It’s easy to forget that many of our sports heroes are all too human, as we often elevate the best athletes in such a way that it should not be all that surprising when they fail to live up to an impossibly lofty standard. We want to believe that our heroes – especially those we grew up rooting for – would never do something to disappoint us, and we certainly want to believe that they would certainly never do something so egregious that they would be permanently banned from the sport they played so well.
The list of athletes who have been issued lifetime bans from competition is surprisingly long, with Pete Rose and Lance Armstrong perhaps the most readily recognizable among them. Both Rose and Armstrong are ostensibly holding out hope for reinstatement one day and perhaps they even believe it is still possible that reinstatement will one day lead to election to their respective sport’s Hall of Fame.
While the prevailing opinion in baseball circles is that Rose will neither be reinstated nor elected to the Hall of Fame, baseball’s “Hit King” can hold out some hope based on the fact that a lifetime ban has not precluded any of the following athletes from enshrinement in each of their respective sport’s Hall of Fame, including three current members of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Some of these bans were unnecessarily harsh or politically motivated, while others were related to drugs and gambling, the latter of which is generally considered the cardinal sin in all sports. Regardless of the reason for the lifetime ban, each one of these athletes has nonetheless earned enshrinement in their respective sport’s Hall of Fame.
11 Alex Karras
Karras was a man of many talents, as the College Football Hall of Famer won the Outland Trophy and earned four Pro Bowl selections during a 13-year NFL career before going on to enjoy a lengthy acting career in which he played many memorable roles, including Mongo in Blazing Saddles and George Papadapolis in Webster. Karras, who many believe deserves a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, also spent some time as a professional wrestler, including a stint as Dick the Bruiser that began shortly after he was suspended by the NFL for gambling.
Karras, who had an ownership stake in the legendary Lindell A.C. Bar, admitted that he had placed bets on NFL games after the league reportedly requested he cut ties with the sports bar after reports came out that it had ties to organized crime and gambling. Commissioner Pete Rozelle suspended Karras indefinitely, though the Detroit Lions lineman was reinstated after missing a single season. Upon his return, Karras was asked to call the pregame coin toss, but, in a mocking refusal, told the official, “I’m sorry, sir, but I’m not permitted to gamble.”
10 Ferguson Jenkins
A three-time All-Star who earned the 1971 Cy Young Award and won more than 20 games in a season seven times, Jenkins was banned from baseball in 1980 when he was found to be in possession of marijuana, hashish and cocaine during a customs search in Toronto. Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn issued the ban soon after the incident, but it was only a few weeks later that the punishment was overturned in arbitration. Jenkins would play the following season and retired from baseball in 1983 with 284 career wins and 3,192 strikeouts. The fact that baseball had once tried to permanently ban Jenkins had little effect on his reputation among Hall of Fame voters, as he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1991 in his third year of eligibility.
9 Mike Tyson
Tyson, who was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2011, had his boxing license revoked following the infamous WBA heavyweight title fight in which Tyson bit Evander Holyfield’s ear in 1997. He was also fined $3 million for the incident and was allowed to apply for reinstatement after one year, though at the time the Nevada State Athletic Commission’s (NSAC) legal adviser noted, "Unless the commission changes its mind, his would be a permanent revocation."
8 Roger Brown
Brown’s ban from the NBA came well before his professional career ever began, as he was linked to Jack Molinas, a notorious gambler who was at the center of one of the worst point-shaving scandals in the history of NCAA basketball. Brown was not charged and there was no evidence of any wrongdoing on his part, but he was nonetheless kicked out of Dayton University and banned from ever playing in the NBA.
7 Hans Nusslein
6 Paul Hornung
5 Connie Hawkins
Hawkins was caught up in the same NCAA point-shaving scandal as Roger Brown, and, like Brown, was banned from the NBA and dismissed from his college team despite there being no evidence of any wrongdoing. Hawkins, who had played for Iowa University, had no knowledge of the scandal but was accused of introducing several of the players involved to the gambler who arranged the fixed-game scandal.
4 Willie Mays
3 Mickey Mantle
2 Jim Thorpe
1 Muhammad Ali
When the United States refused to recognize Muhammad Ali as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, he was convicted of draft evasion and forced to enter a lengthy legal battle via the appeals process. As a result of the conviction, Ali was also banned from boxing indefinitely in 1967, a ban which ultimately lasted for over three years while he asserted his religious objection to fighting in the war. Ali was also stripped of all of his titles as a result of the ban and it was not until 1970 that he was able to enter the ring again, the result of political intervention and a federal court ruling in his favor. Ali’s case reached the Supreme Court and his conviction was ultimately overturned, but the ban robbed boxing of its greatest fighter for more than three years during the prime of his career.
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