In America, we idolize our favorite sports stars for their astounding athleticism, tireless work ethic and upstanding sportsmanship in the face of competition. In many communities, our favorite athletes become the role models we use to shape our own character. Still, every so often we get a glimpse into their more human sides — the buzzer beater miss, asterisk earning, mug shot taking sides that coaches, owners, and leagues despise, but that the media loves to spin out of control.
In these instances, we watch as our favorite stars quickly go from hero to zero, losing our trust and becoming the brunt of our most vicious criticism. Whether right our wrong, the luster that we so often attribute to our sports stars quickly fades into a tarnish that’s nearly impossible to remove.
Check out our list of the top 12 athletes we love to hate.
Floyd “Money” Mayweather definitely lives up to his name. One of the most flamboyant characters in sports, Mayweather is widely known for his lavish exploits — bragging about his earnings, flashing cash and jet setting with other high-profile, often controversial figures like rapper 50 Cent. Boxing is a sport where talking can be a competitive advantage, and Floyd certainly believes his own hype. As of late, Mayweather‘s mouth and antics have him back in the media. In particular, he made waves after he refused to fight Manny Pacquiao, who accused of using steroids. Critics claim Mayweather’s most recent knockout of Victor Cruz was cheap and unsportsmanlike. And yet his undefeated record speaks for itself.
Dennis Rodman first earned his reputation as a villain in Detroit, Michigan where he starred as a member of the Detroit Pistons original “Bad Boys.” Known for his uncanny rebounding ability, hard-nosed defense and for technical fouls, Rodman grew into the “Dennis the Menace” moniker the media gave him. Over time, Rodman adopted an image to match his villainous portrayal, rocking bleached blonde hair, numerous piercings and a random collage of some of tattoos. Whether it be his relationships with Madonna and Carmen Elektra, getting suspended for kicking a cameraman, or his stint as a professional wrestler, Rodman will forever be one of the NBA’s most enigmatic characters.
Ron Artest developed his hard-nosed, almost frenzied style of play growing up New York’s Queensbridge projects, one of America’s largest public housing plots and home to a number of high-profile hip-hop artists. Much like Rodman, Artest’s villainous reputation grew from his ability to get under his opponent’s skin. His peers recognize him as one of the game’s most relentless competitors, but fans and the media remember the incident where he jumped into the stands to attack a fan, which he served a 73-game suspension for.
Expectations were high for Barry Bonds from a young age. Growing up the son and godson of two baseball legends, Bonds garnered attention almost immediately. But as Bonds racked up record-setting numbers first in Pittsburgh and then in San Francisco, his surly attitude with media and teammates made him one of baseball’s anti-heroes. Still, it was not until later in his career that Bonds — caught up in baseball’s steroid scandal, accused of using performance enhancing drugs — transcended his image as one of baseball’s bad boys into one of sports most hated and debated villains.
Just a few years ago, Tigers Woods was arguably the most family-friendly Black athlete of all-time and far from making this list. The public’s perception changed in 2009 when news surfaced that Woods’ then wife had smashed out the back window of his SUV. Mystery surrounded the initial details of the incident, but as days went by, news of Woods’ infidelity became a media frenzy. Ultimately, nine women came out claiming to have had extra marital affairs with Woods — and just like that — Woods’ squeaky-clean image disappeared into thin air. At the same time, injuries and other distractions plagued his golf game, adding to fan’s and the media’s contempt. In the aftermath many of Woods’ largest sponsors (Gatorade, Gillette and TAG Heuer) severed ties with the golf star. Woods has yet to regain his form since the controversy.
Despite being voted the best receiver of the 2000’s by USA Today, sadly Terrell Owens is more known for his negative exploits than his game. Owens’ villain status grew along with his ego as he developed into one of the best players in the NFL. But everywhere Owens went, controversy followed. In San Francisco, Owens drew criticism from fans and the media for his infamous romp on the star in Dallas and for signing a ball after a touchdown with a Sharpie he had in his sock. In Philadelphia, Owens fueled a feud with Eagles QB Donovan McNabb to the point where the team ultimately paid him not to play the latter half of the schedule in 2005.
Arguably the most feared man to ever enter a boxing ring, Mike Tyson stunned the boxing world becoming the youngest man to ever win the WBC, WBA and IBF world heavyweight championships. Unfortunately, Tyson’s mean streak followed him outside the ring as the champ was named in several violent incidents, including fights with his ex-wife actress Robin Givens. Tyson’s reputation took a bigger blow after losing to James Buster Douglass in 1990 and being convicted of raping an 18-year-old beauty pageant winner in 1992. Tyson served three years for the incident, but never quite seemed to regain his brilliance. In 1997, Tyson solidified his place on the list of vilified Black sports icons after biting a chunk of Evander Holyfield’s ear during a title bout.
Nicknamed the “Galveston Giant”, Johnson became the first African- American world heavyweight boxing champion. An accomplishment in its own right, Johnson accomplished this at the height of the Jim Crow era. During his reign, Johnson would become the most famous and infamous Black man in the world. His 1910 bout against undefeated heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries was called the “Fight of the Century” as the press deemed the fight a battle for racial supremacy. Race riots erupted around the nation after Johnson won in a 15-round romp.
4) John Carlos and Tommie Smith
The 1968 Mexico City games were not your average Olympics. Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were a reflection of a “Black Power” consciousness that was brewing in the United States. After Smith finished first in the 200m with a record setting time of 19.83 and Carlos finished third, both athletes took to the podium to receive their medals. On the podium, Smith and Carlos received their medals shoeless, wore black socks to represent black poverty, and raised their black-gloved fist as a gesture of Black Power. What Black America saw as a gesture of solidarity against oppression, the International Olympic Committee saw as a political statement, unfit for the apolitical, international forum that is the Olympics. In the aftermath, the two athletes were expelled from the Games, and largely ostracized by the U.S. sporting establishment.
While Black quarterbacks have long been criticized for the belief that Black athletes cannot play such a mentally demanding position, Michael Vick garnered his reputation with his off-the-field exploits. In 2007, Vick was arrested when federal investigators raided his Virginia home and found evidence of dog fighting. Amid harsh criticism from the media, fans and animal right organizations, Vick admitted to conspiracy and helping kill pit bulls as a part of the dog fighting ring. As a result Vick was suspended without pay and sentenced to 23 months in federal prison. Vick served 18 months before he was released, but his reputation as a “dog killer” sticks with him to today.
Not only was Ali one of the most outspoken figures in sports, he was also extremely political, never drawing the line between his professional exploits and his beliefs. During the 1960s, Ali was unabashed about his relationship with the controversial Nation of Islam and Malcolm X. An enemy of the state, Ali never flinched. In fact, he sacrificed much of what he gained through sports for his beliefs. In 1967, Ali was arrested after he declined to fight for the United States in the Vietnam War. Because of his decision, the New York State Athletic Commission stripped Ali of his boxing license and his title. “No Vietcong ever called me ni**er,” Ali told the media.
O.J. is unlike most sports villains in that he developed his villainous lure years after his playing days were done. Known as “The Juice” Simpson jumped on the scene at the University of Southern California, where he led the nation in rushing and won the Heisman trophy in 1968. In the NFL, Simpson continued to shine, setting rushing records and becoming one of America’s most accepted sports personalities. His legend as well as the public’s love quickly faded in 1991, when Simpson was arrested and tried for the brutal double murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Simpson was ultimately acquitted, but not before he became a symbol of a racially divided America and what some consider a flawed criminal justice system.