12 Real-Life "Heel Turns" in Sports History
In pro wrestling, the in-ring performers are usually assigned one of two characteristics: “Face,” or the good guy who represents the noble and honorable virtues of sport, or “Heel,” the guy who represents the compromises of those qualities.
When a character is deemed to be stale, creative powers-that-be will orchestrate a “turn,” changing the character from one side to the other.
But in real non-scripted sports, we’ve seen the equivalent. Athletes and teams who represent one side of the moral spectrum will suddenly or gradually “turn” from one side to the other. Loved by fans, they will fall from grace and suddenly find themselves the target of scorn, ridicule and—worst of all—a lack of endorsement deals.
Here’s a list of 10 of what I think are some of the great “heel turns” in sports; of those who were once loved by fans everywhere and then found themselves loathed.
Easily the funniest name on this list, Zidane was arguably one of the best and most-loved soccer players of the 20th century, falling on the tier right below Pele and Diego Maradona, and on par with Johann Cruyff, Ronaldo and Franz Beckenbauer. Although I could be wrong, since a 2004 fan poll voted him the best footballer of the previous 50 years, which includes those legends.
He brought Paris its biggest celebration since being liberated from Nazi Germany, leading France to its only World Cup in 1998. After a disappointing showing in 2002 due to injury, he helped lead France to the World Cup Final in 2006 against Italy.
Additionally, Zidane had also led France to a Euro Cup title in 2000 and won league championships in Italy and Spain, where he also helped Real Madrid win a Champions League crown.
In what was planned to be his final soccer game ever, the stage was set for him to go out on top. He was already received the Golden Ball as the tournament's best player.
Instead, he got red-carded by delivering a headbutt to Italian Marco Materazzi in the 110th minute. Replays showed the headbutt was at-best verbally provoked, and both participants admitted that what was said involved something very derogatory about Zidane's sister. The French had to play the rest of the game with only 10 players, which may have cost France its second chance to be Champions du Monde in three tries, as France ended up losing in a shootout.
For all he accomplishments he had prior to that, it’s almost tragic he’ll be remembered for the one act of stupidity that sent him off the pitch for the final time.
When he first came on the scene, Eldrick “Tiger” Woods was a can’t-miss fan favorite. Humble, and just as competitive as he was successful, his reign over the game gave golf a youthful shot in the arm it hadn’t seen in almost 20 years.
It’d be easy to say that his troubles began with his Thanksgiving 2009 one-car accident. But in essence, his heel turn—in my mind—began before that.
It annoyed me that ratings would go down when he missed a tournament, a signal that says that fans were of him and not the game itself. Of course, the media bought into it: Tiger finished seventh. What this means for Tiger. Can Tiger bounce back? Oh, yeah. Here’s some guy who won the tournament instead of Tiger. Hey buddy! How’s it feel getting a victory over Tiger?
Of course, it wasn’t like his off-course personality was winning fans, unless you like dry and boring people. Showing all the personality of a tax accountant halfway through an audit, he married Elin Nordgren, a Swedish/supermodel/nanny. Yep, gotta be the shoes.
Then finally it happened: the accident. The cell phone messages. The mistresses coming out of the woodwork. (Okay, I get the porn stars…but a Perkins waitress?!? You cheated on her with a Perkins Waitress?!? Your league’s the porn stars. Mine’s the Perkins waitresses. C’mon, man!)
What made it worse was he set the standard later used by LeBron James when it came to running to Nike for a PR fix, which understandably became instant fodder for parody and satire.
While I’m not cheering his ongoing health problems, I’m certainly not crying any rivers should his career total of wins of major tournaments falls short of Jack Nicklaus.
Gone from the consciousness of sports for the past two decades, one cannot deny that Martina Navratilova’s story included it ups and downs in terms of public image.
Initially, you had to root for her. A slightly-overweight Navratilova sacrificed her friends and family back in her native (and Communist) Czechoslovakia to defect to the United States. Her game was raw, but her effort was limitless. Her emotion on the court made her more human than most athletes.
Initially, her “wall” she kept running into was Chris Evert, the world’s best women’s player at the time when tennis was at its peak in the United States. Evert, one of America’s sweethearts, was pushed by Navratilova, but for the most part, it was very even.
Then in the early 1980s, Navratilova got her act together. Now fully out of the closet as a lesbian, she lost the weight, became much stronger and turned into a machine that devoured any player—even Evert—in her path. With her muscular build, killer instinct and terrible mullet*, she was a female Ivan Drago with a tennis racket.
And just as loved. Media took advantage of the stereotypes of her body, nationality (even though she had been naturalized as a U.S. citizen at the time), sexuality and success, painting her as good-girl Evert’s on-court bully.
Navratilova admitted she let her competitiveness interfere with what few knew was a sister-like friendship she had with Evert, and the ESPN documentary “Unmatched,” it explores that all broken ties between them have been mended. But for that time in the 1980s, there was no woman you could root to fail more than Martina.
*Even she rolls her eyes with regret when discussing her old hairdo. When discussing bad sports mullets, why isn’t hers ever mentioned? Just saying.
You know how bad Red Sox and Yankees fans get into it with each other. Now imagine if those two armies were in the same city, dividing neighborhoods—and maybe homes.
That in a nutshell was every National League fan in New York prior to 1957. While the Yankees were the chief export of New York, the Giants and Dodgers represented the non-Broadway/Empire State Building/tourist New York. On one hand, you had the Giants, in the tradition of baseball’s first superstar—the educated, professional Christy Matthewson. On the other side, you had the blue-collar Dodgers. “Dem Bums,” representing Brooklyn, the last borough to join the Big Apple.
The Dodgers were managed by Leo “The Lip” Durocher, who played on the “Gas House Gang” Cardinals in St. Louis. His style was a perfect fit in Brooklyn, as he raised franchise to its first World Series in 21 years.
His most famous quote was “Nice guys finish last.”
But after the Dodgers won the senior circuit pennant in 1947 while he was serving a one-year suspension for hanging out with gamblers, his difficult relationship with the team’s front office worsened as he was proven to be expendable. But he was a fan favorite in Brooklyn.
After a tenuous start to the 1948 campaign began, the unthinkable happened: Durocher left the Dodgers and became the Giants manager.
Three years later, the Giants pulled off their famous comeback to win the 1951 pennant over the Dodgers. Sweet revenge, eh. Well, it was later discovered that the Giants were using a system of relays to steal signs, meaning Giant Bobby Thomson probably knew what pitch he was hitting when he hit the pennant-clinching home run.
Honestly, Do you think that Durocher had no idea this was going on?
An undrafted free agent from Kent State, James Harrison was signed and released, then signed and released, then signed and released, then signed again—all by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
After finally securing a spot on the team, Harrison worked his way up the depth chart, eventually becoming a lynch pin of the Steelers’ Super Bowl XLIII defense.
His highlight of that game was the last play of the first half. With Arizona knocking on the door, Harrison drops back into coverage on a goal line formation, picking off a quick slant by Arizona QB Kurt Warner, then weaving downfield for a touchdown.
A career that could’ve never started now made the difference between winning and losing a Super Bowl. How could you not root for that?
Then it happened. Week 6 of the 2010 season against the Cleveland Browns. Leading with his helmet, his hits that took Browns’ WR/KR Josh Cribs and WR Mohammed Massaquoi out of the game were highlighted as examples of the dangers of helmet-leading hits. Harrison believed that he was making "clean and legal hits," and many Steelers said that the NFL was targeting the team for their play, highlighted by the linebacker.
Following his protests, he has found himself first and foremost in Goodell’s sights.
If you like hard hits that leave players dazed, then this isn’t really a heel turn for he isn’t a heel; but if you think his style of play is reckless and too bent on causing pain and injury, then the 2010 season made Harrison your poster boy for unnecessary roughness.
(The good stuff happens at roughly 2:30 in the video)
In an era that no pitcher would dare throw against hitters staring at the Green Monster waiting to hit an easy double off it, Roger Clemens brought his Cy Young talent to the Fens after a stellar career at the University of Texas that had everyone seeing the next Nolan Ryan.
A record-setting (and milestone-setting) 20-strikeout performance against the Seattle Mariners gave him his place in history. But for his career in Boston, his history really lies with helping the Red Sox become a consistent playoff contender.
However, after he left Boston after the 1996 season, the bitter taste of then-GM Dan Duquette’s reasoning of being in the "twilight" of his career (despite repeating his 20-strikeout feat that year) seemingly made him sour on the mound. Although he returned to form as a Toronto Blue Jay, winning another Cy Young Award, his days with the New York Yankees spelled the beginning of the end of his days as a good guy.
He began throwing his “chin music” too close for comfort, to the point Commissioner Bud Selig had to step in. Then his on-field crowning moment in his “heel turn” came when he threw a piece of Mike Piazza’s broken bat at him as Piazza was running to first.
But as bad as his on-field misgivings were, off the field it ended up being worse.
One of the most “marquee” names in the noted “Mitchell report” for taking steroids as a player, it showed his career’s resilience was compromised. His response was to deny, deny and deny some more, to the point where it’s ended up in court—a wonderful use of tax dollars.
Than again, there’s also his affair with country music singer Mindy McCready, whom he met when she was how old at the time? Despite the fact she said it never was "physical" until years later, it makes you wonder what he was thinking before then.
Many thought he was a reach when Steelers Coach Bill Cowher drafted him 11th in the first round of the 2003 draft. He wasn’t supposed to play, like most rookies in Pittsburgh. But an injury to starter Tommy Maddox put him under center. Although he learned the game under the on-field shelter of Pittsburgh’s running game, you had to admire watching him grow into the passing game, shedding potential sacks like Teflon.
When he was overmatched by Bill Belichick in the 2005 AFC Championship Game, you had to feel for the rookie.
In his second year, he won a Super Bowl, despite several debated calls, including a third quarter quarterback sneak which the replay showed he had clearly not made it. The next day on The Late Show with David Letterman, he was almost blushing as he admitted he was surprised by the fortunate-yet-inaccurate call. Hey, even he thought it was a bad call. Gotta love that, right?
Then the heel turn started, albeit gradually. First was the motorcycle accident. Buy hey, accidents happen; it wasn’t even his fault. (But he wasn’t wearing a helmet when he should have) When the first allegation of sexual misconduct came along, you wanted to give a benefit of the doubt, that his alleged victim was just confused. But as details came out, it kept stretching your benefit of the doubt. At the very best, he just acted dumb.
You thought he was over it. But he didn’t exactly help his likeability by throwing a dagger into the hearts of Cardinal fans (Even if there are only two of them for every 451 black and yellow-wearing StillerNationals), stealing Kurt Warner’s Super Bowl swansong and ruining the feel-good story of Larry Fitzgerald’s dad covering his own son winning the Super Bowl. Or maybe it was his shot at redemption from the investigation.
But then the second allegation of sexual misconduct. Bye-bye redemption. As more and more details came out about the case, the more it showed that he hadn’t learned a thing from the first time. As details emerged, there’s no way you could applaud his behavior.
Then came the Sports Illustrated article, uncovering a history of bad behavior. The legend that he had ridden on one-wheel by a local news van without a helmet. He was the only Steeler that nightclubs would charge at the door. Not that he couldn’t afford it, but the message was the same: He was a disgrace to the Steeler name, even in Pittsburgh.
Since then, he has apologized, served a four-game suspension and gotten engaged. You never know. Maybe his “heel turn” won’t be a permanent one, but for a heel turn, it was a doozy.
Women’s figure skating is supposed to be for delicate little princesses. (I know, I know. It IS a lot of skill, athleticism and mental toughness, but the stereotype is what it is. Back off.) So when Tonya Harding showed up, with her blue-collar and humble roots, seeing her pull off the first triple axel by a woman was a small example of the American Dream that ability could take you from anywhere to anywhere you want to go. She was never the prettiest girl on the rink, but you had to love the spunk.
If you’re too young to remember 1994 (and never got around to looking it up), here’s what happened:
Fearing she wouldn’t make that year’s Olympic team, she and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (and some others) hatched a plan. Seeing her main rival was Nancy Kerrigan, an arrangement was made prior to the Olympic Trials in Detroit to take Kerrigan out. The method: smashing her knee with a baton and keeping her from competing.
While the media feasted on the story as the plot was uncovered, Harding made the team. However, criminal charges were made against Gillooly, who testified against Harding as part of a plea agreement. Her denial and silence over the saga, and lack of condemnation and sympathy for Kerrigan, reduced her from spunky girl to trailer trash.
By the time the games in Lillihammer, Norway began, it was all but certain that Harding was in on the attack. Kerrigan, who was given a special inclusion onto the team because of the assault, was the perfect victim, especially as she resiliently prepared her routines practicing on the same rink at the same time as Harding.
In the end, Kerrigan ended up winning a silver medal, while Harding finished eighth after crying her eyes out from a broken skate lace during her routine. After it was officially confirmed she was in on the attack on Kerrigan, Harding was banned from figure skating, but unfortunately not a successful career in celebrity boxing, a terrible career in sanctioned boxing and a good run on TruTV as a commentator on "World's Dumbest Criminals." Go figure.
Why she never tried women’s hockey is beyond me, but she seems pretty comfortable away from the rarified element of figure skating anyway.
But what a fall from grace that was.
We were all witnesses to this one.
His high school games went from the local gym to nearest college campus if not pro arenas: in his junior year. Raised by a single mother, James was the quintessential case of using sports to lift yourself up. On court, he was a highlight machine. Off it, an awkward-but-humble kid you couldn’t help want to give his class’ commencement speech to.
His entrance into the NBA was almost a fairy tale. The top pick of the draft, he found himself playing for the nearby Cleveland Cavaliers, a franchise that’d never won a championship in its (then) 33-year history, in a city that hadn’t won a championship since before his mother was born.
Virtually anointed by the basketball media as the closest thing we’d see to Michael Jordan since No. 23 himself, the destiny was set: End the title famine in his “hometown” as he became the centerpiece of a basketball dynasty.
Despite making the NBA Finals in 2007, that destiny never materialized. Seeing his frustration, other franchises saw the contract extension that was only three years and subsequent lack of commitment to Cleveland as a sign to woo him away. Even before the 2010 playoffs, the foreshadowing of his departure was looming over Cleveland like the Death Star loomed over Princess Leia’s home planet of Alderaan in “Star Wars.”
As much as you wanted to believe in fairy tales, the end of Cleveland’s fairy tale with LeBron couldn’t have come to a much uglier end. With his second loss to the Boston Celtics in the postseason which many believed he tanked, he held the entire NBA hostage with baited breath, negotiating with as many as six different teams before holding a 30-minute infomercial including the announcement he’d be the lynch pin of a Superteam in Miami.
To make matters worse, his arrival in Miami came with a Borg-like declaration that resistance to his Miami Heat would be futile. Although you gotta give him credit for honesty, a bigger show of disrespect to the entire league couldn’t have been created.
While you can attribute all sorts of poetic justices to the Heat’s loss to the Dallas Mavericks in this month’s NBA Finals, chances are he’ll win one, and maybe more. But when he does, how many are really going to be happy for him, while how many are just going to shrug and not care?
When the University of Miami football program won its first national championship at the 1984 Orange Bowl, it was an awesome story. An underrated coach, local players raising themselves up through sports, complete with a dorky-looking quarterback with more football smarts than talent from an industrial town in Ohio. In a city that was struggling with racial violence and a rampant drug trade. something positive to be proud of was desperately needed, and the upstart Hurricanes answered that prayer.
But within the next decade, the “U” took many turns to destroy any clean image of itself. They arrived in fatigues for the 1987 Fiesta Bowl against Joe Paterno’s Penn State team, itself a model of good behavior. On-field fights became more occasional than rare.
The 1990 Cotton Bowl was probably the pinnacle of their notoriety. Despite being far more talented than the Texas Longhorn squad they were against, they focused more on psychological and physical punishment than they did on their skill and talents, then gloating over their punished opponent, resulting in a record number of unsportsmanlike penalties.
In the fourth quarter, wide receiver Randall “The Thrill” Hill called his own play, scoring a useless touchdown for the sole purpose of exhibiting a grand celebration of running through the tunnel and returning mocking an Old West Gunslinger.
In the ESPN documentary about that team, Hill said you could blame the architect who put the tunnel there in the stadium, the defender who didn’t adequately cover him, the quarterback for throwing a good pass…just as long as you didn’t blame the guy who, after all, consciously chose to do it.
By the time Butch Davis arrived, the Miami University program was riddled with scandals. Slush funds for players. Criminal charges, including random thefts up to corrupting the Pell Grant financial aid process, led Sports Illustrated to publish a stern report calling for the ending of the program.
However, Davis managed to turn the program around and it has returned it to its past glory. But from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, the "U" was the program you loved to hate more than you loved.
Boston in 2007
Who couldn’t have rooted for the 2004 Red Sox? (Yankees fans, put your hands down. We know.) 86 years with no title, especially with the unprecedented comeback in the American League Championship Series against the “Evil Empire” Yankees?
And who couldn’t root for the New England Patriots against the yardage machine of the St. Louis Rams led by Kurt Warner?
And while the Celtics had no success in recent memory, you felt it was okay to let them ride on the winning tradition of the team that took the NBA from virtual barnstorming to an integral part of our culture.
Then in 2007, something happened. That Red Sox team that was the champion of underdogs suddenly turned around and pulled the rug out from under the Cleveland Indians—their heir apparent in the American League, then wiped out the Colorado Rockies, who had never won a ring – with a roster that had outspent their postseason opponents. While their fans just gloated with the same supremacy this side of the House that Steinbrenner Built.
Later that fall, that football team that managed to back up their rise to glory against the Rams with two more rings started getting greedy. After the scandal of “Spygate,” they didn’t apologize for—or even admit to anything, despite the league handing out consequences. Instead, they got vindictive, running up scores on teams with the same lack of apologies.
After the Giants saved us all from Patriot fans perennial gloating of having the Greatest Team of All Time, the Celtics were up to something. In the face of tradition, which meant building a team and watching it rise, they skipped to the end, signing Ray Allen and trading eight players for Kevin Garnett, setting the standard for the Heat team many vilified this past season.
By the end of 2008, most any fan was rolling their eyes at the word “Boston,” if not cursing under their breath. Many still are.
But there was one relief: The Bruins, despite earning the top seed in the 2008-09 playoffs, a playoff series here and there. When they choked away a 3-0 lead against the Flyers (even with a 3-0 lead going into the third period of the fourth game), it seemed like that would be Boston’s return to reality.
But no. The following year, they swiped the Stanley Cup away from the Vancouver Canucks, keeping that franchise hungry for a title they haven’t won in their 40-year history, and a country who invented the game away from the championship they have not enjoyed since 1993.
If patience was a virtue, then Boston’s sports fans were saints. Now their cups are running over and they could not be more indulgent of pride. Suck it up, Bostonians! We're all hoping it won't last too much longer.
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