Renee Richards and the Most Controversial Athletes in Sports History

Eric NewmanCorrespondent IIIOctober 3, 2011

Renee Richards and the Most Controversial Athletes in Sports History

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9. Jake LaMotta and the Mob

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    Boxing fans were in awe of this man's ability to take flurries of punishing hits. According to his profile on the International Boxing Hall of Fame website, Jake LaMotta "liked to play possum in the ring, lulling opponents into a false sense of confidence before unleashing his own attack." His rise from the Bronx slums and his absolute determination to win earned him an army of followers.

    But when he took a dive for the Mafia and was found out, he fell out of favor with the public. In addition, LaMotta has confessed to thievery and spousal abuse. Take a random survey of people who have seen the film biopic about LaMotta's life, "Raging Bull," and half of them will say the man is a miserable excuse for a human being, while others will say that he's admirable despite his violent temper and poor judgment.

8. Lance Armstrong Slays Cancer, Still Battling Charges of Doping, Narcissism

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    Admired for his courageous battle against cancer, respected for his subsequent charity campaigns, revered--idolized even--for his stupefying seven wins of the Tour de France, Lance Armstrong is the stuff of legends. But allegations that he doped surfaced and kept coming back. And then there's the fact that he left his wife who stood by him while he struggled with cancer to take up with singer Sheryl Crowe (whom he later dumped shortly before they were to marry.)

    And lastly, there's the question of his character. He's been accused of being an egomaniac, a control freak, a narcissist, even a sociopath. Back in 2009, Slate magazine published a piece called "Jerkstrong." As you can imagine, it is a scathing critique of all that is Lance Armstrong. So how will history judge the man? It's hard to tell. Having only just turned 40, and considering a new career in politics, Armstrong has much ahead of him yet. 

7. Diego Maradona: Icon or Cad?

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    Maradona... Everything this man does is spun two ways. Look at some examples:

    When Diego Maradona... Supporters say he's:  Denouncers say  he's:
    ...shows support for Fidel Castro and Cesar Chavez a voice for the working class a dirty socialist
    ...wears diamond earrings and a Hublot watch on each wrist a fashion icon

    an ostentatious braggart

    ...philanders a stud, a celebrity enjoying his fame

    a cheater, a womanizer

    ...refuses to share "player of the century" accolade with Pele a rebel, a seeker of justice

    a poor sport

    ...allegedly uses his hand to score a goal in the 1986 World Cup quarter-finals sly, clever

    a cheater

    ...fails drug tests a victim of fame

     a drug addict, a cheater

    ...shoots at reporters with an air rifle a victim of fame

    a violent criminal

    ...secures record-breaking salary to play for Barcelona and then for Napoli worth every cent

    grossly overpaid

6. Arnold Schwarzenegger: Could Love Child Be the Last Straw for Beloved Idol?

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    Arnold Schwarzenegger fans could number in the billions. Go to a rural outpost in some Third World country and you're likely to see barefoot kids flexing their pecs and having mock cyborg battles. Schwarzenegger is so beloved in his hometown of Thal, Austria, that the local government there actually retired his number. Not his jersey number, his house number.

    And let's not forget that Californians elected him governor despite the fact that he barely had political experience. His popularity survived amid alleged womanizing and admitting to steroid use. But with the recent confession to fathering a love child with his housekeeper, fans may have finally had enough. Even Schwarzenegger's own son opted to change his last name. 

5. Caster Semenya: Phenomenal Runner Whose Gender Remains in Question

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    In 2009, Caster Semenya, then an 18-year-old girl from a rural village in South Africa, rocketed to fame when she set a new record for the 800-meter sprint in the Africa Junior Championships, and then a month later, won a gold medal at the World Championships in Athletics in Berlin. But her drastic improvements aroused suspicion. Defeated rivals claimed she was a man and should be ineligible to race. Ms. Semenya didn't seem to mind. She was a winner–a heroine in her country–and she had a long, promising career ahead of her. Rivals will be rivals.

    But when the International Association of Athletics Federation (I.A.A.F.) ordered testing, Ms. Semenya became an unwitting civil rights icon. Enraged fans of the young athlete, including South African President Jacob Zuma, demanded answers. Why was Semenya being singled out?

    Was race playing into it? Gender? According to a NY Times article,  the I.A.A.F. has no stated rules for sex typing. The standards shift. Not wanting to end a stunning career on the rise, Ms. Semenya agreed to the testing. The I.A.A.F. called upon a brigade of medical experts, including a geneticist, an endocrinologist, a gynecologist, and a psychologist. The results of Ms. Semenya's tests were kept private, but the I.A.A.F. allowed her to continue competing. 

3. O.J. Simpson: From Film Cop to Real-Life Crime Suspect

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    This guy had athletic talent, charm, comedic timing, good looks--even his initials evoked a wholesome morning beverage. And so we adored O.J. For years he was beloved as a football star, then a commentator, then as Officer Nordberg in the Naked Gun film trilogy. Then came a horrible crime in Brentwood, a Bronco chase, an arrest--you know the tale.

    Evidence against O.J. piled up. But the glove didn't fit, and there were no eyewitnesses. Many saw O.J.'s acquittal as a gross breach of justice. Others saw it as a civil rights victory, a cause to celebrate. With a guilty verdict in the civil trial, and another in the Las Vegas robbery case years later, many feel a criminal finally got his comeuppance. Some of his fans condemn the decisions and still assert O.J.'s innocence.

2. Renee Richards Bends Rules of Gender and Tennis

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    Ivy league graduate, U.S. Naval officer, ophthalmologist, father, husband (to a model, no less), professional tennis player, civil rights leader, author—Renee Richards has been it all, including a man and a woman. She began life as Richard Raskind, but at age 40, underwent a sex reassignment operation and reinvented herself as Renee Richards.

    She played on the women's professional tennis tour, and worked her way up to No. 20 in the singles world rankings. When she refused to take a chromosome test, the United States Tennis Association banned her from playing in the U.S. Open. She took the matter to the Supreme Court, and in a landmark decision, the court ruled in her favor. The intolerant consider her a freak, a cheat, a disgrace, but to many thousands of others, she is a hero and a symbol of bravery.

1. Laleh Seddigh Defies Culture in a Race for Sporting Supremacy

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    The most controversial athlete you've never heard of, Laleh Seddigh, easily takes the pole position in this slide show. She's a race car driver from Iran. A tough gig no doubt when you consider how limited rights women have in Iran. They can be forced into marriage as young as 13, banned from working outside the home, lashed for showing a bit of shoulder or ankle, or stoned for committing adultery. According to an article in, Ms. Seddigh discovered a loophole in the laws which ban women from competing in sports with men: she could race provided she respected Islamic dress codes. The racing establishment begrudgingly tolerated her participation, but the regime forbid Iranian television from showing her on the victory podium. She is a symbol of defiance and change for the women's rights movement in Iran, and a dangerous threat to the conservative ways of the current regime.

Honorable Mention: Spartacus: His Courage Is What Legends Are Made of

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    For all you historians out there, you would remember that gladiators are the ultimate athletes. And none was more controversial than the slave, Spartacus. He gathered a small group of slaves, and together they escaped from gladiator school armed with nothing but some kitchen implements. They pillaged a shipment of weapons, armed themselves and began to build an army of the oppressed. The Roman government sent forces out to destroy the rebellion, and things escalated into full-scale war. To this day, Spartacus remains a symbol of defiance and courage. Movies, television shows, books, games, songs, even a ballet, tell and retell the legend of this athlete-turned-folk hero.