They say you should never meet your heroes because that way you won’t be disappointed. There are thousands of professional athletes performing at the highest levels of competition. Generally speaking they are all very well compensated and enjoy the fringe benefits that accompany fame and being at the very top of their profession. We hold these athletes up and admire them for their talent, forgetting sometimes that underneath the great rusher, passer, shooter is a person who has to confront the same issues as the rest of us.
We see glimpses of their personalities during games when adversity strikes. Do they explode in anger, curse and break bats? How do they treat opposing players and officials when things don’t go their way?
We are reminded by announcers that even professionals make mistakes when a superstar baseball player drops a lazy fly ball or an all-star basketball player misses a couple of free throws. The analyst will remind us all that even the pros make mistakes, but these are fleeting and we soon go back to hero-worshiping.
As much as we may like to think that a professional athlete has the dream life, they are still vulnerable to the problems we believe are reserved for ordinary people. Having rare physical talents does not insulate you from making poor financial decisions, placing your trust in the wrong person or struggling with addiction. Great athletes who have praised reaped upon them may still have tremendous insecurity and mental health problems or be predisposed to alcoholism.
Many athletes are unable to cope with the pressure and invasion of privacy that comes with super-stardom to which their is no playbook to help guide them.
Today the rules on what is private and public have been smeared and an athlete’s personal life appears to be fair game for discussion. The all access desire of fans and media may uncover some warts and blemishes that many athletes possess. We will constantly cheer on our favorite athletes, but we should never forget that they are not perfect and make mistakes like the rest of us.
The following list excludes drug offenses and sticks to athletes who have been involved with felony crimes. Here are the top ten athletes who are or were also criminals.
10. Sonny Liston
The man that Muhammad Ali knocked out to capture the world heavyweight title was feared in and out of the boxing ring. Liston had 19 arrests to his credit and served separate stretches of time in prison for armed robbery and assaulting a police officer. Liston was lucky in the sense that it was while serving time in the Missouri State Penitentiary that the prison’s athletic director (a priest) encouraged Liston to try boxing. Liston’s obvious sign of talent in the ring and an endorsement from the priest helped Liston gain early parole and allow him to box professionally.
9. Plaxico Burress
Prior to his run in with the law, Plaxico Burress was a talented receiver in the NFL, known for making big catches and his unique name. He even caught the winning touchdown pass in Super Bowl XLII.
After a reckless and comical event in a New York nightclub, Burress added another reason for his notoriety. Burress accidently shot himself with his own gun. He claimed the gun was slipping down his pants and when he reached for it he must have grabbed the trigger by mistake. Burress survived the gunshot and luckily no one else was hurt by his irresponsibility. The handgun was not properly licensed in New York and Burress plead guilty to the charges arsing from the incident. He served two years in prison for his lapse in judgement.
8. Jayson Williams
Williams was a solid front court basketball player for the New Jersey Nets earning a reputation as a fierce defender and rebounder. He has been involved in multiple incidents that have led to criminal investigations, but it was the tragic death of his limousine driver that landed Williams in jail. The driver was killed under mysterious circumstances while taking a tour of Williams’s home with allegations stating that Williams accidentally shot him while playing with a shotgun. Williams eventually plead guilty to aggravated assault and was convicted of four counts of trying to cover up the shooting.
7. Clifford Etienne
Clifford Etienne’s athletic gifts are inextricably linked to his criminality like few other athletes. While serving a 40-year prison sentence in Louisana for armed robbery, he began boxing. While in prison he won the state prison boxing championship and turned professional upon being released after only 10 years for good behavior. Etienne rose to prominence in the heavyweight division, eventually earning a match against Mike Tyson. The boxer known as, “The Black Rhino” is currently serving a 105-year prison sentence for multiple crimes including kidnapping, armed robbery and attempting to shoot two police officers.
6. Mike Danton
Mike Danton was a promising hockey player for the New Jersey Devils and St. Louis Blues at the turn of the century. He was a feisty energy player, the type that every team covets. His career unraveled when he was arrested, charged and eventually spent time in prison for conspiracy to commit murder. It is unclear who Danton’s intended target was, as he now claims it was his estranged father, but it was originally believed to be Danton’s agent, David Frost. It is clear that Danton was a very troubled young man and had a promising NHL career interrupted.
5. Michael Vick
Vick was a first overall NFL draft pick, destined for super-stardom. He had incredible athletic gifts that had not been seen in one quarterback. Vick could run and dodge like a running back and had an arm that could throw the length of the field. He was seen as a can’t miss prospect. That promise was halted when Vick was implicated in an interstate dog fighting conspiracy. It was on property owned by Vick that facilitated the dog fighting. Vick has managed to resurrect his career after serving a two-year prison sentence and he has even made strides to rehabilitate his tarnished reputation. He is one of the few comeback stories on this list.
4. Rae Carruth
Rae Carruth makes this list because of the especially despicable nature of his crimes. While plying his trade as an NFL wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers, Carruth was found guilty of conspiring to murder a woman he was dating who also happened to be pregnant with his child. The mother did not survive her gun shot wounds, but fortunately the baby was saved through emergency surgery. Carruth was later found hiding in the truck of a car. It is a long fall from grace from an NFL all-rookie team member to convicted felon.
3. Tonya Harding
Who could forget the image of American Olympic figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, clutching her knee in tears after she was brutally attacked. The investigation into the attack uncovered a conspiracy between Harding, her ex-husband and bodyguard. They arranged to have Kerrigan’s leg targeted so she would be unable to compete against Harding, her main American rival at the time. The media were whipped into a frenzy from the event and sorted details of the conspiracy. Luckily Kerrigan was not seriously hurt and Harding was able to avoid jail time through a plea bargain, but her reputation as a cutthroat competitor will haunt her forever.
2. Mike Tyson
Iron Mike was feared like no other boxer in history. He would enter the arena with a black robe and hoodie and then dispatch his opponents in record time. Mike has had a colorful career that is well documented, through his relationship with the notorious Don King, some famous interviews where he quickly loses his temper with journalists and of course, the ear-biting incident with Evander Holyfield. Almost as much as his boxing exploits Tyson is known for his rape conviction for which he served three years in prison. Tyson is still a public figure today appearing regularly on television and in movies. It seems as though Iron Mike has put the iron bars behind him.
1. O.J. Simpson
The Juice as he was nicknamed was a hall of fame running back for the Buffalo Bills. He was one of the most dynamic offensive players of his day, setting rushing records, earning pro bowl selections and even MVP honors. His athletic achievement, good looks and inviting personality made him a star off of the gridiron as he was a successful spokesman for numerous companies, starring in some memorable television commercials. He even parlayed his commercial success with acting roles in feature films. For all of his many achievements O.J. will always be thought of as the defendant in the murder trial of the 90’s. He was accused and acquitted of murdering his estranged wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ronald Goldman. The media and public were enthralled with the trial and it dominated the headlines. Some solace was found for those that believed Simpson was guilty of the murders when Simpson was sent to prison in 2008 for a robbery and kidnapping in Las Vegas.
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