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10 Most Polarizing Athletes of All Time

Many sports fans don't seem to realize it, but athletes are humans too. Despite their exceptional talent and the resulting love and adoration, they're just as flawed as you and I. At the same time, in many cases, society uses them as punching bags, pinpointing them as representatives of an entire group of people or an unpopular viewpoint, whether they like it or not. With those things in mind, it's not difficult to understand why some brash, sometimes overconfident athletes become so polarizing -- including the ones listed below. These are the guys who people either love or hate, with very little or no gray area.

  1. Muhammad Ali: A divisive political figure during a time when America's political climate was at its worst, Ali seldom pulled punches, and his fearlessness was always apparent outside the ring. In 1964, the same year President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act outlawing segregation and discrimination against blacks, Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, joined the Nation of Islam and adopted the name that became one of America's most recognizable, a change that initially wasn't accepted by many sports journalists. He seemed to embrace the group's separatist viewpoints, once stating his opposition to integration and interracial marriage. His ideology also led to his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War, and his evasion of the draft went all the way to the Supreme Court. Of course, Ali was also a prolific trash talker, which rubbed stodgy sports fans the wrong way.
  2. OJ Simpson: Unlike Ali, Simpson avoided controversy during his athletic career. A uniter and not a divider, he was beloved by both whites and blacks for his charisma, charming smile and one-of-a-kind football talent. When he wasn't carving through the opponent's defense on the football field, he was appearing in Hertz rental car company commercials and movies such as The Towering Inferno and Naked Gun. In the late '80s, however, OJ's unsavory side began to surface. He pled not guilty to a domestic violence charge, which became tabloid fodder. Then came the 1994 murders of his ex-wife Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman, and the subsequent murder charge and trial that lasted from June 1994 to October 1995. The announcement of his not guilty verdict showed the racial division of the country that still persisted three decades after Johnson's Civil Rights Act. Simpson is currently in prison for armed robbery.
  3. Jack Johnson: Johnson, a son of former slaves, emerged as the first black world heavyweight boxing champion during the Jim Crow era of the early 1900s. His defeat of former undefeated heavyweight champion James Jeffries, one of the several "great white hopes" thrown at Johnson, caused race riots, as whites suffered humiliation and blacks celebrated the greater meaning of the victory. Johnson's thorough enjoyment of his celebrity only exacerbated white America's hate for him. He flaunted his wealth, taunted black and white men outside of the ring, and even more controversially, dated and married white women, for which he was twice arrested and once imprisoned after fleeing the country. Currently, there's a movement to grant him a presidential pardon.
  4. Barry Bonds: Even before the steroids saga, Bonds was widely panned by baseball fans and media members for his surly, standoffish attitude. His persistently poor demeanor didn't help matters when he became the headlining name in the BALCO scandal, giving people even more reason to suspect he used performance enhancing drugs during his record-breaking homerun chase. Lance Williams' and Mark Fainaru-Wada's book Game of Shadows outlined some of his motives for using PEDs and provided accounts from those who were associated with him, making the whole ordeal look like less of a witch hunt and more of a true fact-finding mission. In April, Bonds was convicted on obstruction of justice charges for lying to a grand jury by claiming that he never knowingly took steroids. Some will never forgive Bonds for the "tainted" records, while others feel that his attitude and race have unjustly resulted in him being the scapegoat for an entire "tainted" era.
  5. Pete Rose: Charlie Hustle was an all-time fan favorite. Older baseball fans wax poetically about the 1970 All-Star game in which he collided with Ray Fosse at home plate to score the winning run, causing him to miss the next three regular season games -- the ones that truly count -- with a bruised knee. When he broke the all-time hits record, the whole country cheered his accomplishment. As a manager, he couldn't suppress the fire, once serving a 30-day suspension for pushing an umpire. The competitive drive is likely what caused him to bet on baseball, an act he denied for 14 years before coming clean in 2004. Despite the admission, Rose remains permanently ineligible from baseball and still isn't in the Hall of Fame. Fans have long been divided over the prospect of his reinstatement -- if it exists -- but most seem to agree that he should be inducted into the Hall.
  6. Mike Tyson: Simply put, Tyson hasn't always been the nice guy he appears to be today. People may feel sorry for him because his closest friends are pigeons and he exhibits all of the characteristics of a child even though he's in his mid-40s. But remember, this is a guy who allegedly abused his ex-wife Robbin Givens, who described their marriage as "torture, pure hell, worse than anything I could possibly imagine," and was convicted of raping an 18-year-old beauty pageant contestant. Tyson was one of the last feared, high-profile heavyweight champs, so it's easy to overlook his past personal problems.
  7. Ty Cobb: Contrary to popular belief, the "unstable" athlete isn't a recent phenomenon, and Cobb is proof of that. Mostly remembered as one of the most prolific hitters baseball has ever seen, he was notorious in his day for being an uneasy loner with a quick temper. Originally from Georgia, he was a bitter racist who once fought a black groundskeeper because of field conditions he deemed unsatisfactory, an incident that ended with Cobb choking the groundskeeper's wife. A few years later, he assaulted a handicapped heckler in New York who apparently used a racial slur toward Cobb, one that Cobb used frequently. He also once slapped a black elevator operator for being "uppity," and then stabbed a black night watchman who attempted to intervene. Players and umpires weren't immune to his wrath either; he fought umpire Billy Evans under the grandstand following a game. Fittingly, Cobb was jealous of the more amiable, well-like Ruth, with whom his career coincided.
  8. Shoeless Joe Jackson: Good friends with Cobb, Jackson stirred up just as much controversy during his time in the majors. He was accused of participating in the Black Sox Scandal, along with eight other White Sox players, in which they allegedly threw the 1919 World Series to the Reds. Although he hit .375 during the series, he admitted to a grand jury that he partook in the fix by muffing balls and making short throws to the infield, according to news accounts from the period. He was later acquitted by a Chicago jury, but was banned from baseball by commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. For the remainder of his life, Cobb proclaimed his innocence, but he still hasn't been granted admission to the Hall of Fame.
  9. Tiger Woods: Late November 2009 started the personal downfall of one of the world's all-time most successful athletes. After a one car accident in which Tiger hit a hedge, fire hydrant and tree after an apparent dispute with his wife, countless women came forward alleging to have had affairs with the then-World No. 1 golfer. He subsequently went into hiding until February 2010, when he issued a public apology, admitting that he had been unfaithful to his wife Elin. Tiger stated that because he had experienced such success, he felt the rules no longer applied to him, something with which many golf fans agreed given his sometimes substandard etiquette on the course. In 2009, Anthony Galea, a doctor who had worked with Tiger, was reported to be under investigation by the FBI for providing performance enhancing drugs to athletes, fueling suspicions that Tiger unethically bulked up. Since that fateful fall day, Tiger has yet to win a tournament.
  10. John McEnroe: Cue the "You cannot be serious" sound bite. McEnroe didn't engender the same kind of hatred as some of the aforementioned athletes on this list because he wasn't a political figure or criminal. Instead, he was more like the Rasheed Wallace of his day, but in a stuffier sport. He was once suspended for 21 days and fined $7,500 for yelling at an umpire, "Answer the question, jerk!" and slamming his racquet into a juice cart. The clips of his on-court temper tantrums have been played numerous times over the past three decades and remain entertaining pieces of tennis history. His rival Bjorn Borg, on the other hand, wasn't one to get into spats with umpires. He tended to keep his emotions in check, making McEnroe look like a villain. Famously, the British press excoriated McEnroe for his behavior at Wimbledon, and he wasn't given honorary club membership at the All England Club after his first victory.

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