Despite their talent, these athletes made missteps that lost them respect, damaging their popularity and reputation. What else did they lose?
Professional athletes are idolized for their prowess on the court, field, and track — but they don’t always live up to those high standards when it’s not game time. These 10 athletes have gone through scandals and controversies that tarnished their reputations and lost their fans.
1. Lance Armstrong, Cycling
No one had ever been as successful at pro cycling as Lance Armstrong, as he won a record seven consecutive Tour de France titles from 1999 to 2005. This came after he was diagnosed and beat metastatic testicular cancer, then founded the popular Livestrong Foundation, whose yellow wristbands that raised funds for the cancer nonprofit became ubiquitous in the mid-2000s.
In addition to the title, he racked up fans and accolades throughout the years — everything from Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year to Favorite Athlete at the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards.
His reputation came crashing down in 2012, when the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) announced that Armstrong had used performance-enhancing drugs over the course of his career. They named him as the person at the center of “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.” He was stripped of all seven of his titles, along with a bronze medal he’d won in the 2000 Olympics.
Speculation had run rampant that he was on steroids throughout his career. In 2001 commercial for Nike, he said, “Everybody wants to know what I’m on. What am I on? I’m on my bike, busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on?”
In 2013, he finally admitted to doping during all of his Tour de France wins, saying he didn’t view it as cheating because others were doing the same. Armstrong lost all his major sponsors and has had to pay millions in damages and settlements. He’s estimated to have lost a total of about $75 million due to the scandal.
2. Michael Vick, Football
A talented pro football player, Michael Vick finished his career in the NFL with the most rushing yards for a quarterback and the highest yards per carry by any player. But his playing days came to a screeching halt in 2007 when it was discovered that he was part of an illegal dog-fighting operation.
Vick admitted that he financed most of the interstate dog-fighting ring known as Bad Newz Kennels. He acknowledged that he’d participated in several dog fights in multiple states and shared in the proceeds from those contests. Most shockingly, he was part of torturing and executing dogs who didn’t show enough aggression.
Vick served an 18-month prison sentence and went from being the onetime highest-paid player in the NFL to an inmate washing dishes for 12 cents an hour. He had to repay $3.75 million in bonus money to the Atlanta Falcons.
He returned to the NFL after getting out of prison and went on to become an animal-rights activist. But when he was named an honorary captain of the 2020 Pro Bowl, more than 879,000 people signed a petition asking the NFL not to honor Vick, showing that his reputation with fans had not recovered.
3. Tonya Harding, Figure Skating
Tonya Harding was a plucky, powerful skater gearing up for the 1994 Winter Olympics when she found herself at the center of one of sport’s biggest scandals. Her main rival, fellow American skater Nancy Kerrigan, was attacked in the leg with a baton one day before the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. The assailant turned himself in and revealed that he’d been hired to break Kerrigan’s knee by Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, and her bodyguard, Shawn Eckardt.
Kerrigan had to withdraw from the competition, and Harding won, getting her spot to go to the Olympics. Fortunately, Kerrigan’s leg was only severely bruised and not broken, and she was selected to go to the Olympics as well. In Lillehammer, Harding placed eighth and memorably broke a lace during the free skate (she tearfully asked for a re-skate, and got it), while Kerrigan earned the silver medal.
Harding’s role in the attack did not endear her to fans, although she maintained that she was not involved in the plot beforehand. However, she admitted to finding out about it afterward and not reporting Gillooly or Eckardt at that time. In 1994, she pleaded guilty to conspiracy to hinder prosecution and received three years’ probation, a $100,000 fine, and five years of community service.
4. Mike Tyson, Boxing
One of the greatest heavyweight boxers of all time is also one of the most unpredictable — leaving fans feeling conflicted about Mike Tyson.
In 1988, he married actress Robin Givens, but their relationship was rocky from the start. Seven months into it, they did a live TV interview with Barbara Walters in which Givens described being married to Tyson as “torture, pure hell, worse than anything I could possibly imagine.” She said he shook, pushed, and swung at her. “There are times when I thought I could handle it, and just recently, I’ve become afraid. I mean very, very much afraid,” Givens added. Tyson sat next to her and silently listened. She filed for divorce shortly after. (Although he denied being violent with Givens, he later admitted to punching her, saying it was “the best punch I’ve ever thrown in my entire life.”)
In 1991, he was arrested for the rape of an 18-year-old beauty pageant contestant. He was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison, ultimately serving about three years.
After years of tumult in his personal life, his next controversy would come in the ring when he fought Evander Holyfield in a rematch in 1997. The bout was stopped in the third round after Tyson bit Holyfield in the ear not once but twice, with the first bite being severe enough to leave a little piece of Holyfield’s ear on the floor.
Tyson was fined $3 million for the incident, and his boxing license was rescinded by the Nevada State Athletic Commission. (It was restored a little over a year later.)
In 1999, he went back to prison and was fined $5,000, this time after assaulting two motorists in the aftermath of a minor three-car collision — kicking one in the groin and punching another in the face when they didn’t express concern for Tyson’s wife. He continued to run into trouble with the law, being convicted of driving under the influence and possession of cocaine, and struggling with anger management and financial problems. Most recently in April 2022, Tyson made the news for punching an overly excited fan who was bothering him on an airplane.
5. Ryan Lochte, Swimmer
After winning his 12th career Olympic medal at the 2016 Olympics, swimmer Ryan Lochte found himself in hot water.
He and a few teammates made international news when they claimed they had been robbed at a gas station in Rio de Janeiro, and Lochte said a gun had been put against his head. But security footage and witnesses told a slightly different story. The swimmers had urinated outside, and Lochte had damaged a poster. Armed security guards did try to stop the group from leaving and demanded payment for ripping the sign. A police report claimed the group had also vandalized a bathroom, but this turned out to be false.
Lochte later admitted he overexaggerated his story and had been drunk at the time. Speedo, Ralph Lauren, and other sponsors cut ties with the world record holder in the 200-meter individual medley, who’s tied for second in most Olympic medals for a U.S. swimmer. He went from making well over $1 million a year to earning $75,000 from a single sponsor, and he had to downsize from a 4,200-square-foot home to an 1,800-square-foot apartment.
Lochte failed to make the team for the 2020 Tokyo Games.
6. Tiger Woods, Golf
In November 2009, Tiger Woods was the No. 1 golfer in the world when news broke that he had crashed his Cadillac Escalade SUV into a fire hydrant at 2 in the morning. Reports claimed that his wife, Elin Nordegren, had chased him out of their home with, fittingly, a golf club. While both denied those rumors, one thing was clear: things were not going well in their marriage.
It soon came out that Woods had a mistress. Then more women stepped forward, until it was revealed that the father of two had dozens upon dozens of extramarital lovers. Woods released a statement apologizing for his transgressions and saying, “I will strive to be a better person and the husband and father that my family deserves. For all of those who have supported me over the years, I offer my profound apology.”
He announced a leave of absence from golf and checked into a behavioral rehab facility for 45 days. The fallout continued, as companies like Accenture, Gatorade, and General Motors cut ties with the formerly squeaky-clean golfer. He and Nordegren divorced in 2010; the settlement cost him approximately $100 million.
After years of struggling with back pain, in May 2017, Woods was arrested for driving under the influence after he was found asleep in his running car. A toxicology report found that he had five drugs in his system at the time. He claimed he was trying to treat his back pain and insomnia on his own.
He finally found success on the golf course again in 2019 when he won the Masters Tournament. Prior to the scandal, he’d won 14 major championships from 1997 to 2008.
But controversy would continue to follow the beleaguered golfer when in 2021, Woods got into another car accident, this time rolling his SUV off a steep and winding road in California while driving almost twice the speed limit. He was pulled from the wreckage by firefighters and paramedics, lucky to be alive.
While Woods has undoubtedly lost some fans over the years, many still support the once-dominant golfer — a video he posted in late 2021 of getting back out on the driving range racked up nearly 8 million views, and in March 2022, he won the PGA Tour’s Player Impact Program bonus, which rewards the most popular player.
7. Hope Solo, Soccer
On the field, Hope Solo’s goalie skills are nearly unparalleled — she has an impressive 102 career shutouts to her name. But off the field, her popularity has taken a hit over the years throughout various controversies.
In 2014, she was arrested for allegedly assaulting her half-sister and teenage nephew. They said that she repeatedly bashed her nephew’s head intoa cement floor and punched her half-sister in the face, among other violent behaviors. When the police arrived, Solo was slurring her speech, and her family members had visible scratch marks and bruising. Solo was combative with police officers who tried to book her, telling one officer that her necklace was worth more than he made in a year.
Solo adamantly denied that she was the aggressor in the altercation, and charges were eventually dropped.
A couple of years later, glib tweets about the Zika virus earned Solo boos from the crowd at the Rio Olympics. Then, after Sweden beat the U.S. and knocked them out of the tournament, Solo called the Swedes “a bunch of cowards” for using a conservative and defensive style of play. Due to the comments, she was suspended by U.S. Soccer for six months and her contract was terminated, thus ending her professional career.
Although her soccer-playing days are over, her troubles are not. In March 2022, Solo was arrested for driving while intoxicated. Because she had her 2-year-old twins in the car at the time, she was also charged with misdemeanor child abuse.
8. Henry Ruggs III, Football
Henry Ruggs went from being a first-round draft pick in 2020 to being released from his contract in 2021 in the aftermath of a deadly car accident.
In November 2021, the wide receiver from the University of Alabama was out drinking mai tais with his longtime girlfriend when he got behind the wheel of his Chevrolet Corvette Stingray with a blood alcohol level more than two times the legal limit. Around 3:30 in the morning, he rear-ended a Toyota RAV4 while driving more than 150 mph. Although he attempted to brake, he hit the car at 120 mph, killing the driver and her dog as the vehicle burst into flames. He and his girlfriend sustained non-life-threatening injuries.
The Las Vegas Raiders immediately terminated his employment, and if convicted, he could face up to 26 years in prison and up to $10,000 in fines. Of the $16.67 million contract he signed with the Raiders, he’ll likely only keep about $4.73 million of it.
Only time will tell if his career will rebound, but for now, Ruggs’ playing days are over.
9. Oscar Pistorius, Track
Shooting to international sporting fame in 2012, Oscar Pistorius made history as the first double amputee to compete at the Olympic Games when he ran the 400 meters. He was hailed as an inspirational hero for all those fighting for inclusion, but less than a year later, the Blade Runner’s legacy would be very different.
In the early morning hours of Valentine’s Day 2013, Pistorius shot four bullets into his bathroom door, killing his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp. He claimed he thought she was an intruder in the bathroom; prosecutors argued that the two had been fighting and she’d locked herself in the bathroom to get away from him.
As more details surrounding Pistorius’ story came to light, a picture emerged that suggested the “fastest man on no legs” had a reckless side: a gun he’d been holding went off under a table in a crowded restaurant, he fired a gun through a moving car’s sunroof, and he was charged with illegal possession of ammunition. Text messages from Steenkamp to Pistorius in the months leading up to the murder reveal a woman who was afraid. “I’m scared of you sometimes and how you snap at me and of how you will react to me,” she wrote in January 2013. “I do everything to make you happy and you do everything to throw tantrums.”
Before the tragedy, Pistorius brought in an estimated $2 million in endorsements per year from sponsors including Nike, Oakley, and Thierry Mugler. He was convicted of culpable homicide, which was later replaced with a murder conviction. He remains in prison but is eligible for parole.
10. Latrell Sprewell, Basketball
When Latrell Sprewell came into the NBA, he was an on-the-rise star, averaging more than 15 points per game in his rookie season with the Golden State Warriors, and continuing to improve from there. But today, he doesn’t have nearly as many fans as he could have, thanks to some unfortunate decisions.
The most memorable was at a practice in 1997, when head coach P.J. Carlesimo asked him to “put a little mustard” on his passes. Sprewell wasn’t in the mood for coaching that day, and told him to stay away. Carlesimo didn’t heed the warning, and as he approached, Sprewell grabbed his neck and began to choke his coach until other players pulled him off. He left practice, then came back 20 minutes later and reportedly punched Carlesimo in the face.
He was ultimately suspended for 68 games, and his contract with the Warriors was terminated. The incident cost him more than $6 million, plus his sponsorship deal with Converse.
Next, he went to the New York Knicks, where he had a chance for a fresh start and found fan support. But when he showed up to training camp ahead of the 2002-03 season with a broken hand — which he’d neglected to tell anyone about — the Knicks fined him $250,000. (Sprewell said the injury happened when he slipped and fell on his yacht; the New York Post said it happened when he took a swing at a guest on his yacht and hit the wall instead.)
He was next traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves, where he and teammates Kevin Garnett and Sam Cassell became the highest-scoring trio in the league. When the team offered Sprewell a three-year, $21 million contract extension, he felt it wasn’t enough. “I have a family to feed,” he said. The 2004-05 season ended up being his last, and worst.
Author: Haley Shapley