The Top 20 Lowest Moments in Sports of the Decade—And Their Moments of Redemption
You take the good, you take the bad, and there you have the facts of sporting life. There were many great moments in sports in the first decade of the millennium, but there were also a fair share of low moments — senseless tragedies and despicable scandals — that took away from a sports fan’s love of the game. Below is a list of the top 20 low moments in the new millennium, ranked on newsworthiness, shock value, and long-term effect on sports.
20. If He Did It (November 2006)
O.J. fell from grace long before this decade. Even if you believed he was innocent in the brutal 1994 slaying of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown, and Ron Goldman, he was no longer known as the champion football star. Then, in November 2006, Simpson wrote a book, “If I Did It,” which included a section giving a “hypothetical” account of how he would have committed the infamous murders. The book was supposed to be promoted with a special television interview on Fox News. The American public, led by the Brown and Goldman family, were outraged at the thought that O.J. Simpson was going to make money giving a detailed account of the gruesome crimes that a civil court found that he committed. The interview was eventually canceled and the book was destroyed.
Moment of Redemption: Things got really bad for Simpson in 2007, when he was arrested in September 2007 after he entered a Las Vegas hotel room with a group of men, armed, and stole sports memorabilia from the room. On December 5, 2008, Simpson was sentenced to 33 years in prison, with the possibility of parole in late 2017. Although more than a decade too late, Simpson finally got at least a little of what was coming to him.
19. Michael Jordan’s Return and Third Retirement (April 16, 2003)
Whatever happened to going out on top? After the September 11 attacks, Michael Jordan announced his return to play with the Washington Wizards; he was to donate his salary to the relief efforts. His 2001-2002 season was cut short because of cartilage injuries in his right knee and the 2002-2003 season was his last season. Neither seasons resulted in playoff appearances for the Washington Wizards and Jordan often openly criticized his teammates, who he felt lacked drive.
Moment of Redemption: He is still Michael Jordan the best NBA player that there ever was. The truth is, although far from his Chicago Bulls days, Jordan led the Wizards in scoring, assists, and steals when he returned. During his stint with the Wizards, all of Jordan’s home games at the MCI Center were sold out, showing that fans everywhere still “wanted to be like Mike.” You know you’re legendary when teams you haven’t even played for retire your number; the Miami Heat did so in April 2003. At his final NBA game, on April 16, 2003, against the Philadelphia 76ers, Jordan received three-minute standing ovation from his teammates, his opponents, and a crowd of over 21,000 fans.
18. Death of a Patriot (April 22, 2004)
Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman turned down a multi-million dollar contract with the Arizona Cardinals to join the army after the September 11 attacks on the United States. Tillman was deployed to Afghanistan, where he was killed by friendly fire. Congress is still investigating Tillman’s death — and the government and Army’s PR efforts following it.
Moment of Redemption: Although nothing could bring this great football player and selfless fighter back, he was awarded a Purple Heart and Silver Star for his bravery. Millions of dollars have been raised in his name for various charities and service organizations, including the USO and the Pat Tillman Foundation, an organization started to help those wishing to inspire positive change in others and those around them.
17. David Bliss Scandal (Summer 2003)
As if the murder of Baylor basketball player Patrick Dennehy by another former player was not tragic enough, the details that emerged after his memorial in the summer of 2003 shocked NCAA fans everywhere. In a page from Hollywood, internal NCAA and police investigators found that Baylor coach David Bliss had asked Dennehy’s teammates and coaching staff to concoct a story about Dennehy being a drug dealer in order to pay for his tuition. The story was meant to cover up the fact that Bliss himself paid for parts of Dennehy’s tuition, a clear violation of NCAA rules. It was also revealed that Bliss knew about the teams rampant drug use. Although never criminally charged, Bliss might have engaged in witness tampering, extortion, and obstruction of justice.
Moment of Redemption: In June 2005, Carlton Dotson pleaded guilty to killing Patrick Dennehy. Meanwhile, the NCAA imposed a 10-year “show-cause” order on Bliss for his despicable behavior and unethical conduct. This means that until 2015, no NCAA member school can hire Bliss without the permission of the infractions committee. That school must then show cause for why it shouldn’t be sanctioned itself. Most major NCAA schools will not hire a coach with a show-cause order on their record.
16. The Rise and Fall of Kirby Puckett (March 17, 2003; March 6, 2006)
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Kirby Puckett was an icon of baseball. Puckett is the Twins franchise’s all-time leader in career hits, runs, doubles, and total bases. Puckett was the fourth baseball player during the 20th century to record 1,000 hits in his first five full calendar years in Major League Baseball, and one of only two to record 2,000 hits during his first 10 full calendar years. Although facing loss of vision in one eye from glaucoma, Puckett was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001. Things rapidly declined when Puckett was arrested and charged with groping a woman in a restroom in 2002. In March 2003, Frank Deford of Sports Illustrated wrote an article entitled “The Rise and Fall of Kirby Puckett,” which chronicled his indiscretions and post-baseball weight gain. On March 5, 2006, Puckett sustained a massive stroke; doctors tried to save him through emergency surgery, but he died the next day at age 45, after being removed from life support. Baseball lost one of its greatest players of all time (Number 86 according to Sporting News 1999 list).
Moment of Redemption: Obituaries written by CNN, ESPN, and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune barely mentioned the recent controversy that had denigrated Puckett’s affable, charitable, and legendary reputation. In response to Puckett’s death, Carl Pohlad, the late owner of the Minnesota Twins, remarked, This is a sad day for the Minnesota Twins, Major League Baseball, and baseball fans everywhere. Indeed, it was. Over 15,000 fans and fellow baseball players including speakers Cal Ripken and Dave Winfield came out to pay tribute to Puckett at a memorial service at the Metrodome.
15. Skater-gate (February 2002)
We’re not talking about the one with Nancy and Tonya; that was last decade. With the exception of synchronized swimming, figure skating might very well be the least guy-friendly sport there is. However, this scandal isn’t as much about figure skating as it is about the bro-topics of national pride: the Olympics, and supporting a friend, our neighbors to the North, Canada. At the 2002 Salt Lake City games, crowd-favorites Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada were poised to end four decades of Russian domination by taking the gold medal in the pairs competition. After the Canadian duo skated, Scott Hamilton remarked, “The Gold is theirs.” Other commentators and the fans agreed, but although close, the judges saw it otherwise. The Canadians received three 5.9s for technical merit, while the Russians received mostly 5.8s and 5.7s. However, for presentation, the Canadians received four 5.9s to the Russians’ seven. Presentation was weighted more heavily than technical merit at the time; the Canadians needed at least five 5.9s to overtake the Russians for first. The commentators and surprised fans thought that there was cheating. Suspicion fell almost immediately on the French judge, Marie Reine La Gougne. When Le Gougne returned to the officials’ hotel, she was immediately confronted by the chair of the International Skating Union’s Technical Committee. Le Gougne had an emotional breakdown in which she said that she had been pressured by the head of the French skating organization to vote for the Russian pair regardless of how the others performed. The scandal called into question whether this was possible in other Olympic events at other Olympic games. In an editorial, the New York Times called the decision “a throwback to the days of the Cold War.”
Moment of Redemption: After a short internal investigation, IOC President Jacques Rogge upgraded the Canadian medal to gold and allowed the Russian pair to keep theirs as well (since there was no proof that the skaters had been involved in rigging the judging of the competition). On April 30, 2002, LeGougne and the head of the French skating organization were suspended by the ISU for three years and barred from the 2006 Winter Olympics for their roles in the scandal.
14. Barbaro Gets Euthanized (January 29, 2007)
In May 2006, Barbaro decisively won the Kentucky Derby. Then tragedy struck at the Preakness, when Barbaro broke three bones around his ankle after a false start. Fans sent cards with well wishes to decorate his New Bolton stables. Although hopes for his recovery from surgery were strong, Barbaro eventually developed further complications, including a deep abscess in his hind foot in early 2007; his handlers realized that recovery was futile and Barbaro needed to be euthanized. His cremated remains were scattered in front of Churchill Downs, paying homage to one of the greatest Derby winners in recent history.
Moment of Redemption: As Time Magazine commented, “Barbaro’s fight was inspiring. Although some may say Barbaro was just a horse who didn’t merit this type of media attention, he brought a renewed and additional interest to horse racing and the beauty of these prized equines.” In addition to many books, veterinary scholarships, and races in Barbaro’s honor, in April 2009, a statue of Barbaro was unveiled at Churchill Downs to commemorate his win at the Kentucky Derby.
13. Marion Jones Doping Scandal (October 2007)
Marion Jones won 5 gold medals at the Sydney Olympic games; at the beginning of the decade her name was synonymous with Olympic success. By the end of the decade, her name had been completely tarnished and she was more known for doping, check counterfeiting, and lying to investigators than her illustrious track and field career. In October 2007, Jones admitted taking steroids before the Sydney 2000 Summer Olympics and acknowledged that she had lied to two grand juries, when she said that she did not previously take steroids.
Moment of Redemption: Crime doesn’t pay. As a result of these admissions, Jones accepted a two-year suspension from track and field competition, and announced her retirement from track and field on October 5, 2007. Based on a ruling from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, her confessions also required disqualification of all her competitive results obtained after September 1, 2000, and Jones was made to forfeit all of her medals, results, points, and prizes. Additionally, in March 2008, Jones began a 6-month sentence in connection with check fraud.
12. Murder of Sean Taylor (November 27, 2007)
On November 27, 2007, Redskins safety, Sean Taylor died, at age 24, from gunshot wounds sustained during a home invasion the previous day, at his Miami-area home. Taylor had been in Miami recuperating from a football injury when the robbers/murderers entered his home. Police believed the robbery was set up after a third-party bragged about Taylor’s wealth and divulged his residence. There was a backlash at media coverage of the murder that portrayed the murder as “black on black” thug violence and Taylor as someone that was headed toward a path of self-destruction.
Moment of Redemption: Although nothing can bring “the Meast” back, current and former teammates expressed outrage at the coverage of Taylor’s murder and dispelled the notion that Sean Taylor was headed on a path to self-destruction. 4,000 people attended Taylor’s funeral service at Florida International University. The NFL recognized Taylor’s death by placing a #21 decal on the back of all NFL players’ helmets during all Week 13 games. Players were given the option to continue wearing the decals in subsequent weeks. The trial of the suspects, one of whom withdrew his guilty plea, is ongoing; if convicted, the perpetrators can face life in prison. In one of the largest honors from the Redskins organizations, in November 2008, Sean Taylor was inducted posthumously into the Redskins’ Ring of Fame on November 30, 2008; he joined 42 other players.
11. The XFL (2001-2002)
Cheesy names like the Los Angeles Xtreme? Telling people that the “X” in XFL stood for Extra Fun League? The XFL, played for one season in 2001, was intended to be a major professional sports league to complement the off season of the NFL. Vince McMahon, owner of the World Wrestling Federation, started a joint venture with NBC in the hopes of creating a “real” professional wrestling-esque football league with fewer rules and less penalties for roughness. The league was an oxymoron at best, and football fans couldn’t wrap themselves around the idea of the league’s connection to pro wrestling. On May 10, 2001, after NBC announced that it would no longer broadcast league games, Vince McMahon announced the cancellation of the league. The XFL was ranked #3 on TV Guide’s list of the worst TV programs of all time.
Moment of Redemption: So hard to find the good from this league, which gave NBC one of the lowest ratings of a network prime-time broadcast of all time, but we will try… Brief professional sports teams in Las Vegas, Birmingham, and Memphis; Tommy Maddox as NFL Comeback player of the year; and Isaac Davis of the San Diego Chargers. Let’s hope the New United States Football League, set to begin in 2010, and the Lingerie Football League learns from the XFL’s mistakes.
A Plus within a negative: Those famous, controversial commercials to promote the XFL, featuring scantily clad girls, some clever camera angles, and a shower.