20+ of the Most Controversial Athletes in Sports History

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Many budding sports fans and wannabee athletes aspire to be like those heroes whom they see excelling in the sports arena. But, while many athletes are perfectly suitable role models for younger generations, some have expressed behavior that is not quite as impressive off the field. From those who are notoriously bad sports to those who have had run-ins with the law, here are the most controversial athletes in history.

Mike Tyson

Whether it’s his famous lisp, face tattoo, or numerous on-screen cameos, Mike Tyson is known for more than his successful boxing career. Unfortunately, not every one of the noteworthy acts performed by this former heavyweight boxing champion has been of a morally sound nature.

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In 1992, Tyson was found guilty of assaulting an 18-year-old model. After serving three years of his 10-year sentence, Tyson was released. However, this wasn’t the end of his controversies. After losing a match to Evander Holyfield, Tyson bit off a piece of his opponent’s ear.

Tiger Woods

A legend of golf, Tiger Woods has been idolized for his glittering golfing career, which includes multiple triumphs at each of the four golf majors — not to mention spending the most consecutive and cumulative weeks atop the world rankings. On the other hand, his personal life was riddled with controversy.

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In 2009, allegations came out of Woods cheating on his wife. Several women, including adult film actress Devon James, all claimed to have had extramarital affairs with Woods. He ultimately admitted to these actions, thereby besmirching his public image.

Richie Incognito

Having recently made the Pro Bowl, Incognito could have looked forward to a promising NFL career with the Miami Dolphins had he not decided to get involved in locker room drama — namely the bullying of his teammate, Jonathan Martin.


In November 2013, text message conversations between the two players surfaced, wherein Incognito sent threatening and racially-charged messages. While several black players defended him against racism allegations, the NFL would not ignore the bullying performed by Incognito, with the league ultimately suspending him while the Dolphins released him.

Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder

Before any scandals entered his life, Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder was celebrated as one of America’s top sports commentators. During his career with the CBS Sports show NFL Today, Snyder became popular for his colorful statements. But, that’s before he crossed the line.

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After losing his temper at a bar, “The Greek” punched his coworker Brent Musburger in the face. If that wasn’t enough, he made inappropriate comments about black athletes while on air. This resulted in CBS Sports dismissing him from his position after 12 years with the major television network.

Luis Suarez

Soccer star Luis Suarez hasn’t always exhibited the grace that many would expect of a champion. In the 2010 World Cup, Suarez committed a handball to prevent Ghana from scoring a potential winner. Still, the backlash didn’t dissuade him from further bad behavior.

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In the 2014 World Cup, Suarez bit Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini, resulting in a seven-match ban. He later bit Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic, receiving a 10-game ban. While he has since reformed his ways, Suarez’s antics — including a racially-charged incident with Patrice Evra — have soured his reputation.

Jason Miller

While the face of MTV’s Bully Beatdown, MMA fighter Jason Miller hasn’t always been as chivalrous as he appeared on the show. Branded a prankster, UFC President Dana White grew tired of Miller’s constant antics, ranging from outrageous interviews to showboating and insulting opponents inside the ring.

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Personality issues aside, Miller has also had his fair share of run-ins with the law. In addition to being arrested on several occasions for fighting, Miller was also taken into police custody when he was found nude in a church.

Alex Rodriguez

Sure, he may have been a World Series champion and seemingly happily married man, but as the saying goes — ‘don’t judge a book by its cover.’ While a talented shortstop, it was a pity that A-Rod didn’t rely on his natural speed and skill to reach the summit of world baseball.

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Not only was A-Rod ultimately found guilty of using performance-enhancing substances, but his constant denial of such behavior saw him lose his fans’ trust. What’s more, he also cheated on his wife, leading to their divorce in 2008.

Ty Cobb

Nicknamed “the Georgia Peach,” Ty Cobb would go on to set over 90 MLB records, many of which he continues to hold to this day. But, while he amassed a large following due to his on-field heroics, Cobb’s hot temper would see his reputation forever tarnished.

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A naturally disagreeable person, Cobb would argue with teammates and opponents alike when a decision didn’t go his way. In fact, he even once strangled a groundskeeper. His heavy drinking and repeated violent altercations contributed to his notorious reputation.

Ray Rice

Tragically, the NFL has been riddled with off-the-field controversies — from a culture of locker-room bullying and intimidation to players becoming involved in domestic disputes. Ray Rice is yet another example, having been found guilty of domestic abuse against his wife. This time, however, fans demanded change.

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Despite clear video evidence of his actions, the NFL handed him a mere two-game ban; a slap on the wrist compared to what fans expected. Following mounting public pressure, however, the NFL adopted a stronger stance against abuse going forward.

Hansie Cronje

The captain of the South African national cricket team during the 1990s, Hansie Cronje was a South African sporting icon, leading his country to ICC Champions Trophy glory in 1998. Sadly, even this national symbol would succumb to greed.

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In 2000, the police from Delhi, India revealed a recording of a conversation between Cronje and a bookmaker, wherein they discussed match-fixing. Later that year, he was dismissed from the team after admitting to accepting between $10,000 and $15,000 for match-fixing, after which he received a lifetime ban from cricket.

Tim Tebow

While many athletes are controversial due to their wrongdoings, it’s Tim Tebow’s strong values and moral compass that have people talking. While a seemingly strange reason to complain about someone, many are unsure if his beliefs should have a place in football.

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This NFL star is a staunch Christian, known for getting down on one knee to pray during games in an act that has been coined “Tebowing.” He also repeatedly thanks God during press conferences, leading to many debates over whether religion should have an influence on football.

Michael Vick

A former Atlanta Falcons star, Michael Vick seemingly had the whole world in his hands before scandal arrived at his doorstep. In 2007, an indictment was brought against him, accusing Vick of attending and betting on dog fights.

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Horrifically, it was found that Vick was involved in the execution of dogs that didn’t perform well, many of which were used in grotesque ways that resemble a horror film. Although permitted to return to football following a ban, Vick first had to complete a 21-month sentence.

LeBron James

Viewed as one of the greatest ever players in the NBA, it made perfect sense why Cleveland Cavaliers fans wanted LeBron James to remain with his hometown team as talk started to emerge of his potential move to the Miami Heat.

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Upon announcing that he would be “taking his talents” to Miami, “The Decision” television special heavily criticized James for appearing narcissistic and for wasting Cleveland fans’ time. While he eventually returned to the Cavs to help them win the NBA Championship, it took a while for fans to forgive him.

Tonya Harding

Determined to make the 1994 U.S. Olympic team, figure skater Tonya Harding knew that she faced stiff competition from her rival Nancy Kerrigan. Unfortunately, pressure sometimes makes people commit unthinkable acts, especially to keep their dreams alive.

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After Kerrigan was attacked, Harding and her then-husband pleaded guilty to hiring a man to assault Kerrigan to rule her out of the running. In an unexpected turn of events, Kerrigan was able to recover in time to make the team alongside Harding. While Kerrigan won a silver medal, Harding’s routine fell apart.

Kobe Byrant

A key member of the golden generation of the Los Angeles Lakers that won three consecutive NBA championships, Kobe Bryant was not always the easiest player to work with.

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Aside from his feud with Shaquille O’Neal that brought an end to the successful Lakers dynasty, Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge both refused to play in Los Angeles because of Bryant. What’s more, he became involved in a case in 2003 against a hotel employee who claimed that Bryant engaged in an adulterous act with her without her consent.

John McEnroe

Even today, John McEnroe remains one of the greatest tennis players of all time. With seven Grand Slam singles titles, nine Grand Slam men’s doubles titles, and one Grand Slam mixed doubles title to his name, it wasn’t only McEnroe’s success on the court that he’s remembered for.

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McEnroe’s bad sportsmanship is well remembered, from throwing tantrums on the court to screaming at match officials in disagreement with their decisions. Probably his most famous tirade occurred at Wimbledon in 1981 when he yelled “you cannot be serious!” at the umpire.

Bill Belichick

One of the longest-serving coaches in NFL history, Bill Belichick is credited with turning the New England Patriots into one of the top franchises in the league, winning six Superbowls along the way. Unfortunately, his reputation has been marred by cheating accusations.

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After being caught using an assistant to videotape the New York Jets’ defensive signals, Belichick was fined $500,000 by the league and $250,000 by the Patriots while also losing a 2008 first-round draft pick. There was also an accusation that the Patriots were using improperly inflated footballs.

Donald Sterling

The former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, a single moment of controversy during a telephone conversation would ultimately make Donald Sterling one of the most controversial figures in NBA history. In 2014, media outlet TMZ released a recording of Sterling having a phone conversation with his girlfriend, María Vanessa Perez.

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Therein he made racially insensitive remarks to his girlfriend, who’s of partial African ancestry herself. As a result, he received a maximum fine of $2.5 million from the league as well as a lifetime ban from Clippers games.

Pete Rose

With a .303 average and 4,256 hits, it was hard for Cincinnati Reds fans to accept that one of their greatest players hadn’t been the upstanding athlete that many of them had expected him to be. While a multiple record holder, Rose is now more famously remembered for his unethical actions.

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Between 1984 and 1986, Rose had been betting on baseball games, usually backing his own team’s performance. Now, he’s known as one of the greatest players who will never earn a place in the Hall of Fame.

Ben Johnson

Throughout the 1980s, the fierce rivalry between Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis lit up the world of athletics. For years, the pair battled to become the world’s fastest man when finally, in 1985, it appeared as if Johnson broke the deadlock.

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After winning the World Championships at Rome in 1987, Johnson emerged victorious in the 100-meter dash at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, finishing in 9.79 seconds. Shockingly, he tested positive for performance-enhancing substances, leaving his legacy in tatters to this day.

Dennis Rodman

In addition to wearing a white wedding dress on the court to promote a new book and his many hairstyles, it’s fair to say that Dennis Rodman has attracted his fair share of attention. Still, some of the basketball star’s more controversial antics have landed him in hot water.

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Life with Rodman at the Chicago Bulls was never easy given the many arguments he had with both teammates and referees. Off the court, Rodman notably traveled to North Korea in 2013, where he met with a certain dictator.

Terrell Owens

One of the top wide receivers of his day, Terrell Owens was selected for the Pro Bowl on six occasions while also being inducted into the San Francisco 49ers Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, his ego and his confrontational personality overshadowed his numerous NFL records.

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One incident that saw Owens receive widespread public backlash came when he made a taunting pose on the Dallas Cowboys midfield star after scoring a touchdown. He also launched a slew of attacks on teammates during press conferences, most notably against Donovan McNabb.

Lance Armstrong

From 1999 to 2005, Lance Armstrong made cycling history by winning the Tour de France a record seven times. What’s more, he did so after inspiringly overcoming testicular cancer. Unfortunately, the pride that he would bring to the United States on the world stage wouldn’t last forever.

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For years, Armstrong had faced doping allegations, arguing against them by claiming to have never failed a substance test. Still, evidence kept popping up. In 2013, he gave up arguing, at which point he would be stripped of his victories.

Barry Bonds

The winner of three National League MVP awards and eight Golden Gloves, it comes as no surprise that Barry Bonds was named “the greatest baseball player who ever lived” by the New York Times. Unfortunately, his misdeeds would forever taint what was otherwise a seemingly dazzling career.

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While often perceived as surly and standoffish, Bonds was found guilty of using performance-enhancing substances during his baseball career. To make matters worse, he had long claimed his innocence, which included lying under oath to deceive the public.

Dale Earnhardt

Nicknamed “The Intimidator,” “The Man in Black,” and “Ironhead,” Dale Earnhardt has been immortalized as one of the greatest NASCAR drivers of all time. But, while a seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, Earnhardt’s career was tainted by his questionable driving techniques.

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On multiple occasions, “the Intimidator” would smash his opponents’ cars as he raced to the finish line. After causing race leader Terry Labonte to crash into a wall at the Bristol Motor Speedway, hundreds of thousands of fans threw debris onto the track in protest.

Rae Carruth

A first-team All-American during his college days, it came as little surprise that Rae Carruth was a first-round draft pick in the 1997 NFL Draft. While offered a promising career with the Carolina Panthers, Carruth allowed evil to derail his football career.

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In 2001, the NFL was appalled to learn that Carruth was put on trial for conspiring to kill his pregnant girlfriend. He even participated, blocking her car with his own while the action took place. Miraculously, the baby survived, while Carruth served an 18-year sentence.

Allen Iverson

While plenty of athletes are controversial figures due to committing unethical acts or becoming involved in scandals, Allen Iverson simply generated controversy due to being himself. Throughout his career, the NBA star grabbed attention for his tattoos, flashy jewelry, and baggy clothes.

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For many traditionally-minded fans, Iverson was a rebellious figure. Still, he did have a point during one controversial interview when he claimed that the media’s focus on his missing practice was disproportionate. Interestingly, it was Iverson who sparked the tattoo trend that’s now popular across the NBA.

Lawrence Taylor

One of the toughest linebackers in the NFL, it came as no surprise when Lawrence Taylor broke Joe Theismann’s leg in a game. Looking back, however, Taylor must have wished that this incident would be the worst of his problems.

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A frequent user of illegal substances, Taylor would use his teammates’ urine to pass substance tests. Ultimately, his plan came crashing down in 1993, when he purchased some of his favorite substances from an undercover cop. While he returned to football after rehab, he never returned to his peak form.

Marion Jones

Throughout the ’90s, Marion Jones lit up the athletics stage, bringing pride to the United States as a gold medalist in the 1997 World Championships in Athletics as well as the 1998 IAAF World Cup in Athletics. Sadly, she was found to be harboring a dirty secret.

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After admitting to the use of performance-enhancing substances, Jones was stripped of the three gold medals and two bronze medals that she claimed at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. While she later played in the WNBA, her image has never fully been restored.

Albert Belle

As the first player to hit 50 home runs and 50 doubles in a single season, Albert Belle will forever be written into the MLB history books. Unfortunately for him, he won’t only be remembered for his heroics.

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Known as a heavy drinker and coffeeholic, Belle exhibited a fiery temper, even once throwing a bat at a fan and refusing to do interviews. One year, Cleveland billed him $10,000 for the damage he caused, including destroying a postgame buffet and smashing a thermostat with his bat.

Metta Sandiford-Artest

A winner of the NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2004 as well as the 2010 NBA Championship, Metta Sandiford-Artest was a vital member of the Los Angeles Lakers lineup. Unfortunately, Sandiford-Artest was unable to restrict his aggression to the court.

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Sandiford-Artest was no stranger to physical confrontations. During an event known as the “Malice at the Palace,” he launched into the stands to brawl a fan whom he believed had thrown a drink at him. He was fined and temporarily suspended as a result.

John Rocker

As the saying goes, think before you speak. After all, once you say something, you can never take it back and you might just find yourself regretting your speech going forward. This is certainly what happened with Atlanta Braves player John Rocker.

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Largely unknown, Rocker’s 15 minutes of fame came during an interview with Sports Illustrated. In addition to complaining about living in New York City, Rocker expressed his disdain for the LGBTQ+ community, foreigners, and single mothers — all in one sit-down.

Diego Maradona

While a World Cup winner with Argentina in 1986, Diego Maradona often made headlines for the wrong reasons, especially after his “Hand of God” incident in which he scored against England with the use of his hand and got away with it.

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Unfortunately, this incident was not the only controversy in what was otherwise a dazzling career for Maradona. During his time playing for the Italian club Napoli, Maradona was found to be using illegal substances. It was this offense that saw him ejected from the 1994 World Cup.

Dock Ellis

A World Series champion and MLB All-Star, perhaps the greatest achievement of Dock Ellis was the no-hitter he threw a season earlier. But as is often the case, if something seems too impossible to believe, it probably is.

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Following his pitching masterclass, Ellis revealed that he had been under the influence of illegal substances — not only during his “no-hitter” game but throughout most of his career. Substances aside, Ellis also once refused to comply with stadium security when asked for identification, resulting in his being maced.

Antonio Brown

Wide receiver Antonio Brown has experienced both the peaks and valleys of the NFL, mostly because of his personal conduct. A Super Bowl winner in 2020, Brown has been invited to seven Pro Bowls. However, his otherwise sterling career has been tarnished by his misbehavior.

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In 2018, Brown’s former trainer accused him of assaulting her, with the pair ultimately reaching a settlement. What’s more, in a fit of rage, he threw furniture out the window of his apartment and was sued by a doctor for “farting on his face.”

Randy Moss

One of the best ballers of his generation, Randy Moss experienced a bumpy road en route to the NFL Hall of Fame. During high school, Moss seemed set to play college ball at Notre Dame before getting involved in a fight.

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He then blew his shot at getting into Florida State due to substance abuse. While Moss ultimately broke into the NFL due to his raw talent, the drama didn’t end there. After testing positive on multiple occasions, Moss also stirred the pot when pretending to moon Packers fans.

Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry

With pitcher Dwight Gooden and slugger Darryl Strawberry among their ranks, the New York Mets became an imposing force in the MLB. Unfortunately, this success was short-lived due to the superstar pair’s bad habits.

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While both players enjoyed drinking and partying along with taking illicit substances, Strawberry had a promiscuous past, even admitting to bringing women to the Mets’ locker room. Despite winning the 1986 World Series championship with the New York Mets, both players tarnished their legacies with their misdeeds.

Ray Lewis

Most notably a Super Bowl champion with the Baltimore Ravens, Ray Lewis is widely considered to be one of the greatest linebackers that the NFL has ever seen. Ultimately, rash decision-making would land him at the center of controversy.

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After he and his friends got into a fight with another group, two men passed away. Lewis then pled guilty to obstruction of justice, however, his punishment was limited to probation. Although allowed to continue with his NFL career, all eyes were on Lewis to ensure that he stayed in line.

Muhammad Ali

Originally known as Cassius Clay, Muhammad Ali is widely regarded as the best heavyweight boxer of all time. Having won a gold medal at the Olympics, Ali went on to become the world heavyweight champion at just 22 years of age.

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While he continues to be adored by his fans worldwide, Ali has ruffled quite a few feathers along the way. Known to be highly outspoken, Ali would often mimic his opponents during press conferences and would write poems about his predicted victories that he would get the press to print out.

Aaron Hernandez

As a member of the new generation of New England Patriots stars tasked with taking the team to the next level, Aaron Hernandez was one of the NFL’s players to watch, especially because of his partnership with Rob Gronkowski. Sadly, he was hiding a gruesome secret.

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Following a highly-followed court proceeding, Hernandez was found guilty of taking the life of Odin Lloyd, the boyfriend of his fiancée’s sister. Rather than face the life sentence that awaited him, Hernandez took his own life in 2015.

O.J. Simpson

Initially known as a star running back for the Buffalo Bills and the San Francisco 49ers, Orenthal James Simpson’s legacy as the NFL’s Most Valuable Player of 1973 was forever tainted following what would be one of the most watched televised trials in history.

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Following the passing of his ex-wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman, O.J. Simpson was accused of committing the dirty deed. Ultimately, he was acquitted, though there continue to be doubts over his innocence to this day.

Jose Canseco

While a two-time World Series champion, Jose Canseco is known for a lot more than just his highly successful Oakland Athletics tenure. From his youth until his 50s, Canseco has racked up a long list of offenses that are seemingly impossible to count.

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From driving under the influence to carrying a firearm under suspicious circumstances, visits to the police station were a regular part of Conseco’s routine. He was even found guilty of using performance-enhancing substances during his playing days, thereby proving himself to be an all-around rebel.

Kyrie Irving

One of the top point guards in the NBA over the past two decades, Kyrie Irving hit his peak in 2016, when he helped the Cleveland Cavaliers to their first NBA championship in their history. Unfortunately, a few moments of madness have lost him the respect of many fans.

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Over the past few years, Irving has developed a reputation for being a conspiracy theorist. In addition to refusing to get vaccinated during the pandemic, Irving posted a link on Twitter to a movie that has been widely categorized as being antisemitic.

Johnny Manziel

Drafted by the Cleveland Browns out of Texas A&M in 2014, Johnny Manziel had the potential to be a star quarterback in the NFL. Unfortunately, a lack of discipline and several controversies would prevent him from reaching his potential.

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Some of his many misdemeanors include getting into fights with fans, driving under the influence, and appearing at a casino the night before the Browns were due to play their final game of the 2015 season. He also notoriously departed early from the Manning Passing Academy football clinic in 2013.

Mark McGwire

Nicknamed “Big Mac,” Mark McGwire is a former World Series champion as well as the former record holder for the most home runs in a single season. It’s just a pity that McGwire hadn’t achieved these accomplishments without some unauthorized help.

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In 1998, McGwire owned up to using an over-the-counter muscle enhancement product that had been outlawed by the World Anti-Doping Agency and the NFL, but not yet by the MLB. While he went on to express regret over his actions, McGwire will never be able to erase his transgression.