By: James Smith
Athletes, even more than big named actors and rock stars, are, culturally speaking, our most highly-revered figures, because what they do on the field or on the court can seem so superhuman, so it’s always a shock when they become embroiled in major legal troubles. That’s especially true when they’re as high-profile and high-performing as Hernandez was: their presence in the cultural imagination is totally at odds with the idea of them being real people who can make horrible decisions and run afoul of the law. In light of that, here’s our list of some of the most notable and unsettling arrests, and other legal troubles, faced by professional athletes. You’ll notice that many of these are from the NFL — make of that what you will.
Plaxico Burress Shoots Himself
Burress, at one point, was arguably the best wide receiver in football, combining remarkable speed with sticky hands to become a top receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers and later, when he’d moved to the New York Giants, to contribute to one of the biggest Super Bowl upsets ever. Then he managed to commit one of the most jaw-droppingly asinine crimes of the last decade, first bringing a concealed gun into a nightclub in New York and then accidentally shooting himself with it. That resulted in a charge of criminal possession of a handgun; Burress had a concealed carry permit from Florida, but not for New York, and that permit had already expired, anyways. He ended up serving two years in prison and then returned to the Steelers.
Michael Vick’s Dogfighting Scandal
Then the electrifying star quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons, what Vick pulled off wasn’t exactly stupid in the same way Burress’s error was, but was certainly a lot more evil. Prior to 2007, Vick had been implicated in a number of extra-legal incidents, but none of them had ever amounted to anything. Then, in April 2007, a federal drug investigation led to Vick being arrested for his involvement in a dogfighting ring. Ultimately, Vick admitted to financing the operation, to profiting from it, and to having participated in the killing of several of the dogs. He was sentenced to 23 months in federal prison. Of course, all was forgiven when he was released and immediately put together a remarkable half-season of football for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Barry Bonds Kills Baseball (With a Little Help From His Friends)
We’ve discussed the Bonds situation at some length here at Daily Lounge, and his legal troubles ultimately seem relatively inconsequential compared to the misdemeanors perpetrated by the other villains on this list. Nonetheless, it says something about the importance of sports in American popular culture that Bonds’s willful tearing down of baseball’s most hallowed records could ultimately lead to his being brought before federal grand juries on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. Of course, Bonds is hardly the only baseball player to have legal troubles related to steroid use: Such disgraced legends as Roger Clemens and Rafael Palmeiro have found themselves at Congressional hearings and being brought up on charges as well.
Tonya Harding Redefines Tampering
In a period when American figure skating were at the top of the game, Tonya Harding was one of the leading lights, a two-time Olympian and the first woman ever to successfully execute a number of fiendishly difficult skating jumps. Unfortunately, she was also involved in a sordid episode wherein her ex-husband attempted to further her chances of success by breaking the leg of rival American figure skater Nancy Kerrigan. On April 6, 1994, her ex-husband and her bodyguard attacked Kerrigan at a training session for the national championships. Ultimately, Harding herself was convicted of conspiring to “hinder prosecution of the attackers.” Unsurprisingly, the suspicion that she had foreknowledge of the attack also led her to be excluded from national figure skating events.
OJ Simpson and the Trial of the Century
This list, however, must end with the most high-profile athletic criminal trial of them all, the trial of OJ Simpson for the murder of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson. OJ Simpson, during his playing career, was a legendary running back for the Buffalo Bills, setting numerous records over the course of his eight seasons with the team and ultimately being elected to the NFL Hall of Fame in 1985. That high profile meant that it caused a media sensation when his wife was killed in the summer of 1994. The resulting trial was one of the most watched criminal cases in American history; when the jury delivered a verdict of “not guilty” on October 3rd, 1995, over half of the US population was tuned in. In a twist of ironic justice, however, further legal troubles led to Simpson being convicted of robbery, kidnapping, coercion, and conspiracy. That verdict was handed down on October 3rd, 2008 — thirteen years to the day after he was found to be innocent of murder.
[Pics via Flick: Top - .v1ctor Casale. Michael Vick - Matthew Straubmuller. Tonya Harding - meknits. Pic via Wikimedia Commons: OJ Simpson - Gerald Johnson. Plaxico Burress - Jeffrey Beall. Barry Bonds - Kevin Rushforth.]