The 25 Greatest Villains in American Sports History
Beloved sports heroes get all the glory, girls and gobs of positive press heaped on them by the whole of the sports media. Worlds like "hero," "role model" and "American treasure" are often used to describe many in professional sports.
Well, maybe I'm the only one who throws around "American treasure" on the regular, but the rest is true.
That's because every great, or even mediocre, story needs a hero. Some tall, handsome and built character to come in to kill a bunch of bumbling wannabe assassins, slay the dragon and get the girl. But a story with just a hero is really no story at all. Every story worth reading needs a villain.
Throughout sports history, there have been plenty who are ready, willing and able to play the villain. Some relish in the role, others just can't fight it and some find themselves in it completely by accident. But how they get there is irrelevant; what matters is that they're there.
Here are the 25 greatest villains in American sports history.
25. Chad Johnson, NFL Free Agent
Unemployed wide receiver Chad Johnson used to be pretty easy to root for. He had a diva personality when he was in Cincinnati; his performance on the field made his antics more entertaining and less of a distraction.
Even when he went to New England and failed miserably at learning the playbook, many still rooted for Johnson. And then there was Miami where the Dolphins signed him tentatively and dismissed him decisively after he was accused of assaulting his wife Evelyn Lozada by head-butting her.
Johnson had never really been considered a villain, but it's a pretty tough title to shake once it's received.
24. Tie Domi, Retired NHL
Image via http://www.unathleticmag.com
The NFL and NHL have both been struggling with player safety after a number of recent tragic deaths and suicides have shined a spotlight on the long-term implications of repeated head injuries. For years in the NHL, there was no greater example of goonery than long-time Maple Leaf Tie Domi.
Domi, despite marginal-at-best talent, played professional hockey for just under two decades. He managed to maintain employment for so long because he had one purpose and one purpose only: Beat the hell out of the opposition. Domi racked up countless fines, suspensions, horrifying cheap shots and even once jumped out of a penalty box to fight a fan.
The villainous career of Tie Domi is often cited as one of the biggest reasons the NHL needed to change or die, and the newfound emphasis on player safety was a step in that direction. Domi finished his career with 1,020 games played, 245 total points and an epic 3,515 penalty minutes.
23. Alex Rodriguez, New York Yankees
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If Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez had his own sitcom, it would be titled Everybody Hates Alex Rodriguez. Or at least it would be until it was on the losing end of a lawsuit levied by semi-funny man Ray Romano.
Honestly, I'm not sure why everyone hates A-Rod so much—I'm not even sure why I hate him so much. Yes, he's an egomaniacal jerk. Yes, he dates women that make him an endless source of tabloid fodder. Yes, he's used steroids. And yes, he's overpaid and plays for the Yankees.
But, really, that doesn't make him all that much different from a lot of athletes out there, most of whom are not as universally derided as A-Rod. And it's not like it's just Yankee haters hating on him for being a Yankee.
There aren't even many Yankees fans who can find something good to say about this guy.
22. Four Major League Sports Commissioners
Image via http://www.walkoffwalk.com
The truth is, when you're the boss, people are going to hate you. It doesn't matter if you're good or bad or somewhere in the middle, you're always going to be the heavy to take the heat when things go wrong.
In the past, there have been beloved sports commissioners, but that is going to be the exception, not the rule, moving forward.
We all know that sports are changing today—except for baseball, which seems intent on institutionalizing failure—and the suits in charge are constantly having to make decisions that make people hate them. We all have our reasons for hating these guys, so I'm just going to tell you why I hate them.
MLB's Bud Selig
He once called a tie at an All-Star Game.
NHL's Gary Bettman
He's the reason NHL games were broadcast on Versus, THE HUNTING NETWORK, for years.
NBA's David Stern
I've never liked him much, but when he vetoed the trade of Chris Paul to the Lakers, I officially hated him.
NFL's Roger Goodell
His absolute authority that has finally been struck down in some way thanks to the Saints' Jonathan Vilma. How did the NFLPA allow the Goodell appeals process in the CBA?
21. Dwight Howard, Los Angeles Lakers
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
It hurts me to put Dwight Howard on this list because he's been one of my favorite athletes in all of sports for years. But after his unceremonious, to put it lightly, departure from Orlando, how could I not include him?
I suppose it's possible to imagine that he will one day regain the almost universal adoration he had after he spent 18 months jerking the collective chain of every Magic fan in Orlando and the entirety of the sports media. About as possible as the sun turning green and the grass turning yellow.
Howard was obviously desperate to leave Orlando and get into a bigger market, but he was afraid of attracting the vitriol that was dumped on LeBron James for years after his defection from Cleveland.
Howard instead opted for a very painful and slow saga that played out over the course of (what seemed like) forever. He didn't get to Brooklyn, but he finally got his trade and ended up in L.A., where he is sure to play the villain the rest of his career.
20. Bobby Knight, Retired NCAA Coach
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Former NCAA basketball coach Bobby Knight is second all time in wins (for men's basketball) to Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and is best known for the nearly 30 years he spent as coach of the Indiana Hoosiers.
Well sorta…Knight did lead the Hoosiers to three NCAA championships and 11 Big Ten championships, but he often made headlines for other reasons.
Knight was known to be…well…crazy. His tirades were the stuff of legend, his famous chair-hurling incident chief among them.
Knight wasn't known to coddle his players; in fact, I can't imagine he'd even be capable of coddling a newborn kitten. His actions, and overreactions, attracted as much attention as anything his team achieved on the court.
Knight was eventually fired by Indiana in 2000. The university suddenly adopted a long-overdue "zero tolerance" policy with regard to physically abusing players.
19. Skip Bayless, ESPN Screamy Screamer
Image via ESPN
ESPN's screamiest screamer, Skip Bayless, is one of the most universally derided people currently employed in the sports media. Some people appreciate his "honesty."
Others appreciate the fact that there's someone employed to scream back at Stephen A. Smith, while still others just enjoy the race-bating spectacle that he takes ghoulish glee in creating on a daily basis.
That being said, even if you appreciate some horrifying aspect of this horrifying man's horrifying personality, you almost certainly still hate him. Bayless is vile, and he takes sick pleasure in playing the villain.
Some may praise his willingness to take on sensitive issues like race in sports, but he always does it in such a way that we know just where he stands—and it's not where someone on national television should.
18. Sean Avery, (Maybe) Retired NHL
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Some people find themselves reluctant villains, flawed spirits molded by forces largely beyond their control, while others earn the label by their own rotten merits.
Retired NHL agitator Sean Avery, however, seems to enthusiastically, and seamlessly, assume the role of villain.
An aggressive forward who made his living playing on the margins of hockey’s rules (both written and unwritten), his off-the-ice eccentricities and flamboyant personality made Avery a kind of abominable combination of Tony Stark and Ed Hardy.
Beyond once uttering a nasty racial slur, Avery was suspended indefinitely by the NHL and then dismissed by the Dallas Stars for calling then-Calgary Flames defenseman Dion Phaneuf’s girlfriend (who happened to be Avery’s ex-girlfriend) “sloppy seconds.”
His crowning villainous achievement was inspiring a new NHL rule based on his buffoonery during the 2008 playoff series between the Rangers and New Jersey Devils.
The “Sean Avery Rule” was created to prevent a player from turning his back to the action to screen the goalie while standing crotch-to-mask and wildly flailing his arms and stick.
And as if the Sean Avery hockey experience wasn’t sufficiently infuriating, he’s actively and vocally promoted an interest in fashion, most notably having his internship at Vogue magazine documented on a reality show.
17. James Harrison, Pittsburgh Steelers
Image via Men's Journal
It's been just over a year since the Steelers' James Harrison gave his infamous interview with Men's Journal on which he appeared shirtless, menacing and brandishing his own guns.
The linebacker has managed to keep a relatively low profile since then; I mean, for a guy who insisted if the NFL commissioner was on fire, he wouldn't piss on him to put it out.
Although, once you admit you're a mean guy who loves beating the crap out of people, it's pretty much impossible to be anything aside from a villain.
Harrison is a beloved figure in the Steel City because of its tradition of smash-mouth football, but in a league that claims its No. 1 priority is player safety, Harrison has become the poster child for villainous behavior.
16. The Miami Heat
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I get that there are plenty of LeBron James haters out there, but seriously, I'm sick of hearing from you.
Hate on him all you want, but there's absolutely no denying that 2012 has been the year of LeBron. He won his third MVP award, his first NBA championship and third Olympic medal (two of them gold).
LeBron isn't the villain anymore! Dwight Howard took his place.
The Miami Heat, on the other hand, are a completely different story. They are definitely villains; the team of All-Stars that you love to hate and who love that you hate them.
They love that you hate them because they're winners now. When the Heat were upset by the Mavericks in 2011, the entire country, outside Miami, celebrated as if their own mother won the championship.
At least they had their moment in the sun, because these guys have at least a couple more championships in their future.
15. The New England Patriots
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People hate the Patriots for a lot of reasons. Obviously, the infamous "Spygate" incident remains chief among them. But it's really time to just put that whole issue to bed because there are plenty of other reasons to hate the Pats.
The best way to do this is in numerical order:
1. They're better than your team. They just are. Only the Steelers have come close the success of the Patriots in the 2000s, and they're still one Lombardi Trophy short.
2. Tom Brady is better than your quarterback and better than you as a human being. He's got three Super Bowl rings, a supermodel wife, gigantic piles of money and mansions in three time zones.
3. Bill Belichick is a terrible human being, but an excellent coach. Basically, he operates like an efficient robot. He hasn't paid Wes Welker because he knows he won't get the full return on his investment. He cut Tiquan Underwood the day before the 2012 Super Bowl.
4. They always manage to make treasure out of trash. Wes Welker was a nobody before he signed with the Pats and we all know freaking Tom Brady was a sixth-round draft pick.
Pretty much everyone who isn't a Patriots fan is a Patriots hater, as proven by the global celebration over the Giants' last two Super Bowl wins. You think I want the Giants to win the Super Bowl? No way. But I celebrated like I just won the lottery because the Pats didn't.
14. Pete Rose, 'Retired' MLB Player and Coach
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They don't call Pete Rose "Charlie Hustle" for nothing. They should call Pete Rose "Charlie Hustle" because he's a hustler whose penchant for gambling on baseball earned him permanent ineligibility from baseball and the Baseball Hall of Fame.
He gambled on games as a player and as a manager, even betting on his own team, the Cincinnati Reds.
Rose's achievements in the sport cannot be denied and perhaps they wouldn't be if he hadn't spent more than a decade denying his gambling. Rose eventually came clean in 2004 about betting on baseball, but never confessed to betting on the Reds.
And then there's his very icky personal life. After separating from his (second) wife of over 20 years, Rose began dating wannabe-model Kiana Kim. The couple took to The Howard Stern Show in 2010 to discuss the disgusting details of their sex life. Shudder.
13. Barry Bonds, Retired MLB
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What can you say about Barry Bonds? Before juicing up, he was a surefire Hall of Famer, but he morphed into a big-headed (literally and figuratively) home run hitting monster.
He was arrogant with the press, had a very unlikable personality and, from all accounts, was a very bad teammate.
Because of his personality and ties to performance-enhancing drugs, it is very unlikely that he will ever get into Cooperstown.
12. Terrell Owens, NFL Free Agent
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It's quite obvious that the days of the diva wide receiver are dead, and you can thank Terrell Owens, among a few others, for that.
Owens traveled from team to team over his career, wreaking havoc wherever he went, ultimately becoming the villain that people remember him as.
Owens was unable to play nice with quarterback Jeff Garcia in San Francisco, famously implying the QB was gay. Owens was even less able to play nice with quarterback Donovan McNabb in Philadelphia, famously stating the Eagles would have won with Brett Favre instead.
And Owens made a go of it with Tony Romo in Dallas—his quarterback, man—but ultimately got the boot after insisting Romo and Jason Witten were conspiring against him.
T.O. did essentially nothing in Buffalo, but he didn't make anyone cry. He padded his stats in Cincy, but he made Chad Ochocinco cry. He sat out the following season before making his "triumphant" return with the Seahawks, where he was cut in the preseason because he forgot how to catch a football.
11. Donald Sterling, L.A. Clippers Owner
Image via USA Today
Most owners of professional sports franchises keep a relatively low profile. Sure, there are the Mark Cubans of the world who only bought the Mavericks so he could be on TV every day, but they are few and far between. Cuban might be a fame-seeker, but Clippers owner Donald Sterling is a true villain.
Bucking a long-standing tradition of trying to fail, Sterling has actually been attempting to put together a decent team in recent years. But he has a long history of villainous behavior that has little to do with the Clippers.
He's been sued for sexual harassment on several occasions and has settled out of court every time, suggesting his "innocence" was questionable at best. Sterling has also been ordered to pay damages and legal fees for routine practices of housing discrimination.
How Sterling got Blake Griffin to sign a long-term extension to play for a worm like himself is anyone's guess. I wouldn't put my money on Chris Paul doing the same thing
10. John Rocker, Retired MLB
Image via Deadspin
There are plenty of angry people out there longing for the days of yore, but even they had to take issue with former Braves pitcher John Rocker's 1999 interview with Sports Illustrated.
Rocker had always been known as a "straight shooter" type, but the rant he went on would have surprised the most seasoned sports reporters.
The Braves were in town to play the rival Mets, and John Rocker decided to let it all hang out, in terms of what he thought about New York City. Like all of it.
In an interview peppered with f-bombs, racial slurs and, judging by the excessive exclamation points, what I can only imagine was a lot of screaming, Rocker cemented his status as a villain.
The overall message seemed to be that if you weren't a white male from not New York City, Rocker had something very mean to say about you. Rocker railed on about foreigners, gay people, welfare mothers, people with AIDS and called a black teammate a "monkey" for good measure.
9. Marty McSorley, Retired NHL
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Marty McSorley's NHL career was remarkably similar to that of Tie Domi's, only McSorley had the fortune to play with the legendary Wayne Gretzky on the Oilers for a few years, which means his name is etched on the Stanley Cup twice. Talk about a travesty of justice.
In his two decades playing professional hockey, McSorley's primarily role was that of enforcer; he served as Gretzky's bodyguard during his time in Edmonton. His career ended in 2003 after being convicted of assault resulting from an on-ice incident with the Canucks' Donald Brashear.
McSorley was suspended indefinitely for the incident, but he managed to avoid jail time. He finished his unremarkable career, except for his extreme violence, with 916 games played, 359 total points and 3,381 penalty minutes.
8. Sherwood Blount Jr., Former SMU Booster
Image via http://themajors.net [not pictured: Sherwood Blount Jr.]
Whenever the NCAA initiates an investigation into possible rule infractions by a university’s football program, the phrase “death penalty” inevitably finds its way into the story.
The death of Southern Methodist University football in 1987, and the events that led to its demise, remain a dark reminder of how money, power and, ultimately, the desire to win can poison the spirit of collegiate athletics.
The scandal exposed the dark world of university boosters, with SMU representing an especially egregious example of how deep pockets enticed blue-chip recruits and wielded influence.
And if SMU was the symbol of institutional corruption, then Sherwood Blount Jr. is the face of it.
A Dallas-area real estate developer and sports agent, SMU alum Blount was the architect behind the pay-to-play scheme that brought prized recruits like Eric Dickerson to the school.
Even after SMU was placed on probation in 1985 for recruiting violations related to improper booster involvement, Blount created a slush fund that made payments totaling $61,000 to various players.
Blount’s role, and the web of deceit that reached all the way to then-Texas governor Bill Clement, seems more fit for a primetime cable thriller than as a dark, cautionary tale of a football program that lost its soul.
Because of Blount’s arrogance and desire to win at any cost, a football program that was once a powerhouse is now a scar on the history of college football.
7. Albert Haynesworth, NFL Free Agent
Once-great defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth is out of a job, with good reason.
When he was playing for the Titans, he was one of the greatest defensive players in the game, but he often found himself in trouble. In 2006, Haynesworth was suspended for a then-unprecedented five games for stomping on the head of Cowboys center Andre Gurode.
Despite that incident and a few notable road-rage problems, the Redskins were first in line to give the free agent a $100 million contract in 2009. Unfortunately, it turns out the two had a difference of opinion on what $100 million bought them.
The Skins thought it bought them a good football player who would play football. Haynesworth thought the contract meant the Skins thought he was their "slave."
Haynesworth got in trouble for road rage again in Virginia and was accused of sexual assault before the Skins cut him and the Patriots decided to take a chance. He was almost immediately cut by the Pats and then again by the Buccaneers. Let's just hope we've seen the last of him.
6. Latrell Sprewell, Retired NBA
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When you think of villains in the NBA, Latrell Sprewell immediately comes to mind.
With the Golden State Warriors in 1997, he choked head coach P.J. Carlesimo in practice, ultimately resulting in a 68-game suspension.
Another famous incident took place with the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2004. They offered Sprewell a three year, $21 million contract, to which he said, "I have a family to feed."
Currently, Sprewell is not allowed to see his children. Yeah, not exactly a model citizen.
5. Floyd Mayweather Jr., Boxer
I've written often about boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. I'm not going to deny his talent, although I'm certain he challenges lesser opponents.
For what he's said about Manny Pacquiao, it's stale. I'm going to quote myself in an earlier article because wrapping up his rap sheet again would take far too long:
2002: Convicted of two counts of domestic violence and one count of misdemeanor battery.
2004: Convicted of misdemeanor battery of two women in a night club.
2005: Acquitted of assaulting his girlfriend after she changed her story on the stand. He also pled no contest to misdemeanor assault.
2009: Mayweather’s home was searched after his car and one of his associates was identified fleeing the scene of a Las Vegas shooting.
2010: Arrested and charged with three misdemeanor harassment charges, felony grand larceny, two felony coercion and one felony robbery charge. And he probably would have been arrested for a confrontation with rapper Rick Ross had Diddy not intervened.
2011: Arrested for misdemeanor assault, stemming from an incident in October 2011; Mayweather threatened to have security guards shot for ticketing his cars. Witnesses alleged Floyd said:
My homies have guns. If you want me to call them, they'd come over here and take care of you. These are my f**king cars. Don't touch my f**king cars.
He just recently emerged from jail, and the world is now a less safe place.
4. Bobby Petrino, Former Arkansas Coach
Image via USA Today
When former Falcons coach Bobby Petrino resigned 13 games into his tenure, just hours after getting blown out on Monday Night Football in December 2007, I didn't think it could get much worse.
But after leaving in the middle of the night, we found out that he said goodbye to his players in Atlanta with a typed note taped to their lockers.
Surely it couldn't get worse? Well, it did. Petrino immediately hopped a plane because he was due at a press conference the next afternoon where he would be named the next head coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks.
The whole situation stunk and people weren't quick to forgive, but Petrino built a solid program in Fayetteville. We all know that winning solves everything. Well, almost everything.
Petrino found the one thing winning couldn't solve after the details of a sordid affair with a student-athlete began to emerge following a motorcycle accident.
After initially trying to deny, deny, deny, Petrino was forced to come clean on everything—including the fact that he hired his lady love to work for the football program.
3. Tonya Harding, 'Retired' Figure Skater
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Tony Harding and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly orchestrated one of the most bumbling "hits" in sports history. Harding, sick of getting upstaged by American ice princess Nancy Kerrigan, hatched a scheme to "fix" her problem.
There are countless versions of how the plot evolved, but in the end, it was decided that one of the bigger, dumber hooligans would club her knee at the U.S. Nationals, thereby incapacitating her and keeping her out of the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer.
Fun fact: You usually need more than a stick and one hit to severely injury someone's knee. The whole spectacle was an abject failure; Kerrigan healed in time for the Olympics, where she won silver.
Harding was almost immediately linked to the plot, but she was allowed to compete in the Games with the investigation still pending. She placed eighth, and things only went downhill from there.
2. Ty Cobb, Retired MLB (1886-1961)
Image via sportsandgrits.com
If you need proof that greatness on the field bears little relation to the person that achieves it, look no further than the legendary Ty Cobb.
A true baseball pioneer, Cobb’s mastery of both the physical and intellectual aspects of the game paved the way for the kind of transcendent Hall of Fame career to which few players can lay claim.
If Major League Baseball had a “Mount Rushmore,” Cobb’s visage would surely be on it.
However, for all his feats in the game, the man played and lived like a true antagonist. As a player and manager, he was almost universally loathed by his teammates. Arguably the most popular and well-known player of his era, he didn’t let his celebrity soften his volatile personality and contentious style.
Over the course of his career, Cobb unapologetically assaulted a heckler in the stands, despite the victim having lost both hands in an industrial accident; engaged in old-time fisticuffs with an umpire; and played deranged mind games with close friend “Shoeless” Joe Jackson just to gain a competitive advantage.
He once assaulted an African-American elevator attendant for being “uppity” and then stabbed the nightwatchman who came to the attendant’s assistance; took every opportunity possible to denigrate rising star Babe Ruth; potentially fixed a game he bet on; and generally spent his career and life building his legend in ways both awe-inspiring and controversial.
Essentially, Cobb created the template for many of the greatest, but flawed, players of the modern era.
1. Don King, Boxing Promoter
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Don King is often said to be almost single-handedly responsible for the downfall of boxing. He was supposedly a "promoter" of fighters and the sport in general, but the only thing that Don King has ever promoted in his entire life is Don King.
Arguably, his most famous association was with former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, who blames King for pretty much everything that went wrong in his life. King swindled Tyson out of millions over a decade, and Tyson received $14 million of it back as the result of a suit.
Other fighters that have sued (or been involved in litigation with) King: Muhammad Ali, Larry Holmes, Tim Witherspoon and Terry Norris. Most of those were settled out of court by King. But that's just boxing.
King is also a double-murderer. In 1966, King was convicted of second-degree murder for shooting someone in the back, but the conviction was ultimately overturned because it was determined that the shooting was justifiable. He was later convicted of second-degree murder for stomping someone to death over a $600 debt.
King served just four years, and the murder charge was later pardoned by the governor of Ohio.
And I'm No Villain...
But I did live in Hawaii for a while, so you're probably a little jealous.
So you should probably follow me on Twitter, because I ain't scurred of fish.