Because this week marks the 20th anniversary of O.J. Simpson’s infamous ride in the white Ford Bronco I decided to give my list of athletes who’ve had the biggest falls from grace.
O.J. is No. 1. In the 1970s poll after poll showed Simpson’s to be America’s most liked and respected athlete. He was college’s Mr. Football at Southern Cal and then became a record-setting running back who fueled the NFL becoming our No. 1 sport. His fame spread beyond the playing arena because of TV commercials and movies. Then he was accused of two murders. Even though he was acquitted most people thought he literally got away with murder.
Pete Rose is No. 2. He was the epitome of the underachiever who obtained greatness. Who didn’t love Charley Hustle? Then came the gambling scandal and lifetime ban from baseball.
Shoeless Joe Jackson is No. 3. He was considered on par with his era’s other greats, Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb. Then came the Black Sox scandal of 1919 and Shoeless Joe was banned in disgrace.
Magic Johnson is No. 4. Not only was he a great player and champion, but he was a showman with a giant smile. Then he announced he had the HIV virus, a shocking bit of news at a time when HIV was considered a death sentence and most people thought of HIV as AIDs the same and assumed the worse. Although time allowed Magic to regain his good name, at the time few athletes had ever fallen from so high to so low so quickly.
Mark McGwire is No. 5. He was a humble giant who many credit with saving Major League Baseball following the 1994 players’ strike that cancelled the World Series. His successful pursuit of the single-season home run record grabbed the attention of the nation well beyond the pages of the sports section. Then his use of performance enhancing drugs ignited the steroid scandal and McGwire became the poster boy for cheaters in baseball and quickly disappeared from public view.
Barely missing the top 5 are Tiger Woods, Alex Rodriguez, Muhammad Ali and Roger Clemens. They share the same reason: At the height of their greatness as athletes all had almost as many distracters as fans. Fair or not, they were not popular champions with many fans.
Woods was considered aloof. Clemens was considered a jerk. Rodriguez was disliked for making too much money. (Remember his original 10-year, $250 million contract with the Rangers?) Ali, like Magic, regained his good name and then some, but when he was stripped of his heavyweight boxing crown he was considered a draft dodger and unpatriotic – and America wasn’t ready to accept a Muslim among their sports heroes.
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