The Most Outrageous Criminals in Sports History

Athletes grace media pages and indulge on-air dialogue. They capture the public’s imagination and sometimes struggle to remain on such idealized pedestals. Favorite competitors may momentarily fall out of favor because of a bad play or a public misstep.

For others, however, the fall from grace can mean descending into the world of criminal activity. No one topples faster or with a greater thud than a former hero. From twice-awarded Cy Young recipient and former MVP great Denny McLain to Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky, the fall was particularly crushing for fans.

Denny McLain

McLain’s performance on the mound led the Detroit Tigers to victory over the St. Louis Cardinals during the 1968 World Series. While such a feat remains the season’s memorable grand finale, it’s McLain’s standing as baseball’s last 30-game winner that indelibly stamped his prowess among the pitching greats.

Unfortunately, McLain’s off-field activities overshadowed his athleticism. McLain’s partnership with the Syrian mob led to dislocated toes after a foot-stomping when he failed to pay a debt. His off-mound interests eventually landed McLain a spot behind bars for a minimum of eight out of his 23-year sentence for embezzlement, drug trafficking, mail fraud, and money laundering.

Steve Durbano

Durbano’s main claim to fame as a professional hockey player is as the penalty-minute leader garnering a total of 1,127 minutes during his 220 NHL games.

Aptly named “Mental Case,” Durbano went on to add such illegal activities as drug smuggling, pimping, and theft to his resume. His criminal career ended as disgracefully as his run at hockey. He earned a total of seven years behind bars.

An unsuccessful attempt to smuggle $500,000 worth of cocaine into Canada followed by a failed run as a pimp signaled the end of Durbano’s second profession.

Sally McNeil

Although Tanya Harding may be the most memorable of the fairer sex gone awry in the athletic world, Sally McNeil’s menacing behavior far surpasses the ice princess. In fact, the bodybuilder’s first husband escaped with his life after McNeil pulled a gun on him and subsequently dropped “a 70-pound weight on his car from a balcony.”

Her second husband wasn’t so lucky. McNeil’s penchant for jealousy and violence piqued on Valentine’s Day 1995 when she murdered him in a fit of rage. Her second-degree conviction delivered a 19-year sentence.

Pete Rose

While Pete Rose’s crimes against baseball are admittedly devoid of the violent and predatory acts committed by some of his fellow athletes, his behavior is no less outrageous.

Rose finally appeared to come clean in 2004 about his betting history while a Reds manager. After 15 years of denying he’d bet on baseball at all, he admitted to only betting as a manager and only on the Reds to win.

ESPN’s investigation found conclusive evidence that he had bet on baseball while a player and a manager between 1984 and 1986. The fact that he was a manager in control of who played during which games counters any assertion by Rose that he only bet on the Reds to win.

It was an egregious act of betrayal against his teammates, and at the very least, should be reason enough to continue to ban him from the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Jerry Sandusky

One of the most heinous criminals in sports history belongs to Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky. After a successful career as one of the school’s most revered assistant football coaches, he “was found guilty of 45 counts of child sexual abuse.” Sandusky used his position with the nonprofit organization, The Second Mile, to exploit those in his care.

He’s not only left deep scars in the emotional and psychological development of his victims, but he’s also caught Penn State and Joe Paterno in his web of depravity. Sandusky is currently serving a life sentence at a Pennsylvania penitentiary.

Athletes sometimes find themselves lost between the reality of what they’ve achieved and the unattainable reach. Perhaps that’s the pedestal on which the adoring public places them.