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July 11, 2010

Top 5 Real Life Sports “Heel Turns”

Tags: golf, lebron james, michael vick, mlb, nfl, oj simpson, rafael palmeiro, ray lewis, Sports, tiger woods

Last week, when NBA superstar LeBron James decided to bolt Cleveland to join the Miami Heat, I, along with many others, compared it to Hulk Hogan turning evil and joining the NWO.

That got me thinking about other notable “heel turns.”  In wrestling terms, when a good guy goes EVIL, it’s called a heel turn, referencing inside labels for good guys (babyfaces) and bad guys (heels).

So what constitutes a turn?

Well, it’s usually easy to pinpoint the moment where the person does something heinous or a revelation about them emerges which drastically changes our perception of them.  Someone that has always been controversial or had wide-spread negative perceptions surrounding them doesn’t qualify.  Basically, lifelong jerks don’t count.  A heel turn is a fall from grace that is difficult to ever recover from.

With that said, I present to you the Top 5 Real Life Sports “Heel Turns:”

Honorable Mentions: Jack McDowell flipping the bird to Yankee Stadium, Lance Armstrong splitting with Sheryl Crow during her cancer treatment (I mean…REALLY?????), Roberto Alomar spitting on umpire John Hirschbeck

#5 – Michael Vick Bankrolls Dogfighting Operation: Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick

was arguable the most electrifying player in the NFL.  His unorthodox style kept fans on the edge of their seat – would he throw a touchdown or get sacked for a 30-yard loss?  Both outcomes happened quite often, but everyone wanted to watch.  He played the position like millions of video game players manipulated their controllers.

He was the face of his franchise, one of the most marketable players in the league.  Under his direction, the Falcons became a premiere team in the league.  Their signature win came on January 1, 2003, when Vick and the birds upset heavily-favored Green Bay at storied Lambeau Field in the playoffs, the Packers’ first home playoff loss ever.

While his demeanor soured slowly as the team struggled, the summer of 2007 was when he went full-blown heel.  That summer, evidence of Vick bankrolling a large dogfighting ring, with harsh imagery from rape stands to drownings to hangings, blew up…and so did his career.  Vick went to jail, and while he has returned to the league, his reputation is irreparable. (Note: I previously discussed Michael Vick here)

#4 – Rafael Palmeiro Wags His Guilty Finger: There are several ways to get into a sport’s

Hall of Fame.  Be GREAT…or be REALLY GOOD for a long time.  Baseball star Rafael Palmeiro, sitting on nearly two decades of REALLY GOOD, was finishing out his career, with a ticket seemingly punched for Cooperstown, NY.

There are, however, ways to block your own induction to the Hall of Fame.  Embarrassing yourself and your sport in front of Congress is pretty decent way to do just that.

Testifying under oath on March 17, 2005, Palmeiro swore to Congress he had never done steroids, famously wagging his finger at them, almost shaming them for even considering that fact.

That August, Palmeiro tested positive for the steroid stanozolol.  He was immediately suspended for 10 games.  While he was reinstated after serving his time, the one-time champion of goodness became a poster boy for all that was wrong with the game at the time.  The Congressional nature of his case brings his lying to a higher level.  Now, the only way he will see the Hall of Fame is with a ticket…if they even let him in.

#3 – Ray Lewis, Murder and Redemption: By January 31, 2000, Baltimore Ravens linebacker

Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis is all snarls during pre-game intreoductions October. 4, 2004 on Monday Night Football at Baltimore, Maryland. The 0 - 3 Kansas City Chiefs defeated the Ravens 27 - 24. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

Ray Lewis was entering the prime of his career.  He had already been named to two All Pro Team, led the NFL in tackles and was seen as an emerging leader of the premier defense in the league.  His popularity became national, as his hard, aggressive style of play endeared himself to all gridiron fans.

However, that night, everything changed.  While the exact events remain a mystery, here is what we know: Lewis was involved in a back alley fight, which led to the stabbing deaths of two men on the opposite side.  Lewis was charged with murder, and the image of a top athlete sitting in his trial every day wearing prison jumpsuits was prevalent.

At the end of the day, Lewis agreed to take a lesser charge to testify against his co-defendants.  The NFL fined Lewis $250,000 and his image was in tatters.

I included Lewis in this list because of how shocking the image was: one of the most popular players in his league charged with murder.

However, also to be mentioned is how Lewis found redemption.  A decade of distance from the murder, Lewis has shown remorse for his involvement, dedicated himself to community service and mentoring young players in the league, trying to make sure nobody makes the mistakes he did.

He has become a “spiritual leader” of the Ravens and the NFL – a weathered warrior who has seen the worst and emerged from it a better man.  So while his heel turn was shocking, his return to good graces has been inspiring.

#2 – Tiger Woods Likes The Ladies: LeBron James wants to be a global brand…Tiger Woods

IS.   He dominated with PGA Tour for more than a decade, taking the game to greater popularity than ever before.  A man bred to win at golf, Tiger’s focus, fitness and precision were legendary.  Part marketing play and part psychological ploy, if you saw Tiger wearing red on Sunday, you knew he was winning.

He endorsed top-flight brands and products and it all made sense – he was top-flight.  He was a family man, living the perfect life.

On November 25, 2009, a report came out of Tiger being in a single-car crash late at night in his gated community in Florida.  Which led to a report of a mistress.  Which opened the floodgates.

Women upon women upon women came forward claiming to have had sexual relationships with Tiger Woods.  And he didn’t deny it!  Because there wasn’t anything to deny.

And it was over.  His run at the top of the sport – as it’s best player, biggest star and most popular competitor, the scads of rich endorsement contracts, the life people dream of…all of it, gone.  Tiger walked away from golf for several months, a tense time of supposed rehab for his addiction and trying to repair his marriage.

While he has returned to golf and kept some sponsorships, he is no longer THE golfer.  His life is in shambles and the man who cherished his privacy is forced to see the world watch it.

#1 – OJ Simpson and The White Bronco: Hall of Famer football player and successful actor

and commentator OJ Simpson did it right.  After an illustrious playing career, he successfully moved on to other arenas.  He was not a national treasure (like, say, Mike Ditka or Betty White), but he was respected and recognized everywhere.

His ex-wife, Nicole Brown, and her friend Ron Goldman, were found dead at their home on June 12, 1994.  Five days later, Simpson, the prime suspect, was involved an in infamous low-speed car chase.  Police chased a white Bronco SUV for hours around Los Angeles.  The footage interrupted the NBA championship and began a national obsession with the case.

Finally apprehended, Simpson’s trial gripped people coast-to-coast.  The former Heisman Trophy winner’s court battle touched a nerve with people, headlines, ratings, dinner-table discussions and workplace arguments.

The announcement of the verdict sits as one of those “you always remember where you were” moments, along with 9/11 and JFK’s assassination.  And despite his acquittal, Simpson remains a villain in pop culture…and the legal system.  He is currently serving nearly a decade of jail time on numerous felonies, including armed robbery and kidnapping.

What other real life sports heel turns would you include?

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  • Interesting that when athletes & celebrities behave badly, it's a really big deal. Not that it shouldn't be, but shouldn't we feel the same disappointment when anyone acts poorly or does an about face? Would it be as newsworthy (great post, btw) if we weren't talking about celebs?

    But the real question is this: is it really fair to put Lebron within two paragraphs of all those "heel turns?" =)
  • MeghanButler
    I think the Tiger heel turn was the most shocking - his image was so squeaky clean! Even though you know I love my Yankees, I think only a Jeter screw up could trump Tiger (fingers crossed that this will NEVER happen.)

    Where are the gal heel-turners, Mister? What about Tanya Harding? Or Mia Hamm (I know, not exactly a crime but the post-win stripping definitely caused a buzz). I can't think of any other major female incidents off the top of my head but justsayin' :}
  • mikeschaffer
    Ahh!! Tanya Harding! That's a good one. Although, I think she may end up in the Roger Clemens category of People You Never Liked Anyway, So Their Insane Act Is Less Shocking.

    I did try to think of good female heel turns, but nothing really stood out on a major level.
  • Like Tiger Woods, I'm wondering if the sport she played factored into the level of shock and outrage. I mean, who would have thought that a figure skater could have done something like this? (For the record, I think this is why Lizzie Borden was never convicted. Sorry, hometown history!)

    Does Tonya fall into the "People You Never Liked Anyway, So Their Insane Act Is Less Shocking" category or the "If This Wasn't an Olympic Year I Would Have No Idea Who She Was Anyway" category?
  • MeghanButler
    That is true. There's usually more focus on male athletes in general. Great post Mike!
  • I would have said Kobe until about 9:26pm Eastern on July 8th, 2010, but now all of the sudden he's the good guy!!
  • mikeschaffer
    Good call on Kobe. Like Ray, he's walked the road of redemption for several years now...and with pretty good success. People don't think about the affair - and alleged criminal activity - they think about the points.
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