There’s an old saying that “we build our heroes up just to tear them down.” Some may argue about that but there is no denying the fact that far too many heroes in sports end up with names that are tarnished. In many cases, it comes up after someone retires. For example, O.J. Simpson is arguably the biggest fall from grace in sports history but his murder trial occurred long after his playing days. And sometimes what seems to be the end is merely a road bump. One would think Michael Vick’s career would be finished after his imprisonment for running a dog fighting ring but he was welcomed back to the NFL and even leading the Eagles to the playoffs. Ray Lewis was cited for his part in a fatal brawl and went on to retire a Super Bowl champion.
But some folks are not as lucky. Or, if you want to be frank, they get exactly the treatment they deserve for their crimes. And yes, that’s what many of these are, true crimes that shatter laws and even ruin lives besides their own. These are men (and occasionally women) who have trashed their reputations with moments and decisions that wreck all they’ve ever worked for. They have disgraced championships and embarrassed sponsors and families alike. And they’ve endured fans turning on them in droves and deservedly so. It’s a tragic thing, to see so many promising and even great careers end, athletes who should be enshrined in the Hall of Fame instead forever blocked by their problems. Yet in so many cases, they have only themselves to blame for the reasons for their falls and the scandals that cut such good careers short.
Here are 20 cases of athletes who had so much at their feet but basically threw it all away and had their careers end in disgrace. Note it is just athletes so don’t expect to see Joe Paterno or other coaches on it. If nothing else, marvel at how easy it is for some people to let glory and egos blind them until it was too late.
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20 Manny Ramirez
He’s attempting a comeback which appears rather unlikely and only shows how far this man fell. A 12-time All-Star who won two World Series with the Red Sox, Ramirez was a fantastic batting champion and well-regarded player in his own right. So that made it all the more appalling for his many fans when in 2011, he admitted to having used steroids for several years, even after a suspension for it a few years earlier.
Rather than face the 100-day suspension MLB handed down, Manny opted to just retire, a career that should have been hailed now seen as marred by his admission and throwing all his past achievements in a new light. He’s trying to make his way back to the majors but the combination of his age and the stigma of his past is now hurting him and another case of a Hall of Fame style career unlikely to make it to that Hall.
19 Ray Rice
As far as he’s concerned, his career isn’t over. As far as everyone else, it is, as apparently not even the lowest-rung NFL team is interested in signing Rice. It seems hard to believe for a man with such great rushing totals and a Super Bowl champion. But when you’re caught on video dragging your unconscious wife out of an elevator, it’s only natural no one wants to touch you with a ten foot pole. Rice was indicted despite the fact he married the victim and was suspended amid the massive public uproar. He is still trying, pushing videos to various teams in hopes of getting them to sign him on but it appears his baggage is too much and so a great career basically ends as badly as you can imagine.
18 Richard Seigler
Drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers, he was part of their Super Bowl winning team in 2005 and looked to be set for more years as part of that team. But in 2007, he was arrested as part of a wide-range prostitution ring sting in Las Vegas and admitted to having given a ride to some of the women involved in return for sexual favors. He was released from the team, spent time in the CFL and is now currently a coach on the Portland State Vikings. While he wasn’t as in deep in the ring as others, he still ranks as another sad case of a young athlete throwing it all away before it truly began.
17 Barry Bonds
To many, he is the face (and body) of the steroid era in baseball. Yes, he holds the record for most home runs and powered the Giants to some successful years but his part in the BALCO scandal would haunt him through to the end of his playing days. He was indicted for perjury in a grand jury investigation, those charged dropped but convicted of obstruction of justice. Despite all his success, it’s likely that stigma will prevent Bonds from ever entering the Hall of Fame and haunt his legacy for years to come.
16 Rick Kuhn
A promising basketball star for Boston College, Kuhn was soon pulled into the idea of working with some mobsters to shave points during BC games in the 1978-79 season. At first, it was just a bit here and there but as their success grew, so did the greed of those involved and they began working on openly fixing games for bigger paydays. That got the attention of officials and soon Kuhn was indicted with the rest of the conspirators and sent to jail. Truly a case of a kid over his head and paid the full price to cut what could have been a good career short while giving his entire school a black eye.
15 Danny Almonte
In 2001, Almonte was hailed by many as a future big-league star in the making. With a fastball that approached 75 MPH and an imposing frame, he led his Bronx team to the Little League World Series, throwing a perfect game and leading them to the title. It was hailed as a fantastic moment, the team honored at Yankee Stadium and pro scouts ready to pounce as soon as Almonte was old enough. As it turned out, they didn’t need to wait long.
Just weeks after the win, it was confirmed that Almonte was two years older than he claimed to be, making him ineligible for the team. While Danny himself knew nothing of his true age, it was still against the rules and the team were forced to forfeit the championship. The stigma would follow Danny around as he never recovered, soon falling out of play and is currently the assistant coach of a New York high school. It may not have been his fault but still a bright career snuffed out young due to a decision that jarred all Little League fans.
14 Mike Tyson
Mike Tyson's career and personal life was already on a downward spiral before his last fight in 2005 against Kevin McBride. During his fight with McBride, Tyson forfeited the fight, choosing not to come out for the seventh round. From a performance standpoint it was a terrible way for Tyson to end his career. In fairness to Tyson, his candid postfight interview in which he opened up about merely fighting to support himself financially and apologizing to fans for letting them down had some redeeming qualities. It's like Tyson really had to hit rock bottom before beginning a new path, as Tyson now seems to be a much more likable figure.
13 Boris Onishchenko
It’s one thing to be caught for cheating. It’s another to have the leader of your country personally rip you a new one for it. At the 1976 Olympic Games, Onishchenko was expected to do well, a three-time world fencing champion who had won silver at the 1972 Games. As typical for the time, the swords of the competitors were fixed so a light would activate at a board whenever they scored a hit on an opponent. But in a match, it was discovered that Boris’ sword was lighting up before he could even hit his foe. It turned out it was gimmicked to register a hit at Onischenko, to make it look like he had made hits that didn’t exist.
He was immediately disqualified and the Soviets forced to withdraw from that category. Instantly, the Russian press condemned Onischenko and even the other Soviet athletes threatened to throw him off the balcony if he returned to their hotel. Back in Moscow, he was called before then Premier Leonid Breshnev who stripped him of his past honors, fined him 5,000 rubies, chewed him out and reduced the former Olympian to working as a cab driver in Kiev. Now that’s ending your career in a shambles.
12 Zinedine Zidane
One moment was all it took. One moment for the man regarded as one of the most acclaimed, professional and respected soccer players on the planet to tarnish his entire legacy. Zidane had amassed an amazing record for France as both national and professional player with numerous records and fantastic to watch play. He had already announced plans to retire after the 2006 World Cup and most saw his work there as a fitting capper to a Hall of Fame career.
But then, in the 110th minute of the final, Zidane got into an argument with Italy’s Marco Materazzi, the two snapping and yelling before Zidane snapped his head forward onto Materazzi’s chest. He was immediately thrown out of the game and Zidane's glittering career is overshadowed by his stunning action as French newspapers lambasted him and despite cheering of fans, his retirement was not the grand celebration most had hoped for.
11 Roger Clemens
True, the Rocket was on the tail end of his career when the massive doping allegations came out but still determined to make another go of it with the Yankees due to a massive contract. The book “The Rocket That Fell to Earth” paints a picture many agree with on how obsessive Clemens was on being the best and doping just seemed a natural fit to get ahead and add more World Series rings and records to his accomplishments.
His constant refusal to admit what most knew to be true bit him badly as, despite slews of evidence, he openly stated to a Congressional committee he never took steroids when it was quite obviously not true. While he has his riches and records, Clemens seems to be denied the Hall of Fame he craved so badly and now a pariah from the sport he loved so much.
10 Ben Johnson
For three days in 1988, Johnson was on top of the world. Amid a fantastic slate of runners, he won the gold medal for the 100 meter dash and set a new world record in the process. He was hailed as a hero in his native Canada and seemed ready to cash in on numerous endorsements. But then came the word that he had tested positive for steroids and Johnson admitted to having used them for several years. Stripped of his medals and records, Johnson was suspended, attempting a comeback in 1993…only to be busted afterward for doping again. This time, he was banned for life by the IAFF and still claims now and then that he was set up for the drug use while claiming many athletes today do it.
9 Denny McLain
Denny McLain had the world at his feet but rather than enjoy the view, he took a massive hard fall. In 1968, McLain’s amazing skills as a pitcher made him world famous as he won a record 31 games and helped drive the Detroit Tigers to the World Series championship, winning the MVP and Cy Young awards. But within two years, he was soon on the carpet for gambling, packing a gun in his luggage and various arrogant moments like refusing to start the All-Star Game for a dentist appointment. His popularity fell along with his talent as he went from the most wins to the most losses, an amazing turnaround. At the age of only 29, he was out of baseball amid more talk of bad antics and being a massive locker room cancer.
He hit rock bottom in 1985, convicted of embezzlement, racketeering and drug trafficking and remains one of the saddest cases of “blowing it all away” that baseball has ever seen.
8 Marion Jones
She was an incredible runner, beautiful and skilled, able to be a force on the track and field circuit, seemingly unstoppable. Her career reached its height at the 2000 Summer Games as she won three gold medals and hailed as “the fastest woman alive.” Throughout all that, accusations of performance-enhancing drugs followed her around but Jones defended herself time and again, her denials so strong that many believed her. But finally, in 2007, she admitted it was all true, that she had been taking steroids during the 2000 Olympics and many other times.
She was stripped of her medals and banned from the sport, a fantastic career up in smoke. To her credit, Jones has done her best to make restitution as after her six-month prison stint, she has taken to tour and speak to young athletes, to warn them not to make her mistakes. As she says, if she can help anyone avoid her fall, that’s worth her harsh fall.
7 Oscar Pistorius
Few have gone from hero to horror as quickly as Pistorius has. He was the feel-good story of 2012. After winning gold medals at the Paralypmics, he managed the amazing feat of making the South African Olympics team, the first runner with prosthetic legs. While he didn’t medal, he did win adulation for such a bold move and seen as a true icon, carrying his nation’s flag in the closing ceremony. He kick-started talk of more athletes with artificial legs and set a new bar with many fans.
So it was all the more heart-breaking when he was arrested for the murder of his girlfriend. He claimed it was an accident, mistaking her for an intruder but was convicted and imprisoned. Thus, a man who could have led the way for so many disabled people only ended up tearing so many spirits down.
6 Tonya Harding
She may not have had the beauty or artistry of her peers but Harding was a damn skilled skater all the same. So it just makes it all the crazier that she felt the only way to get ahead was to take part in one of the most ludicrous criminal schemes sports has ever seen. She has denied total involvement but still quite obvious how Harding was helping in the attack on Nancy Kerrigan by her ex-husband, creating a massive wave of negative publicity around the 1994 Olympic Games.
It wasn’t helped by Harding coming apart, crying to judges over a broken lace on her skate and turning herself into a laughingstock. The criminal procedures are nothing as the real blow has to been to turn Harding into a walking punchline that still maintains to this day.
5 Aaron Hernandez
A national champion for Florida, Hernandez had the promise of a long and healthy career with the Patriots, a part of their Super Bowl team in 2011 that fell to the Giants but still seemed ready for a long run. True, altercations in bars and reportedly linked to a double homicide but nothing came of it. Then came the fateful night in 2013 as Hernandez was arrested for killing his friend, Odin Lloyd.
Released from the Patriots immediately, Hernandez’s life fell apart as he was found guilty of first degree murder and currently resides in jail with a life sentence. A career of such high hopes destroyed by one of the worst murder scandals the sports world has known and a major black eye on the Patriots dynasty.
4 Pete Rose
There are still those who back him. Those who say it’s not right the man with the record for the most base hits is not in the Hall of Fame. Who insist Charlie Hustle deserves a spot no matter what. But Cooperstown has spoken; there is no way a man who admitted to betting on his own team will be enshrined with the other greats of baseball. Rose himself keeps trying but it’s obvious that one of the finest careers of all time, a 17-time All Star with three World Series rings and numerous other titles will never have that great honor of the Hall.
It’s only been increased by the recent revelation of Rose betting during his playing days, going back to the early years, a trend of behavior impossible for his defenders to ignore. It may not seem right but Rose was the one who was gambling and admitted it so the only Hall of Fame he can be a part of is WWE’s.
3 Lance Armstrong
Yes, Armstrong was still racing when the investigation into his performance-enhancing ways kicked up big-time. There had always been rumors, of course, not to mention how wild it was that a man could come back from cancer to not only win more Tour de France races but showing abilities most healthy folks could never touch. Armstrong had always denied the charges and even took legal means against those who tried to claim he was guilty. At long last, he finally admitted on television the truth and the reaction was as harsh as expected; stripped of every one of the Tour victories, sponsors drying up and going from one of the most revered cyclists ever to its most hated.
2 Shoeless Joe Jackson
For eight decades, the Chicago White Sox endured years of bad seasons, the occasional pennant but it wasn’t until 2005 that they won the World Series at last. And as far as Sox fans were concerned, there was one reason for that: The curse laid upon them by the “Black Sox.” In 1920, right at the end of a heated pennant chase, it was revealed that eight White Sox players had conspired with gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. It was a massive shock but none greater than that “Shoeless” Joe Jackson was a member of the group.
The man was the star of the team, their leader and seen as a true icon by fans, widely respected even outside of Chicago, the shock of him being involved was jarring. This led to the immortal moment of Jackson coming out of a courthouse and a young boy speaking for all fans by calling out “say it ain’t so, Joe!” Jackson was banned forever from baseball, his name forever linked to the greatest scandal the sport had ever seen, a reputation pushed by such things as "Field of Dreams" and others. A sad thing to know one of the best White Sox players ever blackened the team so badly.
1 1. Chris Benoit
More than anyone else, Chris Benoit took pro wrestling utterly seriously. He wouldn’t protect himself from chair shots or his patented flying headbutt, he took seriously hard bumps and approached it with a full-on intensity. It was what led him to be so popular and even revered among wrestling fans, someone true and authentic in this fake business. Which is why it was all the more appalling that he, of all people, could give the business its greatest black eye ever.
The shock of his death was one thing but the discovery he had killed his wife and son before taking his own life was a blow that still hasn’t healed for wrestling fans. That Benoit, the man held as all that was great about wrestling, could shame it this badly was horrific and it’s not surprising WWE has basically erased him from their history (despite a few more mentions in books lately).
Some still try to push “separate the man from the performer” but Benoit was as much himself on screen as behind the scenes and to see him commit such a horrific act and rob newer fans of a fantastic performer in one fell swoop is the greatest blow in not just wrestling but all athletics and remains a hard one to heal from.
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