Tim Tebow has been verbally attacked in the media, in sports bars and on fan blogs this season with a zeal usually reserved for pedophiles and serial killers. He’s certainly the most controversial athlete at the moment, due in large part to his “crime”: public prayer. The Denver Broncos rookie quarterback can take heart in the fact that it would take much more than “Tebowing” to crack this list of the 10 most controversial U.S. athletes of all time.
10. Kobe Bryant
His off-court troubles aside, Bryant has done enough on the court and in the locker room to land a spot on this list. His lengthy feud with longtime teammate Shaquille O’Neal certainly didn’t earn him many friends among players or the media. We expect our star athletes to be extremely confident. Many believe Bryant crosses that line into something we despise in athletes and anyone else — arrogance. Bryant gets the nod on this list over two other controversial NBA players from his generation, Ron Artest and Latrell Sprewell, simply because of Bryant’s brilliance on the court. To be controversial, you must be in the news on a regular basis. Although they were good players in their own right, the only times Artest and Sprewell attracted Kobe-like attention is when they attacked a fan (Artest) or coach (Sprewell).
9. Ty Cobb
Why fans might have cheered him: Cobb posted a spectacular career batting average of .367 and was one of five players inducted into the inaugural class of the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. Now for the bad stuff: Cobb was an ardent racist, and he wasn’t too kind toward players of his own race. He sharpened his shoe spikes and slid hard into bases hoping to instill fear and inflict damage. His own teammates didn’t like him. He once climbed into the stands during a game and assaulted a heckler, earning a suspension. It would be hard to imagine the media frenzy that would follow Cobb if he played in today’s era and had a Twitter account (Cut some stupid SOB sliding into 2 base tonight. He took 20 stitches! Video on Cobb.com.)
8. Terrell Owens
Looking back at Owens’ record-setting career, many images that first come to mind are his antics — his taunting pose on the Dallas Cowboys’ midfield star after a touchdown; his public attacks on teammates, especially Donovan McNabb; his infamous press conference in which an “assistant” broke every rule in the public relations handbook. Many sports fans would lump fellow talented but controversial receivers Chad Johnson/Ochocinco, Randy Moss or Michael Irvin ahead of Owens on this list, but Owens’ actions were often more inappropriate or just plain mean-spirited.
7. Dale Earnhardt
Earnhardt’s nicknames, “The Intimidator” and “The Man in Black,” speak volumes about his mystique in NASCAR. The seven-time NASCAR champion won 76 career races, many of them involving a move in which he would use his car to nudge or spin another car out of the way. That sort of fender banging has always defined NASCAR, but Earnhardt turned it into an art form, and no one pushed the tactic to the legal limit — or beyond — as often as he did. Earnhardt’s aggressive driving polarized millions of race fans in the 1980s and 1990s as NASCAR exploded in popularity. In one infamous 1999 incident, Earnhardt spun out race leader Terry Labonte on the final lap of a race at Bristol Motor Speedway. Labonte smashed into the wall and Earnhardt won, bringing a shower of boos and debris from 100,000-plus fans. As Earnhardt later explained, he didn’t mean to wreck Labonte, but “I just wanted to rattle his cage.” That might be the quintessential Earnhardt moment, celebrating a victory while shrugging off the “accident” that befell a fellow driver. Later in Earnhardt’s career, many fans who once loathed him came to embrace the legendary driver. Today, more than 10 years after his death on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, he remains a beloved figure.
6. Muhammad Ali
With more than 40 years of hindsight, the greatest boxer of all time doesn’t seem all that controversial, but in the 1960s, the mention of Muhammad Ali’s name touched off heated arguments. Ali’s controversial statements on race relations, coming at the height of the civil rights movement, alienated many whites. Many were already suspicious of the man who converted to Muslim and changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali in 1964. Ali’s refusal in 1967 to submit to the draft for the Vietnam War, punctuated by such statements as, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong … no Viet Cong ever called me n*****,” further polarized the nation and led to his conviction for draft evasion. Although the U.S. Supreme Court eventually upheld Ali’s stance as a conscientious objector, many veterans and others still viewed him as a draft dodger. Then there are the fans who never warmed to the boxer’s ceaseless self-promotion. Even the most hardened Ali critics have softened their view of him in the past 20 years, given his struggles with Parkinson’s.
5. Pete Rose
Rose evoked controversy even before he left the sport under a cloud. Look no further than his controversial collision with catcher Ray Fosse in the 1970 MLB All-Star game to see why some players and fans never liked the guy and his “hustle” attitude. Of course, many of these players and fans were tired of losing to Rose’s Cincinnati Reds. But what lands Rose on this list is the long-running controversy over whether he deserves to be honored in the Baseball Hall of Fame despite his transgressions in betting on the game while a coach. Rose is now 70 years old; unfortunately, the debate may not be resolved in his lifetime.
4. Dennis Rodman
With his colored hair, multiple tattoos and piercings, Dennis Rodman clearly wasn’t your clean-cut, all-American athlete. Instead, he was one of the first MTV generation athletes, as interested in his own self-image as anything else. Watch Dennis pose on the cover of a national sports magazine dressed in a negligee. Watch Dennis sit down on the court and halt an NBA playoff game. Watch Dennis attack NBA legend Larry Bird in the media: “Why does he get so much publicity? Because he’s white.” In the end, many fans got tired of watching Dennis, despite his incredible skills as a rebounder and defender.
3. Tiger Woods
Years before the mistresses scandal struck a deathblow to Tiger Woods’ public image, the golfer was not as universally popular as it seemed. Many longtime fans resented his arrogance. Others blasted the media’s fixation on Woods, and how he dominated TV coverage of golf events even when he was nowhere near the leaderboard. Part of the anti-Woods sentiment was human nature — just as sports fans love an underdog, many resent an athlete who seems too perfect. Woods obviously doesn’t have that bulletproof aura anymore.
2. Mike Tyson
Mike Tyson was so bad, for so long, it would be easy to put him at the top of this list. But you hate to beat a man when he’s down, battling financial woes and personal tragedy. Tyson has asked for forgiveness and bared his soul in recent years, telling the USA Today in 2005, “My whole life has been a waste — I’ve been a failure.”
1. Barry Bonds
Fair or not, Bonds will be remembered as the biggest villain during Major League Baseball’s infamous “steroid era.” It’s tragic that the records set by Bonds will be forever tainted, but the tragedy within the tragedy is this: He didn’t need them. Even before the performance-enhancing drugs, Bonds was one of the most prolific performers in baseball history. His accomplishments before his “suspicious” home-run explosion beginning in 2000 are staggering: three National League MVP Awards, eight Golden Glove Awards and 445 career home runs by age 35. He stole an average of 34 bases per year his first 13 seasons. Even more impressive were his OPS numbers — on-base plus slugging percentages — in which he led baseball five times in six years in the early 1990s, and challenged for the league OPS title throughout the decade. Will anyone remember those feats? Or will Bonds be remembered as the Shoeless Joe Jackson of the 21st century?
Jose Canseco. Mark McGwire. Roger Clemens. Names once synonymous with baseball greatness, now tied, like Barry Bonds, to baseball’s most infamous era.
Among others receiving votes for this list:
• O.J. Simpson: Had the infamous murder trial come while he was an athlete, not 20 years after his retirement, he’d top this list with a bullet.
• Lance Armstrong: His battle with cancer is a heartwarming story, but did he or didn’t he juice?
• Michael Vick: If PETA had a vote, Vick would probably top the list, but other athletes have done far worse and gotten a pass from the public.
• Jack Johnson: The heavyweight boxing champ from the early 20th century was as controversial as anyone on this list. Unfortunately, much of that controversy stemmed from the racism pervasive in society at the time. His story is a third rail of racist controversy that has been treated in depth elsewhere, including Ken Burns’ film, Unforgivable Blackness.
The author spent many years as a sportswriter and interviewed or watched many of these athletes in person.