As former wrestler and renowned social scientist The Iron Sheik once noted: “THE POLITICS AND THE WRESTLING SAME THING.” This holds true even when we zoom out to the sports world at large, where the fates of athletic luminaries often intertwine with the whims of the federal government. These whims occasionally manifest as presidential pardons or commutations — sometimes ceremonial, sometimes practical, sometimes worthwhile, and sometimes inexplicable. Below are several such figures to receive either full pardons or commutations from the White House, arranged for your reading pleasure into a soothing slideshow format. Hooray!
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The late Yankees patriarch was pardoned on January 20, 1989, in the final hours of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Steinbrenner had been convicted some 15 years earlier of conspiring to illegally donate to Richard Nixon’s ill-fated reelection campaign. That organization, of course, served as a slush fund for Nixon to wage war against his political enemies and led ultimately to his resignation. On that note...
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Sure, Nixon is not a “sports figure” per se. But he was responsible for installing the first-ever bowling alley at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and by most accounts, he was pretty good. Nixon was also arguably the greatest (or at least the most enthusiastic) football mind to win the presidency, phoning in playcalling advice to coaches like Don Shula of the Dolphins and George Allen of his beloved Washington team. Football even helped Nixon find common ground with one of his most vehement critics, the singularly talented and prolifically drug-addled journalist Hunter S. Thompson. Unfortunately, Nixon had precious little time to pursue his athletic interests in the White House as he often found himself busy hating Jews, Blacks, and Democrats. The 37th president of the United States resigned in disgrace amid the Watergate scandal and immediately received a full preemptive pardon from his successor and former VP Gerald Ford, coincidentally the best football player ever to serve as president.
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Walters, a monolithic figure in Las Vegas sports betting, was serving a five-year prison term when his sentence was commuted by Donald Trump on January 20, 2021, his final day in the White House. Walters had been convicted in 2017 of insider trading, with his case prosecuted in New York by the office of then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, whom Trump fired later that year and continued to beef with pettily.
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DeBartolo, the owner of the dynasty-era San Francisco 49ers, was caught in 1997 making an under-the-table payment of $400,000 to the governor of Louisiana in exchange for a gaming license. DeBartolo avoided prison time in the corruption scandal, escaping with a measly $1 million fine, but he was forced to sell the Niners, who won five Super Bowls in his time as owner. Despite DeBartolo’s slap-on-the-wrist punishment, Trump gave him a pardon in February 2020.
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Broken clocks are right twice a day, and the Trump presidency was no different. Trump did two things right in four years: He kept Jon Bon Jovi away from the White House, and he pardoned Jack Johnson. The early-20th century boxing legend had been convicted under the incredibly racist Mann Act, which ostensibly sought to curb sex trafficking by prohibiting the transportation of women across state lines for “immoral purposes.” In practice, Johnson was singled out, tried, and imprisoned under this statute for having the temerity to pursue relationships with white women.
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The brother of Bears legend Brian Urlacher was preemptively pardoned in the final moments of Trump’s White House tenure. The less-famous Urlacher, himself a former football player turned Illinois Republican lawmaker, resigned in 2017 as mayor of Mettawa, a Chicago suburb, after he was charged with conspiracy to run an illegal gambling operation in the area.
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By the late 1990s, the high-profile owner of NASCAR’s Hendrick Motorsports had amassed a car dealership empire through questionable means. Investigators found that Hendrick had sent $20,000 in cash to a Honda executive as part of a kickback scheme. He was initially charged with conspiracy and 13 counts of money laundering, but eventually reached a deal with prosecutors and pleaded guilty to mail fraud, for which he paid a $250,000 fine and served three years probation. Bill Clinton pardoned Hendrick in 2000. James Austin Hayes, Rick Hendrick’s nephew, was pardoned by Trump on his final day in office. Hayes had been convicted of insider trading nearly a decade prior. Hayes’ bid for clemency was reportedly supported by Hendrick, as well as NASCAR’s Jeff Gordon and televangelist bullshit artist Paula White.
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This one is kind of a technicality in that Ali was never pardoned by name, even though Trump publicly floated the idea in 2018 before eventually dropping the thought. The greatest boxer of all time had claimed religious exemption from armed service during the Vietnam War, but the feds disagreed, and Ali was convicted in 1967 of draft evasion. “I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong,” he said famously at the time. Within two months of that frank assessment, Ali had been stripped of his heavyweight championship, banned from boxing for three years, and shamed in the press. In 1970 the United States Supreme Court overturned Ali’s conviction on appeal. In 1977, Jimmy Carter issued a blanket pardon for all Americans convicted of dodging the draft — further vindication for Ali.
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