From Riches to Rags. When you think of athletes who had the biggest falls from grace, who do you think of? Do you think of someone who was busted for using PED’s, committed a major crime, or was a part of a major scandal? Any of these really. And for context, when I say riches to rags, I don’t necessarily mean financial, I mean in terms of status or popularity (although many of these have had major financial problems post-career). This list breaks down the biggest athlete falls in history.
10. Marion Jones
From Riches: Marion Jones was one of the more celebrated athletes at the turn of the century, and one of track’s first female sports millionaires. In 1994, she helped lead the North Carolina basketball team to the NCAA National Championship. Over the next several years, she won countless individual track and field events, including gold medals at the 1997 World Championships, 1998 World Cup, and 1999 World Championships. With much hype coming into the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Jones delivered 5 medals, 3 of which were gold. She had success, youth, and beauty. She had it all.
To Rags: Then…the Balco investigation. Although she had been accused of taking performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) throughout most of her career, she had never been caught in any way. In 2004 BALCO founder Victor Conte said he personally gave Jones 4 different PEDs; ex-husband C.J. Hunter (who had tested positive for steroids on 4 occasions) claimed to have seen Jones inject herself with steroids; investigations report several instances where Jones received and took PEDs…many, many instances. Despite all of this, she denied any doping, and continued denying this for almost 15 years. Finally in 2007, she admitted it all. The doping, the coverups, the lies, everything. She was stripped of all her gold medals from the 2000 Olympics and banned from future Olympic Games. Later on she spent 6 months in prison for her involvement in a check-fraud scheme.
9. Pete Rose
From Riches: As you all know, Pete Rose is MLB’s all-time hits leader, with 4,256. One of the more unbreakable records in baseball. Surefire Hall of Famer, right? Well, he was well on his way, breaking into the big leagues in 1963 and playing into the mid 80’s. People loved him. He was a winner (3-time World Series champ) and a hard-nosed player, earning him the nickname Charlie Hustle.
To Rags: Then…he decided to bet on baseball. Not only bet on baseball, but bet on the team he managed (Reds). In case you didn’t know, that is one of the biggest no-no’s in baseball. He was suspended indefinitely, a suspension that still lasts to this day. Oddly enough, that didn’t seem to affect his popularity all that much. But what did, was vehemently denying it for 15+ years, then finally admitting it in his autobiography (for a monetary gain of course).
8. Mark McGwire & Sammy Sosa
From Riches: Remember in the late 90’s, when balls were flying out of the yard at an alarming rate? Baseball’s popularity was as high as it had been in decades. And the guys responsible for that, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, were America’s Sweethearts. Fans couldn’t get enough of them.
To Rags: Then…everyone finally admitted to themselves that there was a reason they were hitting all those bombs. Steroids. Lots and lots of steroids. After the Senate hearing, their popularity took a major hit. McGwire refused to talk about the past, and Sosa forgot how to speak English. Neither of them admitted guilt or took any responsibility for their usage (McGwire eventually came clean 5 years later). Two of the more popular athletes in the 90’s were now punchlines. With a combined 1,192 HRs, neither are sniffing the Hall of Fame. Big Mac has never garnered more than 23.7% of the votes (75% needed for induction), and Slammin’ Sammy never more than 12.5%. Note – I considered including guys like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Alex Rodriguez, but their popularity never matched that of McGwire and Sosa, so their “fall” was not as drastic.
7. Mike Tyson
From Riches: Mike Tyson began his professional boxing career at 18 years old, and took the boxing world by storm. He became the youngest heavyweight champion in history, won his first 19 matches by knockout, and won his first 37 matches overall. He was a punchout machine. Despite the upset loss to Buster Douglas, by the time he turned 25, he was 41-1 and well on his way back to the top.
To Rags: Then…Tyson was arrested for the rape of Desiree Washington (Miss Black Rhode Island) in an Indianapolis hotel room. He was convicted and sentenced to 6 years in prison. And when he was released after serving 3 years, somehow his life unraveled even more. The biting of Evander Holyfield’s ear, a 9 month prison stint for assaulting a man in traffic incident, a press conference brawl prior to the Lennox Lewis title fight, the face tattoo days before a fight, the bankruptcy, and a series of bizarre and absolutely amazing interviews. Actually a very sad downfall, for a very troubled man.
6. Oscar Pistorius
From Riches: Oscar Pistorius, nicknamed the Blade Runner, was born with a congenital defect and had both feet amputated when he was 11 months old. He won several Gold Medals in the Paralympics (2004, 2008, & 2012), and at the 2011 World Championships in Athletics he became the first amputee to win a non-disabled world track medal. He later became the first double-leg amputee to participate in the Olympic Games (2012), competing in both the 400 Meters and the 4 x 400 Meter Relay.
To Rags: Then…he murdered his girlfriend. Not only did he murder his girlfriend, he did so in cold blood while she was locked in the bathroom, shooting her 4 times through the door. He claimed he thought it was an intruder (hiding in his bathroom?), but the court thought differently. Although he was found not guilty of murder, he was found guilty of culpable homicide and sentenced to 5 years in prison (which was later extended to 5, then 13 years due to appeals).
5. Michael Vick
From Riches: Michael Vick was one of the most electrifying players football had ever seen. As a red-shirt freshman in 1999, he was 3rd in the Heisman Trophy balloting and led Virginia Tech to the BCS National Title Game. The Falcons drafted him #1 overall in 2001, and in his 1st season as a starter (2002), he led Atlanta to the Playoffs for the first time since 1998. In that postseason, he handed Green Bay their first home Playoff loss in team history. Two years later, he led the Falcons to an 11-5 record and all the way to the NFC Championship Game. The future looked very bright, and he was one of the more popular players in the NFL.
To Rags: Then…the activities of Bad Newz Kennels became public. Vick and his associates were involved in a dog-fighting ring, along with unlawful gambling and drug activities. And the more details that came out, the worse it got. If the fighting weren’t bad enough, the “training” was even worse…hanging, drowning, electrocuting, slamming, and shooting dogs. As you can imagine, people were outraged. (Note – If you love dogs (or simply have a heart), don’t read the USDA's official investigation of this. I did. It’s awful). Vick pled guilty to his involvement in the dog-fighting ring, and served 21 months in federal prison. He did end up making it back to the NFL, but many people will never, ever get over his brutal treatment of man’s best friend.
4. Lance Armstrong
From Riches: Lance Armstrong was a very successful cyclist through the 90’s, winning dozens of races and race stages. In 1996, he was diagnosed with stage three testicular cancer, but was able to beat it within a matter of months. When he returned to cycling, he was better than ever. He won 7 consecutive Tour de Frances between 1999 and 2005. Along with his success on the road, his Livestrong Foundation sold over 80 million Livestrong bracelets and the Foundation raised over $500 million for cancer research. Oh, and he was in arguably the best This Is SportsCenter commercial ever made!
To Rags: Then…after facing steroid and doping accusations for most of his career, and vehemently denying those accusations, he finally came clean in 2013. What made it worse was the way he denied it for so many years. He often boasted about the frequency of his tests, saying he’s the most drug tested athlete in the world. He threatened litigation (libel) on several occasions, making everyone sincerely believe him. Then after all those years, to finally admit it. A cancer survivor and a hero to so many, was now looked at as a fraud.
3. Joe Paterno
From Riches: Joe Paterno coached at Penn State for 61 years, 45 of which he was the Head Coach. He won Coach of the Year countless times and had 409 career wins, most in Division I Football history. He also led the Nittany Lions to National Championships in both 1982 and 1986. Never has a Coach been more synonymous with a football program. JoePa was Penn State Football.
To Rags: Then…the child abuse sex scandal happened. Longtime friend and assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was accused and found guilty of 45 counts of child sexual abuse. This all happened over a 15 year stretch, all under Paterno’s watch. While Paterno himself was not part of the abuse, nor did he face criminal charges in the scandal, he absolutely was, on some level, complicit in the abuse. He basically did nothing to stop it from continuing. The Board of Trustees rejected Paterno’s proposal to retire after the season, and fired him immediately. He died less than 3 months later.
2. Tiger Woods
From Riches: If you ever think of an athlete who had it all, look no further than Tiger Woods. He was the best golfer on the planet, and was raking in well over $100+ million per year in endorsements. No scandals, nothing controversial. Squeaky clean.
To Rags: Then…he ran his Escalade into a fire hydrant and a neighbor’s tree, and his soon-to-be ex-wife smashed his window out with a golf club. Over the next month, several reports surface about Wood’s infidelity, including affairs with a porn star and a Perkins waitress. Major sponsors, such as Gatorade, Gillette, and Accenture soon pull sponsorship. Within a few weeks, Tiger had went from the most celebrated and popular athlete in the world, to a laughing stock. The most rapid downfall for an athlete in our lifetime. However in Tiger’s case, unlike most of the athletes on this list, he was able to get past it and reclaim his success and popularity later in his career. From the top, to the bottom, back up to the top. The ultimate redemption story if you will.
1. O.J. Simpson
From Riches: It may seem impossible to remember this, but there was a time when The Juice was one of the most popular athletes in the country. As a star running back at USC, he won a National Championship and a Heisman Trophy, and in the NFL, he won the 1973 NFL MVP and became the 1st player in history to rush for over 2,000 yards in a season. And he was just as successful off the field, as an actor, spokesperson (most famously Hertz), and a broadcaster. People magazine even described him as being “the first black athlete to become a bona fide lovable media superstar”. And it was true.
To Rags: Then…The Chase happened. Simpson was accused of murdering ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman, and when he did not turn himself in, police followed him on a low-speed chase through Los Angeles. The White Bronco was followed by about 20 police cars, for 50 miles and 75 minutes, with an estimated 95 million people watching it live on TV. One of those moments you will always remember where you were. Over the next 8+ months, in the highest publicized trial in U.S. history, we got to hear all the details of the murders, and learned a lot about Simpson’s violent past…and an assumption by pretty much everyone that he was guilty of the double-murder. Even though he was found not guilty in criminal court, it barely mattered. His image was ruined. He was found liable for the murders in civil court, with over $33 million awarded to the families. About 10 years later, he was involved in a Las Vegas robbery, and was found guilty of that. He was sentenced to 33 years in prison, and released in 2017 after serving almost 9 years. Once a beloved athlete, now a convicted felon out on parole.