Sports stars have been heroes in popular culture throughout pretty much all of human civilization, from Greek winners in the original Olympics to Roman gladiators and charioteers, and medieval tournament warriors jousting at one another from horseback. But fame, money, and widespread admiration do not make people immune to flaws, and many an athlete has had a run in with the law. Here are some of the best known of recent times, and one bonus historical mention at the end.
Floyd Mayweather Jr. is one of the greatest boxers in the history of the sport, first competing in 1996 and hanging up his gloves after a one-off event in 2017. He is responsible for millions in sports bets at sportsbooks like the one run by Mr Green Casino. Mayweather's status of high regard is not only due to phenomenal success but also because of the fact he competed in not one but five different weight categories, winning 15 major world titles from super featherweight to light middleweight. Despite this plethora of titles at multiple weights, Mayweather was never defeated in the ring. Defensive talent coupled with accurate punching made him unbeatable and he was the highest paid sportsman in the world in numerous years.
Mayweather is not a character without legal difficulties, however. In 2002 he was charged was domestic violence and battery, earning him a suspended sentence and community service. Similar violence and sentences followed in 2004 and 2005, and in 2011 Mayweather was sentenced to 90 days in prison for battery against his former girlfriend Josie Harris. Not for the first time, a talented boxer was too ready with his fists outside of the ring.
Lionel Messi, often compared and contrasted to Cristiano Ronaldo, is an Argentine superstar of the footballing world, and many believe him to be the greatest player of all time. No other player has won the Ballon d'Or six times, nor the European Golden Shoes six times. Messi spent over a decade and a half with Spanish top club Barcelona before shifting to Paris Saint-Germain in 2021. While with Barcelona he won La Liga on ten occasions, and amassed an incredible 35 trophies (including a quartet of Champions League titles). Messi is also the all-time record goal scorer of La Liga, on 474. Between his generous salary and lucrative sponsorship deals, Messi has made over US$1bn, and was the second footballer to make this landmark sum.
But every silver lining has a cloud, and in 2013 he came under investigation for tax evasion. Offshore companies in tax havens evaded millions in taxes, but Messi claimed to be unaware of the situation and chose to voluntarily pay €5.1m in arrears in 2013. He and his father were both found guilty and given suspended sentences in addition to a combined total of €3.1m in fines.
Born in Montreal, Tommy Kane was a footballer who began his career playing college football at Syracuse University. He graduated to the NFL's Seattle Seahawks from 1988 to 1992, when an injury sidelined him and he shifted to the Canadian Football League, playing a few games for the Toronto Argonauts in 1994.
Sadly, Kane's criminal career was rather more prolonged than his footballing one. He was still at Syracuse University when, in 1988, he illegally parked his car. That would not be so bad, if he had not then assaulted the police officer having it towed away. Charged with second degree assault and resisting arrest, Kane was sentenced to community service. But 15 years later things were much more serious.
In 2003 he beat and stabbed Tammara Shaikh, his estranged wife, and she died of her wounds. Shaikh died being held by a church counselor. The pair had gone to Kane's house to try and persuade him to go to a detox center. Kane pleaded guilty to manslaughter.
Cristiano Ronaldo is a Portuguese soccer star considered by many to be the greatest player the game as ever produced (although Lionel Messi fans will earnestly disagree). He's built a huge public following and private fortune off the back of his footballing prowess. During his career, Ronaldo has won multiple La Liga, Champions League, and Serie A titles, and became the first footballer to earn US$1bn. But it's not all been peaches and cream for Ronaldo. While his on-pitch life has been nothing short of fantastic, there have been some problems of a legal nature away from the game.
July 2017 saw Ronaldo charged with fraudulently evading some €15m in taxes on previous earnings, which he denied. But a year later he was given a suspended sentence and an €18.8m fine (later reduced by €2m). On a more serious note, he was also accused of a 2005 rape, briefly, but the two women involved withdrew their allegation after just two days. In 2017, there was a more prolonged rape accusation involving an allegation of an incident in 2009. Ronaldo denied all wrongdoing. He did make a US$375,000 payment to the woman as part of a non-disclosure agreement.
Mike Tyson is a divisive character, combining excellent skills in the ring with personal conduct that strays not merely into controversy but criminality. He was just 20 when he became Heavyweight Champion of the World, the youngest man ever to achieve the feat. But in the aftermath of his shock loss to Buster Douglas his reputation took a nosedive. In July 1991 Tyson was arrested for the rape of an 18 year old (Desiree Washington), with the trial taking place the following year. After testimony from both Tyson's driver and the doctor who examined Washington afterwards, the boxer was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison.
When he was released, Tyson was able to easily win his comeback fights and make a fortune doing so. In fact, his victories were so effortless they led some to criticize the choice of opponents. Evander Holyfield was another matter, though, and Tyson ended up defeated in both bouts, the latter of which featured his infamous biting of Holyfield's ear in one of the gnarliest sports injuries. While he was fined and his license was rescinded, this was temporary and Tyson did return to the ring.
Orenthal James Simpson is a former player for the Buffalo Bills who folks might recall have some of the drunkest fans and San Francisco 49ers in an NFL career that lasted over a decade. In 1973 he broke new ground by becoming the first NFL player to rush 2,000 yards in a season and is still the record holder for most yards per game average across a season (143.1). In addition, Simpson's star continued to shine after his sporting days ended, and he had numerous on-screen roles including acting in the cult comedy Naked Gun. But there was nothing funny about what happened next. There was a time when he was best known for sporting skill. But say the name OJ Simpson to anyone today and the first thing they'll mention will be the trial that captivated America, and much of the world, in the mid-1990s. Simpson stood accused of two murders, the victims being Nicole Brown Simpson (his ex-wife), and Ronald Goldman (a friend of hers). Some consider the trial for the stabbing to be the most publicized in legal history, and for many people it eclipsed OJ Simpson's sporting and other achievements. When a bloodstained glove was found on his property, he was charged with murder.
Simpson did not necessarily burnish his credentials when he failed to hand himself in as agreed and instead had to be pursued (he was in a car driven by his friend Al Cowlings). The 95 million viewing ratings that accompanied the live TV footage was testament to public interest in this faintly bizarre turn of events, ending in Simpson being arrested. The trial occurring in the mid-90s may have been very beneficial for Simpson, as DNA evidence was just coming in and there was some uncertainty about it. His legal team were able to persuade the jury that there was a cloud of doubt hanging over the blood sample (alleging mishandling by lab staff). Despite the pursuit and the bloody glove, OJ Simpson was found not guilty. Public reaction was mixed, and largely divided along racial lines with a majority of African Americans believing the jury were right, but most whites and Latinos disagreeing (and noting the jury was mostly African American).
That wasn't quite the end of the saga, however. A couple of years later Goldman's father brought a civil case against Simpson and the family were awarded $33.5m in punitive damages, though they only received a small proportion. Although easily the best known of Simpson's legal entanglements, the murder trial and civil case are far from the only times this ex-athlete has encountered the law. The state of California claimed he owed them over a million dollars in back taxes (he left the state in 2000 for Florida, where personal assets cannot be seized to satisfy liabilities in other states). And in 2001 he was charged, but acquitted, of burglary and battery. A year later he was fined for water speeding.
The public perception of Oscar Pistorius has been something of a rollercoaster, soaring to dizzying heights before plunging to terrible depths. Pistorius found fame as an athlete, a sprinter Paralympian par excellence. Born missing parts of his feet, he hadn't even celebrated his first birthday when doctors amputated both feet. Exhibiting an aptitude on the track at a world class level, Pistorius won a plethora of medals, mostly gold, at Paralympic Games in Athens, Beijing, and London, claiming titles in the 100m, 200m, 400m, and 4 x 100m relay events. He was the Paralympic equivalent of Usain Bolt. But it all came crashing down in February 2013, the year after the London Olympics. Pistorius shot and killed Reeva Steenkamp. That much is certain, though the detail of why is hotly disputed. Steenkamp was Pistorius' girlfriend, a paralegal and model, and the pair lived together. Pistorius never denied shooting her four times and killing her, but has always insisted he mistook her for an intruder and never intended to cause his girlfriend harm. The ensuing trial of the Paralympic world's leading star led to intense coverage across the globe, in addition to his native South Africa.
As part of the trial Pistorius underwent a psychiatric evaluation to consider whether he was capable of being held criminally responsible for the act of shooting Steenkamp, with the evaluation finding he could indeed be held accountable. Initially he was found guilty of culpable homicide, and received a sentence of five years in prison (alongside a concurrent three year suspended sentence on a charge of reckless dangerment). After serving just a sixth of his sentence Pistorius was allowed early release and moved from prison to house arrest. The prosecution team appealed against the culpable homicide conviction, and it was overturned with the athlete instead being found guilty of murder. This led to the custodial term being increased to six years and saw Pistorius return to jail from house arrest.
The question of why this successful, popular, wealthy young man did what he did remains. For his part, Pistorius asserts he heard the bathroom window slide open and feared intruders had entered his home. He retrieved is pistol and told Steenkamp (whom he believed was in bed rather than in the bathroom) to call the police. After firing four shots, Pistorius discovered the truth. At least, that's his version of events. The only certainty is that Steenkamp died tragically.
We head over to the United Kingdom for our next entry on sports stars who have had encounters with the law. The English Premier League (EPL) is the top soccer league in the world, with a potential TV audience of over 4 billion people and sports betting opportunities galore. As might be expected, competition for places is fierce. One homegrown player who made it is Adam Johnson, who won both the league and the prestigious FA Cup with Manchester City. He's also played for England internationally, with a dozen caps to his name at the time of writing.
However, Johnson's sporting accolades also stand alongside prison sentences for crimes of a sexual nature. Engaging in sexual acts with a 15 year old fan (16 being the age of consent in the UK) is a crime by itself, but Johnson added a layer of betrayal by starting the contact when his partner was pregnant. He was arrested in March 2015 on suspicion of having underage sex, and a month later was charged with three offences of sexual activity with a minor and another of child grooming.
At the start of his trial Johnson opted to plead guilty, but only to the charge of grooming and one count of having underage sex (denying the other two counts). The 16 day trial saw this footballer found guilty of one count of sexual activity with a child and not guilty of another, ending up with a six year prison sentence. Despite committing not just crimes but acts of infidelity, Johnson was permitted bail specifically so he could say goodbye to his infant daughter. He was released in 2019 after serving half his sentence. It could have been worse for the English footballer. During the course of the investigation police discovered animal pornography on Johnson's laptop, but opted not to charge him for possession of such dubious files. All in all, no aspect of this was an edifying spectacle for Johnson.
We return to the world of major league sport that US online casino fans will know - Ray Lewis. He spent the entirety of his 17 year NFL career as a linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens. For 14 years this athlete was the leading tackler for the Ravens, and was a foundation of the defense for his prolonged tenure with the team. Lewis helped his side achieve numerous defensive milestones and was only the second linebacker to be named the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player. In fact, many believe him to be the NFL's best ever linebacker. So far, so good. But like OJ Simpson, there's more to Lewis than just an exemplary sporting record. In January 2000, in Atlanta, a fight broke out and one of the participants was Lewis. Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar were stabbed, and neither survived. Following the incident, Lewis and two of the other people who had also been present, Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting, were indicted on charges of murder and aggravated assault.
Although a knife was found at the scene of the crime it contained no useful DNA evidence, and nor were any fingerprints present. However, there was blood belonging to Baker within Lewis' limo. A fortnight into the trial, Lewis' legal team negotiated a plea bargain whereby the murder charge was dropped against him in return for testifying against Oakley and Sweeting.This deal also involved a guilty plea to obstruction of justice and resulted in a 12 month probation sentence and a hefty NFL fine of $250,000. Despite the decision of Lewis, both Oakley and Sweeting were acquitted, meaning the only punishments handed out came Lewis' way. He also went on to reach out of court settlements with the families of both Baker and Lollar.
As a player, Lewis earned himself a rock solid legacy as a defensive bastion for the Ravens. But the questions over what really happened in Atlanta in 2000 continue to be asked. To this day, nobody has been held truly accountable.
It was over two thousand years ago that Spartacus, and the slave army he amassed, rebelled and caused serious trouble for the late Roman Republic, but his name is still instantly recognizable to this day. A superstar of the Roman sporting world, this gladiator proved the potential downside of having large numbers of slaves and training quite a lot of them to be expert with the sword (Julius Caesar's uncle, Marius, used gladiator training techniques to improve the quality of his soldiers). He was one of the leaders in the Third Servile War that bedeviled Italy in the 1st century BC, and became immortalized by Kirk Douglas in the film Spartacus. More recently, the Starz TV series (again named after the man himself) brought the story of Spartacus, alongside plenty of sex and violence, to a new audience.
But for all his defiance, it was not to end well. Ultimately, Spartacus was brought to heel by Crassus (an ally of Julius Caesar) and the rebellion was crushed but the impact it left on the Roman psyche can be seen by the fact we still know about it today. Will people be talking of OJ Simpson or Oscar Pistorius in the year 4000?
From allegations and convictions of murder through to breaking the age of consent and betrayal, not to mention rousing a slave rebellion, sports stars have had many a brush with the law. It all goes to show that virtue and prowess are not the same thing.