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10 Sports Superstars Who Ruined Their Careers

by Tarni Kirkpatrick
fact checked by Jamie Frater

We all have our heroes in the sporting world, whether they’re football players from our favorite local teams or Olympic champions. We look up to them, and our children learn from them. We may even want to learn everything we can about our favorite sports idols, from their origins to their training methods to their favorite cereal.

Successful athletes are still only human, though, and can make the same terrible choices as any of us. A number of sports stars over the years have ruined their careers through their horrible decisions. Here are ten such fallen idols.

10 Ryan Lochte

Photo credit: Rory

Ryan Lochte, from Daytona Beach, Florida, grew up loving the water and eventually became known for his title as a 12-time Olympic medalist. His winnings include six gold medals, three silver medals, and three bronze medals, certainly qualifying him as an Olympic champion. On top of this, he holds the world record in the 200-meter individual medley as well as having been named both World and American swimmer of the year for the years 2010 and 2011. He holds a whopping total of 70 international competition medals, 45 of which are first place, and he has a huge social media following. So, what is it that made him make the horrible decision that almost ruined his career?

In 2016, Lochte was scheduled for the Rio Olympics, in which he would maintain his award-winning title and maybe even add a few more medals to the collection. This, however, ended when he was charged with making a false statement to police regarding him and a mate being held at gunpoint and robbed. Once caught out in his lie, he was summoned to court, where he revealed that he and his friends were not robbed and fabricated the story to cover the fact that they had been caught by security vandalizing a gas station bathroom. Lochte’s story had left Brazil embarrassed, and upon the revelation of the truth, famous sponsors Speedo and Ralph Lauren dropped him as a client. Lochte ended up avoiding all charges after his lawyer argued that he did not break any laws by exaggerating the details of the events of that night.[1]

9 Lance Armstrong

Photo credit: VisitCentralFL

Lance Armstrong was one of the world’s most favored cyclists, having overcome cancer and made a full comeback to the sport despite the doubt thrown at him from doctors and the public. He had his first victory on the Tour de France in 1999 and trained ever harder to gain more and more titles across the Olympics and the Tour. He focused most of his time on the Tour de France up until he retired for two years and returned for two more races in 2009 and 2010. In 2009, he managed to place third, and in 2010, he fell back into the pack before announcing a second retirement. In addition to struggling with illness throughout his career, he was constantly accused of using illicit drugs to enhance his performance. Were the rumors true?

Despite never testing positive, Lance Armstrong admitted on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2012 to doping throughout his cycling career. The world was shocked as the details of his scandal were finally revealed. As a result of this, he was stripped of all seven of his Tour de France wins and banned from cycling to set an example of what will happen to athletes using banned substances. While Armstrong believes that he should be forgiven, he also assured ABC in a 2015 interview that if he was put back in 1995, when “[doping] was pervasive,” he would do it again. He says that the lying and dishonesty is his biggest regret. Apparently, doping to drive his career was worth losing all his dignity over.[2]

8 Tonya Harding

Photo credit: ABC News

Born in Portland, Oregon, in 1970, Tonya Harding began ice-skating at the age of three. During her sophomore year, she dropped out of school in order to focus all her time on the sport to try and make a career out of it. In 1991, despite the critics along the way, she won her first national title and also became the first American woman to successfully land a triple axel in competition. From there, she continued winning medals, including silver at the World Championships, fourth in the French Winter Olympics in 1992, and eventually another gold at the 1994 US Championships. Her main rival was Nancy Kerrigan. Just how far would Harding go to get ahead of her competition?

During the buildup to the 1994 Winter Olympics, the competition got fierce between Harding and Kerrigan. It reached the point where the pressure got so heavy for Harding that she resorted to criminal acts in order to get ahead. In addition to the competition, Harding was constantly facing media attacks for being on from the “wrong side of the rink.” Articles stated that she didn’t have as much a chance as Kerrigan because she wasn’t as beautiful or graceful, further incensing her. Finally, Harding’s then-husband and her bodyguard devised a plan to break Kerrigan’s leg right before the qualifiers in order to destroy her Olympic chances. The attack was poorly planned, and the hired hit man ended up missing Kerrigan’s knee, dealing her only a bad bruise before making a dramatic exit.

Kerrigan went on to make the Olympic selection, and both she and Harding were thrown into a media circus speaking of conspiracies and hatred between the two. Harding’s husband spent time behind bars for the attack while Harding initially walked free but later pleaded guilty to hindering prosecution, landing her three years’ probation, 500 hours of community service, and a $100,000 fine. She was also banned from the sport for life.[3]

7 Lamar Odom

Photo credit: Keith Allison

Lamar Odom was born in Queens in 1979 and lost his mother at the age of 12, leaving him in his grandmother’s care. To cope with his grief, he threw himself into basketball and was named Player of the Year in his high school years by Parade magazine. He managed to start off his professional career with the Los Angeles Clippers, who were renowned for their losing record, before being offered a better contract with the Miami Heat. Here, he trained with the likes of superstar Dwayne Wade and hugely improved his game. After that season, he was invited to represent the United States in the Olympics, where he worked with the team to win bronze, which he personally stated was the greatest honor of his entire career. Following this, he ended up contracted to the LA Lakers, where he would play the next seven NBA seasons. This would be the height of his career.

Although his life was seemingly perfect, Odom was struggling with drug abuse, which eventually led to the demise of his career. In the 2000–2001 season, he was suspended for violating the extremely strict NBA drug policy after receiving a charge for driving under the influence. He was ordered to attend three months of rehab for alcohol abuse. However, he began taking up drugs again after being traded off to a Dallas team in a deal he wasn’t happy with. In 2015, he was identified at a brothel after overdosing and passing out.[4] Staff made a panicked emergency call, reporting that he had blood and a white substance coming from his mouth and nose after taking large amounts of what they thought was herbal Viagra. Following this near-fatal incident, he was forced back into rehab and no longer plays for any teams on the NBA.

6 Ray Rice

Ray and Janay Rice speak out on recent NFL assault incidents

Ray Rice is an NFL legend who played as running back for the Baltimore Ravens for five seasons and one Super Bowl win. Unlike your average backfield player, Rice has a much shorter build, but he trained harder than any other to eventually become the best. His training to reach the NFL began in his freshman year of college, when he helped the Rutgers Scarlet Knights make their comeback after a 14-season losing streak. During his sophomore year, he broke a school record with 1,794 yards, which included a 225-yard push against Pitt. From there, he realized his dream by skipping his senior year and entering the NFL draft, where he was picked by the Ravens in the second round. So what could possibly have lead to Ray Rice’s demise after proving to be such a valuable player for the Ravens? What changed the words “plays for” into “once played for” at such a young age?

Despite needing his incredible skills as their running back, the Baltimore Ravens were left with no choice but to terminate Rice’s contract after footage was released showing Rice punching his fiancee in an elevator before dragging her body out into a hotel foyer. He was also suspended by the NFL commissioner for an indefinite time. While footage had previously been released showing Rice dragging his fiancee out of the elevator, no action had been taken, as there was not enough evidence to show that he had done anything wrong. Six months later, however, TMZ released the graphic video, which showed Rice knocking the woman unconscious. He was charged with felony aggravated assault but was able to avoid jail time and has since stated that the elevator incident was the biggest mistake of his life.[5] It’s unknown if he will ever be able to return to the sport he loves so much.

5 Plaxico Burress

Photo credit: Jeffrey Beall

Plaxico Burress is another NFL legend who played as a wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers, the New York Giants, and the New York Jets. His career began at Michigan State University, where he set a record for the most passes caught in a single season with a whopping 65 catches. He also came close to the records of most touchdown catches, receptions, and receiving yards and was ranked as the MVP of his team. In 2000, he was drafted into the Pittsburgh Steelers, but due to an injury, he only played 12 games in his first NFL season. Although he was a great player on the field, he gained a reputation of being a problem off the field, which meant that when he became a free agent in 2004, his options were limited, and the Steelers would not sign him again. He eventually ended up with a contract with the New York Giants, where he fought to repair his reputation by playing an amazing season. It was with the Giants that he helped secure a win at the 2008 Super Bowl against the New England Patriots. So where did he go wrong?

His second season with the Giants got off to a horrible start. He was suspended from a game for violating team rules. It wasn’t long after this that he made the mistake which would lead to his demise. At the end of 2008, Burress was admitted to a hospital after shooting himself in the leg at New York night club. He claimed that he was being lead upstairs with his friends by a security guard to get away from the crowd when he lost his footing, resulting in his gun being unhooked from his belt. In an attempt to catch it before it hit the floor, he accidentally pulled the trigger on his own leg. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the shot to the leg that ruined his career but rather the fact that he didn’t have a license to be carrying the gun. He ended up serving 20 months in jail for criminal possession of a firearm and paid a heavy fine.[6]

After being released in 2011, he did attempt to make a comeback by signing with the New York Jets and then again with the Steelers, but it was too late. His career was already over.

4 Michael Vick

NFL quarterback Michael Vick drew attention from the NFL while he was playing for Virginia Tech in his sophomore year. He also drew the attention of the MLB, who attempted to draft him. However, he decided instead to skip his final years of college to play in the NFL. Upon this decision, he was quickly drafted as quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons. He signed onto a six-year contract, during which he would star as the team’s starting quarterback and lead them to victories, eventually landing him a ten-year contract extension. Everything seemed to be falling in place for Vick, as he was basically set for life with a career on an incredible team. So why did he throw it away?

Not long into his contract, it seemed that stardom had gotten to Vick’s head, and officials began to question whether he had the maturity levels to handle the amount of pressure that had been put on him at such a young age. The Falcons began to perform poorer and poorer, and although Vick was still putting up good numbers, he wasn’t supporting the team in the way he had when he was first signed. He bought a house in Georgia, which, in the long run, proved to be more of a playground for him and his friends than a place of living for a serious athlete.

In 2004, a truck owned by Vick was seized, and the two drivers were arrested after they were discovered to be transporting a large amount of marijuana. Vick, however, was never charged. A year later, he was sued for allegedly giving a woman a sexually transmitted disease, and then two years after that, things spiraled even more out of control. Authorities investigating a drug-related tip-off raided Vick’s property, which lead to the discovery of a dog fighting scene run by him and his friends.[7] After authorities uncovered damning evidence linking Vick to the ring, he pleaded guilty and served 21 months in prison. He eventually returned to the NFL but is now retired.

3 Tiger Woods

Photo credit: Keith Allison

Professional golfer Tiger Woods officially turned pro in 1996 and proved himself to be competitive and unrelenting while building his career. His achievements include 105 worldwide wins and 14 majors as well as a huge number of successful projects off the course. He is founder and CEO of TGR, an enterprise made of his companies and philanthropic projects. These include TGR Design, the TGR Foundation, TGR Live, and The Woods Jupiter. Among all his successes, he holds 79 PGA Tour wins, which is the second-highest for any one player in the world. In 2001, he became the first golfer ever to hold all major professional titles in one year, including the Masters Tournament, PGA Championship, US Open Championship, and the British Open Championship. Overall, he is ranked as one of the most outstanding players in his field of all time. So what happened?

“Scandal,” they called it. It all started in 2010 with Tiger’s wife chasing him out of the house wielding a golf club at him after learning that he had been unfaithful. She knew there was at least one other woman, perhaps maybe two, but this night would come to unveil the true ugly behind Tiger Woods. His then-wife, Elin Nordegren, went through his phone while it was unattended and called the girl he was having an affair with, leaving a voice mail. Upon realizing what had happened, Woods attempted to cover his tracks, but he was already too late. Nordegren continued to spy and found yet another affair her husband was having through his phone. She ambushed him while he was half-asleep with the golf club, resulting in him attempting a get away in his Escalade, only to crash.

After this incident made the news, there was an outpouring of truth from porn stars, strippers, escorts, and party girls, who all stepped forward to confess their affairs with Tiger Woods. After the confessions, there were 15 known mistresses, one of whom was underage. This was enough to ruin the reputation Woods had worked so hard to build up and temporarily pushed him into hiding. While it didn’t ruin his game, it did mar his sponsorship deals and his image in the public eye. Never again would his career be at the same level.[8]

2 O.J. Simpson

Photo credit: Myung J. Chun/AP

O.J. Simpson, born in 1947, became a football superstar during his college years at the University of Southern California. Although he initially had trouble getting onto the team due to his poor grades, he eventually gained his fame playing for the USC Trojans, where he set NCAA records and won the Heisman Trophy in 1968. From here, he joined the Buffalo Bills, where he had a rocky start before excelling and becoming the first NFL player to successfully rush more than 2,000 yards in a single season. In 1979, he retired from professional football to pursue a career as a sportscaster and actor. Ironically, back in 1974, he played a man framed for murder by police in The Klansman. He also had a starring role in The Naked Gun series.

During his career, Simpson struggled with a poor marriage and divorce after losing his daughter when she drowned in the family swimming pool right before her second birthday. His second wife Nicole Brown, with whom he had two kids, also complained to friends about how he physically abused her. In 1989, the couple attended a New Year’s Eve party where Simpson was witnessed threatening to kill Brown. He, however, managed to brush off the incident in TV interview,s stating that it was just a fight and that both parties were in the wrong and spoke of how they had since moved on with their life together.

In 1994, however, the bodies of Brown and Ron Goldman, a close friend of hers, were discovered stabbed to death outside their Los Angeles home. It wasn’t long until police were on the hunt for Simpson as a major suspect in the crime and ordered him to surrender himself. Although he pleaded not guilty and was acquitted of all charges, he was later found liable for the wrongful deaths of Brown and Goldman. Unfortunately, the signs were there from an early age for Simpson, as he was once part of a gang called the Persian Warriors, which landed him in the San Francisco Youth Guidance Center in 1962.

Following the incident, Simpson was to publish a ghostwritten book called If I Did It, but the book’s rights ended up in the hands of the Goldman family, who edited the book to add commentary and published it under the edited title of If I Did It: Confessions of the Killer. Finally, in 2008, Simpson and a friend were convicted on 12 counts of armed robbery and kidnapping, which landed them with up to 33 years in prison.[9] Simpson was granted parole and released in 2017, but he’d long since ruined any good reputation he’d built for himself during his NFL years.

1 Oscar Pistorius

Photo credit: Chris Eason

Born in South Africa in 1986, Oscar Pistorius (aka the Blade Runner) overcame all odds when he became hugely active in the international sporting community despite having had both his legs amputated when he was an infant. He began running at the age of 16, and a mere few months later, he stood on the podium and received a gold medal at the Athens Paralympics. After this, Pistorius was able to compete in competition with able-bodied athletes, as his level of success among the Paralympians became too high. In 2012, he was the first amputee to ever compete in track events at the Olympics. After this success, however, everything turned south for Pistorius as he was thrown into trials over the murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.

In 2013, Pistorius was arrested after shooting and killing his girlfriend through the bathroom door, allegedly believing she was an intruder. He was ultimately found guilty of culpable homicide and reckless endangerment and sentenced to five years in prison. After being freed just one year into his sentence, an appeals court overturned the original judge’s decision and upgraded his conviction to murder. He was sentenced to serve six years in prison.[10] His sentence was later increased to 13 years, and he will be eligible for parole in 2023.

There is still to this day a lot of debate on social media as to whether Pistorious’s story is believable or not. If he thought the person in the bathroom was an intruder, where did he think his girlfriend was?

My name is Tarni Kirkpatrick and I am the author and editor of Life in Wonderland, an online travel blog. I started this when I began my journey around the world, and it has been growing ever since. Check it out at or add me on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook.


For more on the shadier side of sports, check out 10 Bizarre Ways Athletes Tried To Cheat and 10 Sporting Events Plagued By Human Rights Abuses.

fact checked by Jamie Frater