7 Pure Gold: Keith Hernandez (Seinfeld)
Keeping with the ‘Seinfeld’ theme, this was another show chock full of sports cameos. Danny Tartabull cut a donut with a fork and knife. A young Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams watched George Costanza park a few balls at Yankee Stadium. Kramer made Paul O’Neill promise he’d hit 3 homers in a game for a sick child. While all of those athlete cameos were great, there were few guest stars more memorable than former Met, Keith Hernandez.
If you’re a former MVP, borderline Hall of Fame baseball player from one of the most popular World Championship teams in baseball history and you’re best known for being on a few episodes of a TV show, it’s safe to say you had one of the greatest cameos of all time. In one of the all time great parodies Kramer and Newman accuse Hernandez on spitting on them after a game at Shea Stadium. Jerry theorizes that there was in fact a “second spitter,” in a scene that spoofs the film, ‘JFK’ beat for beat.
6 Stunk: Ken Griffey Jr. (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air)
This one was actually pretty similar to the Bonds cameo, except Griffey played himself. Will and Carlton are running a baseball toss booth at a carnival when Ken Griffey Jr. walks by. Carlton, unaware of the legend standing before him (the live audience didn’t seem to know him either judging by the crowd reaction) asks Griffey if he’d like to give the game a shot. Griffey tosses and misses while Will explains to his cousin Hillary how much money Griffey makes. There’s a humorous little exchange in which she tries to gold-dig, and then a really stiff joke that doesn’t land at all between Will and Griffey before the scene ends.
It’s funny to watch this 20+ years later. Griffey is one of the most natural baseball players of all time, and one of the most unnatural actors. Not even bouncing lines with Will Smith saved him. You would think being around one of the most charismatic actors of all time would rub off on ya, but not in Griffey’s case.
5 Stunk: Clayton Kershaw (New Girl)
Clayton Kershaw might already be one of the ten greatest pitchers ever, yet he sticks out like a sore thumb in this clip from the Fox show, ‘New Girl.’ In Kershaw’s cameo, he comes across as a sleazeball who basically tells Zooey’s character Jess he loves her without even really seeing her. The entire exchange is poorly timed and rushed. The joke is supposed to be in the fact she completely blows him off, which I guess is “cute” enough, but poor acting ruins the bit.
My “favourite” part about the cameo is he has to explain exactly who he is and how she might know him, which is a wink to the audience because Major League Baseball does an awful job promoting their stars. Without him telling her he’s a Los Angeles Dodger, half the viewing audience would have zero clue who he was. It just ends up making the scene completely unnatural, which brings the episode to a screeching halt.
4 Pure Gold: Detlaf Schrempf (Parks And Recreation)
Parks and Recreation took place in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana, so I always got a kick out of the athlete cameos they pulled. Andrew Luck and Reggie Wayne showed up in an episode, but it was former NBA star Detlaf Schrempf’s cameos that always stuck out for me just for the sheer obscurity. Schrempf appeared in three episodes, but one scene in particular landed him on the list because it’s almost meta with this particular list.
I complained in the Hunter Pence passage earlier about shows finding the need to basically tell the audience a player’s entire bio in episode dialogue. In Schrempf’s first scene on the show, Aziz Ansari’s character is chauffeuring him to a telethon when he does exactly that – starts listing Schrempf’s career accolades. In what I think is a brilliant bit of writing from a brilliant show, Schrempf calls him out for reciting his Wikipedia page. That self-awareness paired with the visual of the 6’10” Schrempf packed into the backseat of a tiny sedan makes for a great scene.
3 Stunk: Hunter Pence (Fuller House)
Fuller House obviously takes place in San Francisco and Pence is a goofball star of the local baseball team, so the cameo makes perfect sense. The way it’s presented however is just so forced and awkward. The young kid on the show gives the audience a quick exposition rundown about some of Pence’s career accolades before Hunter shows up to the house in a Giants jacket, ya know just so you know THAT’S the guy he was talking about. Personal nitpicks aside, the clip is incredibly corny.
The second Pence enters and awkwardly kisses Stephanie Tanner, he’s whisked in by everyone in the house for a selfie, because that’s what kids do! Kimmy Gibler confuses his name for “underpants,” there’s laugh tracks galore. It’s for kids, I get it, but man, this might take the cake as the corniest cameo I’ve ever seen.
2 Stunk: Kendall Gill (MTV Cribs)
I’m going for a deep pull with this one. Remember ‘Cribs?’ There were tons of athletes, actors and musicians flaunting their riches while the audience watched on like peasants. But Kendall Gill’s had to be the most bizarre I ever watched. I fear this episode may have been scrubbed from the internet, because I can’t even find so much as a discussion on it. I feel like I’m making this all up and it was just a fever dream I had.
The then Nets star appeared almost out of it. He had a weird van, called his house something along the lines of “Kendall’s Boy’s Place” and literally wrestled a torso punching bag stand while the cameraman awkwardly stood by. That’s only the half of it. I’m really only putting this on the list because I want someone else to acknowledge they actually saw it. I even remember the episode it was on. Gill’s segment was sandwiched between Chris Pontius (who lived in a truck) and skateboarding legend Bob Burnquist (who lived on a skateboarding paradise).
1 Pure Gold: Springfield Power Plant Softball Team (The Simpsons)
Ok, so not every athlete cameo on ‘The Simpsons’ stinks. “Homer at the Bat” is the single greatest baseball themed episode of television ever made, bar none. For those who live under a rock, the premise of the episode revolved around Mr. Burns hiring a bunch of early 90s MLB stars to play for his nuclear plant’s softball team so he could win a bet against a crosstown rival. While Homer, Lenny, Carl and the other plant employees began on the team, they were quickly replaced with Ken Griffey Jr, Roger Clemens, Wade Boggs, Don Mattingly, Steve Sax, Jose Conseco, Ozzie Smith, Darryl Strawberry and Mike Scioscia.
Along the way each player has a hilarious setback that I won’t spoil, and everything comes down to Homer at the plate in the championship game. The episode featured all the baseball stars voicing themselves. If you somehow live under a rock and haven’t seen this episode, seek it out immediately.