The Biggest Villains in Sports History
Sports feature heroes and villains, and we wouldn’t love the games without the latter.
Stories are never quite as fun without the compelling character in the black hat. Passions are greater, upsets are sweeter, and incredible plays are even more impressive when they come at the expense of the villain.
So here are some of the greatest heels we have no trouble cheering against.
LaVar Ball, Former Football and Basketball Player
Maybe you don’t know Lavar Ball, but we all know someone like him. That guy who is a little too proud of his kid’s accomplishments. The guy who seems a bit too eager to harass reporters or scouts or anyone who will listen in the name of his son's or daughter’s athletic advancement.
Well, imagine that that guy is also a failed athlete turned marketing whiz who made his son a household name before he ever stepped foot onto an NBA court. That’s LaVar Ball. The Big Baller Brand, which charges $140 for flip flops, was his creation — even though his son doesn’t actually wear the shoes — and apparently Ball is important enough to interview about all subjects, whether basketball, politics or anything else under the sun.
Ric Flair, Former Wrestler
Sure, you might say wrestling isn’t a sport, and for the most part, you’d be right. But Ric Flair is an all-time villain, the kind that transcends sports. You surely know about his trash talking and certainly are familiar with his famous “Woo,” that made him hated across the North American wrestling sphere.
Conor McGregor, UFC Fighter
Conor McGregor once was asked to audition to play a villain in a James Bond movie. He turned down the request to focus on fighting, but his sports persona has been quite villainous all the while.
Controversy seems to follow McGregor, whether it is throwing a railing at his rival’s bus or reports of rampant racism from his opponents, and he doesn’t seem to back down from the hate spewed his way.
Plus, he participates on the most violent sport on earth, which leads to higher volume of animous coming his way.
Mike Tyson, Former Boxer
Mike Tyson once bit his opponent’s ear off during a fight.
That’s not the only case of Tyson’s villainy, but it shows how unique his brand was during his fighting days.
Tyson is something of a loose cannon, but his words and actions — specifically his bite of Evander Holyfield and a felony conviction for rape in 1992 — made him both a boxing villain and one in the real world, as well.
Muhammad Ali, Former Boxer
Muhammad Ali is a hero to many and a villain to a large share. His brash and cocky attitude attracted attention, but a segment of the population still holds disdain for Ali because of his draft dodging during the Vietnam War, which earned him a felony conviction.
His eager willingness to upset the boxing establishment — specifically by employing a rope-a-dope style, where he refused to fight George Foreman until Foreman wore himself out — also brought contempt.
Floyd Mayweather, Former Boxer
Floyd Mayweather is reviled for flaunting his wealth and his unwillingness to fight boxers he can’t beat, but he should be considered a villain after several run-ins with women through the years. He’s had at least three incidents of domestic abuse, including a 2011 arrest that netted a conviction. Throw in many other claims of violence, and you have a real-life villain who happens to compete in a sport.
Neymar, Soccer Player
The world’s best soccer striker has become something of a lightning rod, especially after becoming a meme for diving in the sport during the 2018 World Cup. The BBC said he “confirmed himself as the tournament’s villain,” after spending 14 minutes on the turf in Brazil’s first four matches.
He admitted he can “be a brat,” according to The Independent, and his villainous behavior is only just taking off.
Lewis Hamilton, Formula One Racer
Generally speaking, brashness and winning create villains, and Lewis Hamilton encompasses both. The five-time Formula One champion and native of England has embraced his bad-boy image, finding run-ins with police and a controversy involving a post-race champagne spray.
Even Hamilton’s wins have painted him as a villain, which the Mercedes driver embraced in 2017 when the home crowd in Monza, Italy, booed him after he topped the hometown Ferraris at a race there.
“Inevitably, you’re going to be the villain here if you are the one stopping the Ferraris,” Hamilton told reporters after the race. “We are the villains, but some days, I am really happy to be the villain and don’t mind.”
Dennis Rodman, Former NBA Forward
There was no middle ground with the former NBA rebounding machine. You either loved Dennis Rodman and his antics, or they drove you insane.
Somehow, he never averaged more than 12 points per game but was a key cog for five NBA championship teams. The tattoos, piercings and weird hair color colored people’s opinions of him.
Playing for the Detroit Pistons Bad Boys teams and the late-1990s Chicago Bulls didn’t hurt either.
Bill Laimbeer, Former NBA Forward
If Dennis Rodman earned street cred by playing for the Bad Boys, Bill Laimbeer was the face of the Pistons’ now-infamous championship teams.
Laimbeer not only wore the black hat, he relished it, and Detroit’s rugged, pull-no-punches style of play led it to back-to-back championships in 1988 and 1989.
But when it became time for Detroit to pass the baton to Michael Jordan and the Bulls, Laimbeer and his teammates took their ball and went home, walking off the court toward the locker room before the game was even completed.
Roger Goodell, NFL Commissioner
Roger Goodell might seem harmless, but to many folks in the football-loving populous — I’m looking at you, Boston — he is Public Enemy No. 1.
Forget about Deflategate, and consider the fact that Goodell and the NFL have turned a blind eye to CTE and concussions, which could be the single-greatest scandal in pro sports history.
He also orchestrated the NFL's departure from San Diego, St. Louis and Oakland by holding municipalities hostage for more money, all while presiding over the most successful sports league in the history of the world.
Jerry Jones, Dallas Cowboys Owner
If Roger Goodell is the face of the NFL’s shield, Jerry Jones is the mug of everything that’s wrong with the league’s business model.
Jones bought the Dallas Cowboys, fired Tom Landry, feuded with Jimmy Johnson — after he won a Super Bowl — then presided over an entire era of futility, when the Cowboys didn’t win a playoff game for nearly two decades.
It’s fun to hate Jones as the egomaniacal face of the Cowboys, but where he really becomes hateable is when you hear him manipulating owners to move their organizations, like he did with the Rams. Or when he’s photographed with escorts. Or when he’s threatening to fire players for kneeling for the national anthem.
Bill Belichick, New England Patriots Coach
Players love Bill Belichick. He’s the greatest coach of his generation, and should be revered for years to come.
But Belichick also comes off as surly, and he’s also the coach of the New England Patriots -- after spurning the New York Jets and breaking an agreement with longtime friend Bill Parcells to coach in Foxborough, Massachusetts. He largely doesn’t care how he’s perceived, which is why it is particularly fun to hate Belichick, especially on the rare occasion where he loses.
Tom Brady, New England Patriots Quarterback
Like Bill Belichick, Tom Brady’s success has made him an icon in the NFL. His story is the greatest underdog story in NFL history. A veritable Cinderella-arrives-at-the-dance fairytale.
But let’s not forget he left his pregnant actress girlfriend to date a supermodel instead. He believes his TB12 method is revolutionizing science, but who knows if that is the case?
He also is a noted complainer when things don’t go his way, which makes a reasonable fan’s blood boil over.
Michael Irvin, Former NFL Wide Receiver
We don’t condone raucous fan behavior, especially when it's coming from Philadelphia, but Michael Irvin was so reviled as an athlete Eagles fans at Veterans Stadium wildly cheered his career-ending injury.
That’s the kind of villain Michael Irvin was.
Broad Street Bullies, Hockey
It’s safe to consider a group of players who were literally dubbed “bullies” as some of sports’ greatest villains.
The 1970s Philadelphia Flyers ran roughshod over the NHL of those days, with tough and grueling stars like Dave Schultz, Bill Barber and Bob Clarke. Schultz set an NHL record with 472 penalty minutes in 1974-75, a mark that likely will never be broken.
That campaign also was the first season Philadelphia won the Stanley Cup. In 1975-76, the Flyers had eight players top 100 penalty minutes on their way to their second straight league championship.
Claude Lemieux, Former NHL Forward
The best villains are the ones who can both pummel you and beat you, which is why Claude Lemieux is perfect for this list.
Lemieux won the Stanley Cup four times in 20-plus seasons, and was an integral part of each championship team. He scored 19 Stanley Cup playoff goals, won the Conn Smythe trophy for playoff MVP in 1995 but is truly on this list because of his performance on the 1996 Colorado Avalanche, when he broke Kris Draper’s nose with a check from behind in a series-clinching win against the Detroit Red Wings.
“I can’t believe I shook that guy’s friggin’ hand after the game,” Red Wings forward Dino Ciccarelli told reporters after the incident.
Nick Saban, Football Coach
Nick Saban has had all the success of Bill Belichick with the same amount of scandal, which makes him a necessary additon for this list.
Saban abandoned the Miami Dolphins midseason to join the University of Alabama in 2006, after denying a report that he would leave South Florida. Two years earlier, while the coach of Louisiana State University, Saban denied reports that he was calculating his exit from there to the Dolphins.
Add that to an .876 win percentage at Alabama, and you have the perfect villain in Saban.
Pedro Martinez, Former MLB Pitcher
Pedro Martinez was an old-school flamethrower, one who had zero qualms about throwing a 98-mph fastball toward a batter’s head.
Martinez once famously missed out on a perfect game because he hit Tampa Bay Devil Rays outfielder Gerald Williams as the first batter of his game. He even-more-famously tossed Yankees bench coach Don Zimmer during a 2004 melee.
The ex-Expos, Red Sox, Phillies and Mets pitcher had no concern about wearing the black hat, which is why he fits perfectly on this list.
Roger Clemens, Former MLB Pitcher
Like Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens was one of the great pitchers of his day. Also, like Martinez, he had no fear of agitating opponents.
Fans probably remember Clemens most for his shattered-bat spike toward Mike Piazza that nearly incited a riot at the 2000 World Series. Still, Clemens had been Public Enemy No. 1 in Queens after he took Piazza out with a fastball to the helmet earlier that season.
Clemens was largely reviled during his tenure with the Yankees, specifically in Boston where he spent the first 13 major league seasons.
But his post-playing career has not exactly been free of drama, as he further inflamed critics while he vehemently denied steroid use despite overwhelming evidence of the contrary.
George Steinbrenner, Former New York Yankees Owner
The longtime Yankees owner hired and fired manager Billy Martin five times, and presided over the team’s boom into the financial stratosphere.
If the Yankees were the evil empire, George Steinbrenner was their Vader. He once hired a private investigator to spy on ex-star Dave Winfield.
Steinbrenner was a convicted felon caught making illegal financial donations to Richard Nixon, which he was later pardoned for by President Ronald Reagan.
Barry Bonds, Former MLB Outfielder
Barry Bonds was surly and confrontational with the media. That only escalated when he became the face of the steroid era in baseball.
Bonds’ denials, coupled with his trainer Greg Anderson’s jail time for failing to dish on what was going on, made him a bona fide sports villain to those outside the Bay Area, and it cast a massive cloud over his run to surpass Henry Aaron as baseball’s all-time home run king.
Pete Rose, Former MLB Infielder
Pete Rose is banned for life for betting on baseball, but before his lying denials and MLB agitating, he was revered by some for his hard play and reviled by others for taking things too far. He ruined the career of catcher Ray Fosse, by running him over in an All-Star Game.
Rose has shown little-to-no remorse for his gambling on the sport, selling a book to announce he had, in fact, wagered on his Cincinnati Reds as manager. The all-time hits leader in MLB still is angling to get into the Baseball Hall of Fame, even if that’s unlikely at this point.
Alex Rodriguez, Former MLB Player
Add the steroid denials, two record-breaking contracts, unparalleled talent, an obvious narcissistic streak and a flair for postseason failings — all with the Yankees, no less — and you have Alex Rodriguez. He’s the perfect baseball villain.
John McEnroe, Former Tennis Player
You cannot be serious if you didn’t think we’d include Johnny Mac on this list.
Tennis fans of a certain age might know John McEnroe’s voice from his commentary, but he was both a bad boy and a villain in men’s tennis. He abused officials, complained about opponents and slammed racquets all in the name of competition.