The role of the media in present day sports has increased to the point where we know what happens at any moment to the stars of our favorite sports. This in turn, has caused more controversies to occur in this modern era of sports. Despite the significance of the 1919 Black Sox scandal, George Brett’s pine tar incident, the “Malice at the Palace”, the head hunting of the Oakland Raider’s Jack Tatum and many other controversial events, many of the controversies spawned by some of today’s players can’t be beat.
Certainly, the steroid scandal in baseball has caused more than its fair share of controversy, but the dog fighting ring led by Michael Vick, spying of Bill Belichick, bullying of Richie Incognito and battery by Ray Rice have also caused quite a stir in the sport of football. Lance Armstrong deceived the public and Mike Tyson bit off more than Evander Holyfield’s ear, but Tonya Harding didn’t even give her competitor a chance to compete. Many of these sports figures are known more for the controversy they have helped create than the impact they have had on any season or their sport. Richard Sherman might have the biggest mouth in sports, but his mouth pales in comparison to what the following individuals have done to taint their sport,
The following 15 players have been the most controversial in the history of sports. Although a case can be made for many others, these athletes happen to have done heinous deeds in the modern era where mass media has made more of an impact in sports. The Honorable Mention List is quite strong, but these leaders have had more of an impact on our society as a whole, as opposed to the effect they have had on their particular sports.
15. Tonya Harding
In the the late 1980s to early 1990s, Tonya Harding was one of the best women’s figure skaters in the United States. After that time Harding was starting to lose ground to her main rival, Nancy Kerrigan, when she conspired to take things into her own hands by attacking Kerrigan. The plan was to break Kerrigan’s leg in order to force her out of the 1994 U.S. Championships in order to make it easier for Harding to win the event and secure a spot on the 1994 U.S. Olympic team. Harding’s ex-husband and bodyguard hired a man to attack Kerrigan to injure her leg. The attacker was able to bruise her thigh, forcing her to withdraw from the U.S. Championships, but Kerrigan went on to make the Olympic team and earn a silver medal in the process. Harding had her U.S. Championship title taken away and was shamed for life after an 8th place finish in the Olympic Games.
14. Richie Incognito
The controversy surrounding Richie Incognito had more to do with what is acceptable as locker room behavior than what the victim, Jonathan Martin, actually had to go through. The bullying of Martin might have been captured with phone messages, locker room behavior and flamed by Incognito’s poor use of words, but tolerance and racism were less of the controversy once many black players came to Incognito’s defense. The Oakland Raiders of the 70s and 80s were notorious for riding teammates and questioning a player’s manhood, but the incident with Incognito and the Miami Dolphins shed new light into the locker room culture that has become more public today. Suspended for the entire 2014 season, Incognito took the wrath of the NFL for the Miami Dolphins and seemingly the rest of the league. A Pro Bowler in 2012, Incognito will forever be remembered more for the bullying incident and less for any of his contributions as a player.
13. Kobe Bryant
Many basketball fans adore Kobe Bryant for the dedication he has to the NBA game. It, in a sense, is what has helped make him such a controversial figure. His 2003 sexual assault case that made headlines might have been dropped the following year, but that is only part of what makes Bryant so controversial. Bryant has always had no problem speaking his mind and is not the easiest player to get along with. His feud with Shaquille O’Neal ended the Lakers dynasty of the early 2000s. He has also chased many other star players out of L.A., with Dwight Howard departing after playing only one year. Pau Gasol had his difficulties playing with Kobe and high profile stars Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge have elected to avoid playing in L.A., where they happen to own homes. Coaches have lost their jobs, players have failed to enjoy playing in LA and yet Kobe Bryant continues to average over $24 million in salary while only playing in 35 games in 2014.
12. Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder
Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder was a regular commentator for CBS Sports and The NFL Today. The colorful prognosticator was often put in situations where he was asked to pick the outcome of NFL games and indirectly make a clear statement about which side of the Las Vegas established point spread he happened to be on. He was a controversial figure who once punched a coworker, Brent Musburger, in the face at a bar and tipped the scales with his comments about black athletes to a television reporter. Snyder famously proposed that blacks were inherently better athletes due to their selective breeding during the times of slavery. His comments came at a time when the number of black athletes in the major sports had risen to an all-time high and more than a few people were uncomfortable with the change. His unsupported opinionated comments would be remembered for many years as racist remarks that should have never been said.
11. Michael Vick
Michael Vick came into the league with the speed of a wide receiver and the arm of a pitcher who could hit triple digits on a radar gun. Vick was considered the premier dual-threat quarterback in the league, proving his worth in his second year by passing for 2,936 yards and rushing for 777 yards as well. Vick had numerous bumps in the road leading up to his major conviction of running a dog fighting ring in 2007. From 2004 to 2007, there was at least one controversy that involved Vick’s name, but the incident in 2007 really brought controversy to his name. Running the “Bad Newz Kennels” might have been part of an addiction to gambling for Vick, but the public outcry for overlooking the brutality of dog fighting is what really did Vick in. Vick spent two seasons away from football and faced financial ruin and jail time off the field. Despite appearing to learn from his transgressions, Vick will forever be known as a controversial figure who shed light on a brutal activity.
10. Alex Rodriguez
Alex Rodriguez was a one of a kind talent when he broke into the big leagues. He could hit for average, had good speed and power, and was a decent fielder as well. What made Rodriguez controversial was not only his denial of using performance enhancing drugs, but his life full of deceit as well. A-Rod earned the nickname, “A-Fraud”, given to him by teammates and Yankees clubhouse attendants who were not too keen of his diva clubhouse behavior. He even drew criticism from teammates for his inability to perform in postseason play. He also drew controversy from fans and MLB for opting out of his Yankee contract during Game 4 of a Red Sox title clinching victory over the Colorado Rockies. He was also accused of many acts of infidelity that arose after his divorce from his wife and mother of his two children in 2008. The 162-game suspension for using performance enhancing drugs was controversial in itself, but his acts of denial are what really land him on this list.
9. Mike Tyson
It is hard to determine whether the his behavior in the ring or out of the ring contributed more to Mike Tyson being a controversial figure. Outside the ring, Tyson spent three years in prison after being convicted of rape in a 1991 incident involving Desiree Washington, the reigning Miss Black Rhode Island. This event came shortly after one of the most shocking upsets of the Tyson era, when Buster Douglass, a 42-1 longshot, defeated Tyson in February of 1990. Following his stint in prison, Tyson returned to the ring to eventually meet up with Evander Holyfield for their first match in 1996. There were allegations of headbutts by Holyfield in Tyson’s loss, which carried over to the rematch where Tyson bit off part of Holyfield’s ear. Holyfield won both fights, with the second victory by a disqualification that caused mayhem outside the ring. Tyson’s character, immaturity, and poor decision making, were instrumental parts of all his controversial events.
8. Ray Rice
Although spousal abuse and battery have seemingly become all too common off the field of play in the NFL, the Ray Rice incident struck a chord with the public looking for less acceptance and more change. The case of Ray Rice became less about the abuse to his wife that was clearly evident on surveillance tapes and more about the lack of severity in the punishment handed down by the league. For the incident, Rice initially received a two-game suspension by the league, causing public outcry for a punishment that was deemed to be too soft. The Ravens did their part by terminating Rice’s contract, and the league was forced to suspend him indefinitely to appease the overwhelming majority of displeased fans. The Rice case has led the NFL and public to take a tougher stance against domestic violence in the NFL and our society as a whole.
7. Bill Belichick
Success breeds contempt, and there is plenty of contempt and jealousy that makes many in the NFL community want to hate Bill Belichick. Belichick remains one of the most controversial figures in the NFL with his practices shrouded in secrecy and his less than informative press conferences. Nicknamed by detractors, Bill “BeliCheat”, Belichick has been caught cheating and will do whatever it takes to gain an advantage by abusing loosely interpreted rules. In what was dubbed, “Spygate”, Belichick was caught using an assistant to videotape the New York Jets defensive signals. He was fined $500,000 by the league while also drawing a $250,000 fine for the Patriots and the loss of their 2008 first round draft pick. Recently, the Patriots were involved in the “Deflategate” controversy with improperly inflated footballs that many considered Belichick to be a part of. Unfair or not, he has developed a reputation for attracting controversy by consistently bending the rules.
6. Pete Rose
Pete Rose was an incredible baseball player who could do just about anything on a baseball diamond. He was a tough hard-nosed player who could always be counted on to deliver in the clutch. The switch hitter finished his career with a .303 average and 4,256 hits, but his ban from baseball has prevented him from landing a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Rose was found to have placed bets on baseball games, while still a player between 1984 and 1986. He eventually admitted to betting on (not against) his own team (The Reds). As the years go by, the public has become more sympathetic to Rose’s cause, but he remains one of the biggest examples of how gambling has the potential to destroy sports. Many people still believe his success as a player deserve a place in the history of the sport. When it comes time to nominate players for Hall of Fame eligibility each year, controversy swirls once again as his name is inevitably brought up in conversation by being the best player who has no chance of getting in.
5. Donald Sterling
Any sports controversy that forces an owner of a professional sports team to sell his franchise has to be an unprecedented controversy. When Donald Sterling made racist comments to his female acquaintance J. Stiviano during a phone conversation that was released by TMZ, the fallout threatened to derail the 2014 NBA playoffs and create a rift between owners and players in the league. The league’s commissioner, Adam Silver, acted promptly to punish Sterling by fining him a maximum fine of $2.5 million, while also banishing him from the league and attending Clipper games for life.
The insensitive remarks by Sterling were only part of the controversy as many in the NBA community, including some prominent black players, questioned whether his privacy was being invaded in the first place. As a result, the Sterlings were forced to sell the Clippers while also agreeing not to pursue any legal action against the league. At one point, this controversy was so great that players were willing to boycott the playoffs to see justice done.
4. Ben Johnson
The incredible sprinting battles between Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson were legendary in the 1980s, with both men capturing the public’s fancy with their duel to be the world’s fastest man. Johnson broke through with a victory over Lewis in 1985 and followed that up by winning the gold medal in both the World Championships at Rome in 1987 and the Seoul 1988 Olympic Games. Johnson set the world record for the 100 meter dash at both events, but failed a drug test following his unheard of 9.79 second performance at the 1988 Olympic Games. What became a source of pride for so many Canadians eventually turned into an investigation that tainted the sport of track and field. Carl Lewis managed to come out of it relatively unscathed, but Ben Johnson’s name and legacy will forever be remembered for the cheating during this period and this dark moment in the sport.
3. Lance Armstrong
There are two major reasons Lance Armstrong’s controversy is near the top of this list. Armstrong was one of the most successful American cyclists of all time whose podium appearances surprised many Europeans and Americans as well. He also happened to be a cancer survivor who used his success at battling cancer to fund the Live Strong Foundation and solidify his position of being living proof that people could overcome the disease. His legacy is as tainted as his blood was found to be and his behavior after getting caught only rubs more salt in his wounds.
The foundation lives on and his inspiration has still had a profound affect on thousands of people inflicted with cancer, but his accomplishments will forever be questioned and undeserved. He deceived an adoring public who trusted his courage, commitment, and strength, bringing shame to a country that had finally achieved a measure of success in a European dominated sport.
2. Jerry Sandusky
The sick and tragic molestation charges brought against Jerry Sandusky will forever be a reminder that many of our sports heroes are not immune to the sickness and improper conduct that inflicts so many people outside of sports. Sandusky used his position and success as an assistant coach at a major university, Penn State, to gain trust in the people and community around him. He then used his status and this bond to feed his sickness by molesting under privileged children who he knew had very little voice. After getting caught and then convicted, Sandusky brought shame to the university and its long-time head coach, Joe Paterno, whose legacy as a head coach at Penn State will never be the same. The effect the controversy had on other coaches, the university, alumni, and student body was enormous, implicating almost all who had ties to the football program and Penn State.
1. Barry Bonds
Barry Bonds takes the top spot on this list due to the fact that the controversy that surrounds him has affected so many other players to date. To this day, Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies are shrouded in controversy mostly due to his role as a leader in the steroid scandal as well as for his tainted accomplishments. Bonds hit 762 home runs in his career and holds the record for 73 homers in a season (2001), but has started to become better known for his ties to BALCO and being the poster child for one of baseball’s ugliest scandals ever, the steroids scandal. Bonds forever changed baseball and its reliance on stats with his power numbers and success that came from using performance enhancing drugs. Thanks to his success using drugs, he has affected the legitimacy of the sport and the contributions of so many of its players. This ripple effect of controversy, makes Bonds the top dog of this list.
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