Professional athletes are the modern-day gladiators of our time. Every major city now has at least one Colosseum in the form of a stadium, ballpark, or an arena, where people can sit and watch their favorite sports stars while enjoying a $20 hot dog. Celebrities in their own right, famous athletes often earn millions to play the game they love and hear the cheers of adoration from their legions of fans. And if they’re the best of the best, they’ll also enjoy the immortality of a statue or bust that will live on long after they retire.
Still, as the saying goes, the higher they climb, the harder they fall. Of course, there’s the likes of quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who launched a movement after calling attention to systemic racism and police brutality against people of color by taking a knee during the national anthem in 2016 — and subsequently found himself blackballed from the NFL. But for every Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, or Wayne Gretzky, there’s a professional athlete who suffers an epic fall from grace thanks in part to their terrible behavior or much worse. From doping scandals to first-degree murder, a number of athletes have outright destroyed the innocent lives of others — and themselves — throughout the 2010s. Were these awful circumstances avoidable, and were the consequences justified?
You be the judge as we take a closer look at the gifted sports stars who ruined their careers in the past decade.
Aaron Hernandez was convicted of murder
The New England Patriots thought they had a superstar in the making when they drafted Florida’s tight end, Aaron Hernandez, in 2010. With 1,956 yards and 18 touchdowns in just three seasons, it seemed like they did. The Patriots awarded Hernandez with a five-year, $39.58 million contract extension in 2012. But little did the team know, Hernandez would soon be under federal investigation for an unsolved double homicide.
In June 2013, the body of Odin Lloyd, who was dating Hernandez’s girlfriend’s sister, was found in Boston. Hernandez was arrested on murder charges and released from the Patriots hours later. In 2015, he went on trial and was convicted of murder. While serving a life sentence, Hernandez stood trial for, and was later acquitted in, the killing of two other men, Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado, both of whom were both killed in 2012 in their car at a red light. Days after the verdict, Hernandez was found dead of an apparent suicide by hanging in his prison cell. He was only 27.
« The family and legal team is shocked and surprised at the news of Aaron’s death, » Hernandez’s attorney, Jose Baez, said in a statement (via CNN). « Aaron was looking forward to an opportunity for a second chance to prove his innocence. »
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
Lance Armstrong’s doping scandal shocked the world
Lance Armstrong brought cycling into the mainstream. After winning seven straight Tour de France titles, Armstrong was just as famous as Michael Jordan and Peyton Manning. With several high-profile product endorsement deals and appearing as himself in television and movies, Armstrong firmly cemented himself as a cultural icon. However, by 2012, he was no longer an American hero.
According to ABC News, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency published a report with testimony from 11 of Armstrong’s teammates stating he used illicit performance-enhancing drugs provided to him by the team’s coaches and doctors. Armstrong denied these reports until a January 2013 interview with Oprah Winfrey. « I view this situation as one big lie that I repeated a lot of times, » he said. « I know the truth. The truth isn’t what was out there. The truth isn’t what I said… I’m a flawed character, as I well know. All the fault and all the blame here falls on me. »
Armstrong reportedly lost $75 million in sponsorship deals in a single day and was stripped of all his titles — including his 2000 Olympic bronze medal. For his role in the doping scandal, Armstrong faced several lawsuits. In April 2018, he settled a $100 million civil fraud suit brought against him by the federal government for $5 million.
Johnny Manziel couldn’t stop partying
A dual-threat quarterback for Texas A&M, Johnny Manziel earned the nickname « Johnny Football » for his spectacular play on the field, making him the first freshman to win the coveted Heisman Trophy award as the best player in college football. But while the accolades came pouring in, there were enough red flags to scare off NFL teams. One incident was an arrest for disorderly conduct and giving a fake ID to police, and another being reports that he overslept through multiple mandatory meetings at the Manning Passing Academy due to hangovers.
Although NFL.com claimed Manziel possessed a « sense of entitlement and prima-donna arrogance » and had a reputation for partying, the Cleveland Browns took a chance on the signal-caller in the 2014 NFL Draft. It was an instant regret.
After just his third preseason game, Manziel was fined $12,000 for « making an obscene gesture » at the Washington Redskins’ bench. Following a stint in rehab after that season, Manziel was pulled over by police after an argument that « got out of hand » with his then-girlfriend. He was benched in November 2015 after social media posts showed him partying during the bye week, and then lying about it. A month later, he was spotted partying at Las Vegas’ Planet Hollywood casino. The Browns waived Manziel prior to the 2016 season after just two years and only 15 starts.
Antonio Brown’s increasingly bizarre behavior killed his career
Wide receiver Antonio Brown’s nine-year run with the Pittsburgh Steelers will go down in the history books. With five straight seasons, and at least 100 receptions, 1,284 yards, and seven Pro Bowls to his name, Brown was considered one of the greatest players at his position. Then, seemingly out of the blue, Brown demanded to be traded in 2019. The Oakland Raiders quickly pounced, signing Brown to a massive three-year, $54 million deal before the 2019 season.
He never played a single down for the team. In August 2019, Brown suffered severe frostbite on his feet after a cryotherapy session, forcing him to miss all but one training camp practice. That same month, Brown filed a grievance with the NFL to wear his old helmet that was denied. The very next month, Brown was fined nearly $54,000 for « unexcused » absences and threatened to hit Raiders general manager Mike Mayock, who he allegedly called a « cracker » during a verbal altercation. The team released Brown on Sept. 7, 2019.
Brown quickly signed with the New England Patriots in a one-year deal « worth up to $15 million with a $9 million signing bonus, » per PFT. Before his first game, TMZ reported that Brown was accused of rape by his former trainer. On Sept. 20, after appearing in just one game, the Patriots released Brown after intimidating text messages he allegedly sent to a second accuser came to light. He remains out of the NFL.
Ryan Lochte’s big lie ruined his career
During the 2012 Summer Olympics, swimmer Ryan Lochte became a household name after winning his first gold medal. However, a mere four years and twelve medals later, Lochte’s once-promising career was derailed after he lied about a robbery in Rio, Brazil during the 2016 summer Olympics. According to Today, Lochte told everyone, including authorities, that he and his teammates were robbed at gunpoint on the way home from a party. The actual truth? Lochte and friends vandalized a gas station bathroom while intoxicated and were confronted by armed security guards. After checking surveillance footage, Brazilian police confirmed no robbery took place.
Lochte issued a lengthy apology on Instagram, claiming that, due to the language barrier, he believed the security guards were attempting to rob him. « It is traumatic to be out late with your friends in a foreign country — with a language barrier — and have a stranger point a gun at you and demand money to let you leave, but regardless of the behavior of anyone else that night, I should have been much more responsible in how I handled myself, » he wrote in part. He ultimately came clean during an interview with Matt Lauer, saying that he takes « full responsibility for everything. »
As a result, the Los Angeles Times reports that the U.S. Olympic Committee suspended Lochte from swimming for 10 months, he lost sponsorship deals, and he was banned from visiting the White House with his fellow Olympic teammates.
Oscar Pistorius inspirational career ended in tragic violence
Oscar Pistorius’ life story had the potential to be an inspiring Oscar-winning movie, but the South African sprinter and first double-leg amputee to compete in the Olympics decided to turn his story into an episode of Law & Order after he was convicted of the 2013 murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.
Roughly six months after he challenged preconceptions of Olympic glory at the 2012 Summer Games, Pistorius fatally shot Steenkamp four times on Valentine’s Day 2013 through a bathroom door after he claimed he mistook her for an intruder. His seven-month trial initially ended with Pistorius sentenced to five years in prison for « culpable homicide. » Prosecutors immediately appealed the verdict, calling the punishment « shockingly light. » The South African Supreme Court of Appeals agreed and subsequently increased his sentence to 13 years and five months.
« I find it difficult on the evidence to accept that the respondent is genuinely remorseful, » Supreme Court Justice Willie Seriti’s decision stated. « The sentence of six years’ imprisonment is shockingly lenient to a point where it has the effect of trivializing this serious offense. » In December 2018, The Times reported that Pistorius had become a « spiritual leader » in prison, holding a Bible study and prayer group.
Domestic violence ended Greg Hardy’s career
A draft-day steal for the Carolina Panthers in the sixth round of the 2010 NFL Draft, defensive end Greg Hardy dominated in his first four seasons with the team, registering 33 sacks, 44 tackles for loss, six forced fumbles, and earning a trip to the Pro Bowl. Unable to reach an agreement on a contract extension, the Panthers wanted to retain their young star, so they placed the franchise tag on him, giving him a nearly $12 million raise.
However, before the season started, Hardy was arrested and charged with assaulting and threatening to kill his ex-girlfriend, Nicole Holder (via Sports Illustrated). Although the charges were dropped after Holder refused to cooperate with police, then-Panthers owner Jerry Richardson released Hardy anyway. « We do the right things, » he explained (via ESPN). In 2015, the Dallas Cowboys signed Hardy to a one-year, $13 million deal in a move that was highly criticized. « Our organization understands the very serious nature of domestic violence in our society and in our league, » billionaire Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said in a statement. « We know that Greg has a firm understanding of those issues as well. »
Before the season was over, Deadspin posted the graphic and chilling police photos of Holder’s assault, and the Cowboys declined to re-sign Hardy. On Nov. 4, 2017, Hardy made his amateur MMA debut in a 32-second defeat of Joe Hawkins.
Lamar Odom’s drug and alcohol abuse stunted a promising career
The fourth overall pick in the 1999 NBA Draft by the Los Angeles Clippers, Lamar Odom was named to the NBA All-Rookie Team and appeared set to have a stellar career. However, his problems with drugs and alcohol started almost immediately. During his four seasons with the team, Odom was suspended twice for violating the league’s anti-drug policy. After 13 years in the league, with stops in Miami, Los Angeles, and Dallas, Odom returned to the Clippers for the 2012-2013 season, where he averaged career lows in every category. It was his final season in the NBA.
His drug and alcohol troubles then worsened, including a DUI arrest in 2013 (per TMZ). During that time, his marriage to Khloé Kardashian was falling apart due to his frequent disappearances, where his family and friends believed he was smoking crack cocaine. That same year, Page Six posted a video of the former NBA star « slurring his way through a series of nonsensical freestyle raps. »
However, in October 2015, the worst almost happened: Odom was found unconscious at a Nevada Brothel after a drug binge (via US Weekly). Doctors found several drugs in his system, including cocaine. In all, Odom stayed in the hospital for some three months and later completed a month-long stint in rehab. In January 2020, TMZ reported that two championship rings Odom had pawned would be for sale at an auction.
Hope Solo’s off-the-field antics proved too much to overcome
Hope Solo will go down as one of the most dominant players in U.S. women’s soccer. With two Olympic gold medals, one World Cup title, two World Cup Golden Glove awards, and a staggering 102 shutouts in 202 games, the goalkeeper’s record and unquestionable talent might never be replicated. However, her outstanding career was cut short due to multiple off-the-field incidents.
In 2012, Solo tested positive for a banned substance. Two years later, she was arrested and charged with domestic violence after authorities alleged an intoxicated Solo assaulted her half-sister and nephew in her home. A judge dismissed the charges after Solo’s lawyers claimed she used « used lawful force » in defending herself against her much larger nephew. Still, prosecutors appealed that decision, and the charges were reinstated in 2016.
In May 2018, all charges were dropped for good. However, on May 8, 2015, Solo’s husband, NFL alum Jerramy Stevens, received 30 days in jail after a January DUI arrest, in which Stevens was driving a U.S. soccer van with Solo as a passenger. Solo was suspended for 30 days by U.S. Soccer as a result. The following year, Solo was slapped with a six-month suspension for calling Team Sweden a « bunch of cowards » after America lost a match. According to TMZ, the U.S. Soccer president said, « [It’s] unacceptable and [does] not meet the standards of conduct we require from our National Team players. »