Regardless of how we might think of ourselves individually, it’s a proven fact that people, as a whole, are drawn to “dramatic events.” There are entire genres of literature based on dramatic stories. We create movies about them. Heck, as terrible as Soap Operas are, they still draw loyal fans who can’t wait for the next series of twists and turns.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that the world of sports encompasses its own drama. After all, the athletes and the people involved are humans just the same. And when it comes to sports, many of the dramas involve what happened during the sporting events themselves, but even more often what happens in between the events.
For example, here is our list of 35 of the biggest scandals, controversies, and conspiracies from the sports world.
The Black Sox Scandal
No, the “Black Sox” weren’t an old-school baseball team from the early 20th century that was eventually renamed. Rather, “The Black Sox Scandal” refers to arguably the most blatant case of a team “throwing” the outcome of a game — or in this case, the World Series.
In the 1919 World Series, eight members of the Chicago White Sox were charged to have helped intentionally lose the series against the Cincinnati Reds, in exchange for receiving monetary incentives from famed New York City mobster Arnold Rothstein. The eight players were permanently banned from baseball, and were completely disqualified from ever being in consideration for the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The Tuck Rule
Late in the 2001 AFC Divisional Playoff Game between the New England Patriots and Oakland Raiders, quarterback Tom Brady began to attempt a pass, but returned the ball back to his body. At that moment, he was hit by Oakland cornerback Charles Woodson, who dislodged the ball from Brady’s hands, causing a fumble recovered by the Raiders.
But the referees ruled that since Brady performed the throwing motion but returned the ball back to his body while still in his hands, it actually counted as an incomplete pass. This little-known “Tuck Rule” was vehemently argued, despite the fact that it was 100% written as such in the NFL rule book. As we all know, the New England Patriots would advance to — and win — the Super Bowl that year, starting off perhaps the greatest dynasty in NFL history.
Michael Jordan’s Retirement
Michael Jordan’s retirement in 1993 shocked the entire NBA world. The Chicago Bulls were coming off a three-peat of NBA titles, and Jordan had already won the Most Valuable Player award three times in his career, in addition to leading USA Basketball to a Gold Medal in the 1992 Summer Olympics.
But while the “official story” of Jordan’s retirement surrounded the recent death of his father and his desire to play baseball, the truth might’ve been something else entirely. One of the great “urban legends” of the NBA remains that then-Commissioner David Stern suspended Jordan due to debts accumulated from his notorious gambling habits.
The Mitchell Report
The Report to the Commissioner of Baseball of an Independent Investigation into the Illegal Use of Steroids and Other Performance Enhancing Substances by Players in Major League Baseball, informally known as the Mitchell Report (named after U.S. Senator George Mitchell), was the in-depth exposé on the rampant use of Performance-Enhancing Drugs (PED’s) in Major League Baseball.
The report would go on to identify 89 MLB players who were alleged to have used steroids or other PED’s. As most of the baseball-viewing public knows, that list included premier names like Roger Clemens, Gary Sheffield, Jason Giambi, and most notoriously, Barry Bonds. The Mitchell Report was unquestionably the dark cloud that enshrouded baseball in its darkest hour.
Referee Tim Donaghy Fixing NBA Game Scores
For nearly 13 years, referee Tim Donaghy was a name known only to the most devoted hoops-heads who follow the NBA, outside of anyone employed by the NBA. But in 2007, after officiating almost 800 NBA games, Donaghy became a near household name after the FBI began investigating whether he potentially made calls during games that would’ve affected the betting line for the game.
Donaghy would eventually plead guilty to two Federal charges as a result of the FBI’s investigation, but the larger impact came from an even greater mistrust of NBA officiating that many players and fans had already.
Kobe Bryant’s Arrest In Colorado
In the summer of 2003, the sheriff’s office of Eagle, Colorado, arrested Kobe Bryant under charges of improper relations with a 19-year-old female employee of The Lodge and Spa at Cordillera in Eagle County, where Bryant was staying. Bryant did admit to an encounter with the woman, but claimed it was consensual.
While the case was eventually dropped by the accuser, it irreparably tarnished the image of Bryant in the eyes of many of his commercial endorsers, but especially his fans inside and outside of Los Angeles. It would take him years to repair such damage.
Tennis “Battle Of The Sexes”
The famous tennis match nicknamed “The Battle Of The Sexes” is most commonly associated with the 1973 match between 55 year-old male tennis player Bobby Riggs and 29 year-old female tennis player Billie Jean King. Riggs would go out of his way to taunt female tennis players, and issuing a financial challenge for any female to compete against him on the court — which King accepted, obviously.
But even with King winning, marking a huge step for women’s professional sports, the game was mired in controversy both because King was said to have beaten a past-his-prime opponent, and because of allegations that Riggs concocted the event to raise money to pay off gambling debts he owed to rather unsavory folks.
The 2011 New Orleans Saints Bounty Scandal
Most commonly referred to by the NFL-viewing public as “Bountygate,” the infamous bounty scandal associated with the 2010-2011 New Orleans Saints refers to the accusations of ongoing “bounties” being paid by members of the New Orleans defensive staff, in exchange for Saints players injuring specific opponents.
Most notably, then defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was recorded as incentivizing a player injuring Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre in the 2011 NFC Championship game. Williams was suspended indefinitely (though he’s obviously returned back to the NFL), while head coach Sean Payton was suspended for the entire 2012 season.
Domestic Violence Incident With Ray Rice
In February of 2014, Baltimore Ravens’ running back Ray Rice reportedly got into an argument with then-fiancé Janay Palmer in an Atlantic City, New Jersey casino. Unbeknownst to the public was the fact that the two got into a physical altercation, with Rice striking Palmer with so much force that she was basically knocked out.
Months later, tabloid news site TMZ leaked the (rather disturbing) video of Rice clocking Palmer in the elevator, and dragging her knocked-out corpse out of said elevator. It understandably elicited a huge response from the public when it was released, and forced the NFL to be much more stringent about its views towards the behavior of its players in their home lives.
Nancy Kerrigan vs. Tonya Harding
In a sad twist of irony, the figure skating events set to take place in the 1994 Winter Olympics got a massive boost in interest from an otherwise casual viewing audience, thanks to a scandal that took place well prior to the events in Lillehammer. A day prior to the U.S. Figure Skating Championship that year, an assailant struck Kerrigan, who was just coming off the ice after practicing, with the intent to severely damage her right leg.
After the FBI stepped into the investigation, they found that rival figure skater Tonya Harding had some connection to the incident; she pleaded guilty to conspiracy to hinder prosecution. Harding was stripped of the 1994 U.S. Championship title and banned for life from participating in US Figure Skating Association events as either a competitor or coach. Meanwhile, Kerrigan would still go on to win the Silver Medal in the ensuing Olympics.
Diego Maradona and “The Hand Of God”
Do yourself a favor: don’t ever talk to a person from England about the 1986 World Cup Quarterfinals, and especially don’t bring up the name of legendary soccer player Diego Maradona. In said match, towards the end of the first half, Maradona had passed the ball to teammate Jorge Valdano, which actually put him offsides on the play — a penalty that the officials missed in the game. But the missed call to come was far more egregious, when Maradona went to challenge English goalkeeper Peter Shilton on a ball that popped up right in front of the goal.
Maradona’s left fist hit the ball, causing it to go in the goal. But, no penalty was ever called by the referees for Maradona using his hands. When asked after the match about the missed call, Maradona famously said he scored the goal “a little with his head, and a little with the hand of God.”
Delonte West and LeBron James
Among the many sports tragedies endured by fans of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Game 6 of the 2010 Eastern Conference Semifinals, featuring the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics, ranks right up thereat the very top. The top-seeded Cavaliers, featuring LeBron James at near-apex levels, lost to his arch rivals in the Boston Celtics. But what made matters worse was the way James seemed mentally distracted, if not checked out of the game altogether (he shot 8 for 21 in the loss).
Both entering and after the game, numerous allegations emerged about teammate Delonte West potentially having some type of relationship with Gloria James, the mother of LeBron James. While nothing has ever been proven, it’s undoubtedly a key reason the Cavaliers fell short in the playoffs, and why James ultimately left Cleveland.
The 2001 Little League World Series
During the 2001 Little League World Series, a team from the Bronx in New York City captivated the interest of the United States as a whole, thanks in large part to a young phenom pitcher by the name of Danny Almonte. The Dominican-born pitcher, who had moved to the US just a year prior, earned the nickname “The Little Unit” (in homage of Randy “the Big Unit” Johnson) because of his ability to throw as hard was 76 miles per hour fastballs, and having thrown the first perfect game in the LLWS in over 20 years.
But suspicions of parents on opposing LLWS teams led to an investigation that determined that Almonte’s father, Felipe Almonte had ultimately misled LLWS officials about Almonte’s age — he was two years older than he was made out to be, and thus not able to compete per the age restrictions. Ultimately, his Mid-Atlantic team was forced to forfeit their wins in the tournament as well.
University of North Carolina Academic-Athletic Scandal
An independent report in October of 2014 found that the University of North Carolina, over the course of 18 years, created fake “paper classes,” in which academic funneled thousands of student athletes, in order to keep them academically eligible at the otherwise rigorous academic institution.
This report began when more and more evidence emerged that student athletes at the school were enrolled in classes where there was little (if any) actual work involved. The school actually admitted such transgressions took place, and fired upwards of nine employees who were involved. Many people criticized the NCAA when, in the end, UNC only faced a one-year probation for the result of such transgressions.
Steve Bartman and the 2003 National League Championship Series
Without question, “Steve Bartman” is a name that will forever live in infamy in Chicago sports lore. In the 8th inning of Game 6 of the NLCS, the Chicago Cubs held a 3-0 lead when outfielder Moisés Alou pursued a ball near the left field fence. But in his zeal to catch a ball in a game, Bartman reached for the ball, deflecting it away from Alou and costing his beloved Cubs an easy out.
The opposing Florida Marlins would actually go on to score 8 runs in that same inning, defeating the Cubs by an 8-3 score. Bartman was so badly ridiculed for costing the Cubs a win and an eventual spot in the World Series that he had to move away from Chicago and legally change his name.
Michael Vick and “Bad Newz Kennels”
An ongoing investigation into a cross-state gambling ring involving dogfighting led authorities to “Bad Newz Kennels,” with the alleged dog fights taking place on property owned by then Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick. Upwards of 70 dogs, many of which were pit bulls, were found with various injuries and levels of mistreatment due to the dog fights that took place there.
Vick and three co-conspirators were charged with federal conspiracy charges, which would result in Vick going to jail and eventually having to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. It was a precipitous fall for one of the NFL’s brightest stars, and a major “black mark” on the league as a whole.
1985 NBA Draft Lottery
There are many people who still believe the sequence of events in the 1985 NBA Draft Lottery were fixed, and there remains no definitive evidence to refute this great conspiracy theory. Specifically, the theory revolves around the idea that then-Commissioner David Stern was able to act on the NBA’s desire to improve the standing of the New York Knicks franchise, by enabling the Knicks to win the Draft Lottery that year.
How is that possible? Stern effectively drew from seven envelopes in a massive bingo roller, and the conspiracy theorists believe Stern was able to identify the envelope belonging to the Knicks because the envelope was frozen. It’s not a coincidence that the NBA would eventually move to a ping pong-ball based system that’s administered by a third party for subsequent NBA Draft Lottery results.
2002 NBA Western Conference Finals, Game 6
Among the many charges by sports fans that the “powers that be” conspire to fix games in the National Basketball Association (NBA), the egregious officiating that took place in Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals, between the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings, would be near the top of the list of “smoking guns.”
There has been official documentation from referees — including the disgraced Tim Donaghy — that alleges that the officiating in that game saw to it that the “league preferred” Lakers would triumph over the Kings, by ensuring at the very least that there would be a Game 7 in the series. What makes matters even worse is that most people even in the association who witnessed the series believed the Kings were the better team overall.
Reggie Bush Receives Improper Benefits While At USC
After a magnificent career at the University of Southern California, in which he would go on to win the Heisman Trophy and be a central part of two National Championship teams, running back Reggie Bush became the #2 overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft.
But that same year, reports began emerging that Bush’s family may have received “kickbacks” from USC as part of the school’s effort to recruit him there. The case was eventually settled in 2010, with the NCAA ruling that Bush had received numerous gifts from sports agent Lloyd Lake. That disqualified Bush from his amateur status, resulting in the NCAA banning USC from bowl games for two years, vacating a bunch of wins by USC, and stripping Bush of his Heisman Trophy award.
The Missed Pass Interference In The 2018 NFC Championship
What happened in the 2018-2019 NFC Championship game between the New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams would be the proverbial “Exhibit A” for any irate football fan who wonders what the heck referees are actually doing or seeing on the field. With less than two minutes remaining in the 4th quarter, and the game tied at 20, New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees lofted a pass towards receiver Tommy Lee Lewis.
Had Lewis caught the ball, he would’ve been inside the five yard line of Los Angeles. But Rams’ safety Nickell Robey-Coleman totally wiped Lewis out from the play, with no regard to the incoming pass. The referees shockingly missed the blatant pass interference on the play, and the Rams would go on to win the game and advance to the Super Bowl.
The Death Of Len Bias
There’s no question that Len Bias presents one of the most intriguing and tragic “what if” scenarios in the history of basketball. Many considered the University of Maryland phenom, who went #1 overall to the Boston Celtics in the 1986 NBA Draft, to be one of the most gifted and talented basketball prospects to come out of the draft in years.
But merely hours after being drafted, Bias — who was partying with friends on the Maryland campus — partook of recreational substances, which would lead to Bias falling unconscious, and reportedly having a seizure. He passed away later that morning, leaving basketball fans — in Boston, and all over the nation — in a complete state of shock.
Isiah Thomas Accused Of Harassing An Employee
The five years that Isiah Thomas served as President of Basketball Operations for the New York Knicks was a complete fiasco in every sense of the word. In addition to basically destroying the team’s present and future product(s), he kept trying to convince the hard-nose New York fans of what a wonderful job he was doing.
What he couldn’t rationalize, however, was the harassment lawsuit brought forward by Anucha Browne Sanders, a former female executive with the Knicks. Sanders not only stated that Thomas acted inappropriately around her, but also fired her in retaliation for bringing forth a complaint to Human Resources.
Illegal Videotaping By The 2007 New England Patriots
In 2007, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots were accused of being a “peeping tom” of sorts, when former Patriots’ assistant coach Eric Mangini — who was then the the head coach of the New York Jets — accused Belichick and the Patriots of videotaping Jets’ defensive coaches’ signals from an unauthorized location during a September 9, 2007 game. This was a rules violation because the Patriots were taping what the Jets’ coaches were doing from their own sideline.
The NFL fined Belichick a sum of $500,000 for the scandal that became to be known as “Spygate,” and stripped the Patriots of their first round pick in the 2008 NFL Draft. Of course, the Patriots had the last laugh in all of this, when they would finish the 2007 regular season with an undefeated record, and advance to the Super Bowl that year.
Duke Lacrosse Case
In a case that exacerbated the racial tensions between the affluent (and largely caucasian) students at Duke University juxtaposed with the more diverse population with the remainder of Durham, North Carolina, the Duke University Lacrosse Case turned out to be more scandalous given that the charges had to eventually be dropped.
The long and short of it remained that after an African American exotic dancer levied charges against Duke Lacrosse players, the prosecutor on the case was eventually disbarred by the state based on allegations of fraud and misrepresentation, among other things. After further investigation, there were so many holes in the case against the students that the case was thrown out, but not without irreparably damaging the reputation of many of the students and the school as a whole.
Ed Martin And The University of Michigan
The entire legacy of the legendary “Fab Five” of the University of Michigan receives a black mark because of the relationship between University of Michigan athletes — most famously Chris Webber — and a businessman named Ed Martin.
After a joint investigation by the NCAA, FBI, and even the IRS and US Department of Justice, it was found that many student athletes at Michigan received improper benefits from Martin, in the form of cash payments or loans that were given with the intention of being repaid if or when those athletes became professionals. Such benefits caused Michigan to have to vacate the back-to-back National Championship appearances they had during the two years “the Fab Five” of Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose, Ray Jackson, and Jimmy King played together.
SMU Football Receives “The Death Penalty”
To borrow from the great Keith Jackson: among all the scandals involving “pay for play” in college football, the scandal involving the football program at Southern Methodist University might be “the granddaddy of them all.” In 1985, SMU was already under NCAA probation after being caught for recruiting violations — the program’s seventh time being on probation for such violations.
In 1986, whistle-blowers came forward identifying that upwards of 20 players were receiving cash and benefits through slush funds established by program boosters. The NCAA had no choice but to lay down “The Death Penalty” on SMU, cancelling a myriad of games over the next few seasons, and stripping away over 50 scholarships over the next four years, among numerous other punitive measures.
Nevin Shapiro and the University of Miami
A scandal that crossed both socioeconomic as well as sports borders, which happened to play just as much of a role in the collapse of the great University of Miami football teams of the early 2000’s as what happened on the field.
Shapiro started a firm called “Capitol Investments USA,” which effectively just became a shell company for him to solicit funds that he would use to give University of Miami football players perks like cash, various goods, VIP experiences, and various other favors of all sorts. When the Ponzi scheme was investigated and busted by the FBI, Shapiro outed just how much money he funneled to Miami players, leading to the University imposing significant penalties upon itself.
The Demise Of The USFL
The United States Football League was founded the idea of being a “more fun” version of professional football, which would be played in the spring — when the NFL and college football were not in season. But everything changed when a brash (if not loud-mouthed) New York City Real Estate tycoon and celebutante named Donald Trump bought one of the league’s marquee franchises, but then convinced the rest of the owners to sue the NFL as part of a bid to move the league to play in the fall.
The USFL famously won in court, but was awarded approximately $3 in damages, leaving the league completely bankrupt and forcing it to cease operations. But there are many people who believe that Trump’s lawsuit was part of a “sour grapes” vendetta that he had against the NFL, especially considering then commissioner Pete Rozelle all but declared that Trump would never be welcomed in the fraternity of team owners.
Deflated Footballs In the 2015 AFC Championship Game
Once again, the New England Patriots found themselves in another “-gate” incident, this time surrounding allegations of doctoring the footballs used in the game. Specifically, it was alleged that quarterback Tom Brady ordered New England Patriots staffers to under-inflate some of the balls used in the game.
To this day, nobody really knows how or why an under-inflated ball would provide a competitive advantage for Brady, and as other players on the losing Indianapolis Colts would confirm, it didn’t matter what type of ball Brady and the Patriots were using, considering the lopsided nature of the game itself (Indianapolis lost 45-7). Regardless, Brady was suspended four games to start the 2015 regular season; but, as always, Brady got the last laugh when he and the Patriots ended up winning the Super Bowl that year.
2006 Tour De France
It was cyclist Floyd Landis who originally won the 2006 Tour de France race, doing so in rather spectacular fashion (via a late-stage comeback). But after his win, a urine sample revealed traces of performance enhancing drugs (PED’s) that were up to three times the allowed amount.
After fighting the charges initially, he eventually confessed in 2010, and subsequently became a government informant when authorities began investigating whether revered American cyclist Lance Armstrong had any ties to PED’s. After a decade of denying it, in 2013, Armstrong himself came clean as a result of the investigation and pressure he faced — all because of Landis originally getting caught.
The Rigged Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston Rematch
Almost any sports historian is very familiar with the iconic picture of legendary boxer Muhammad Ali standing over a felled Sonny Liston, after knocking him out in the first round of their 1965 rematch. But there is a large swath of people who believe that Liston “took a dive” in the fight as a result of the fight being fixed, with Liston falling as a result of a “phantom punch” (ie, one that never happened).
The prevailing explanation as to why such circumstance would’ve occurred involved Liston being tied up with the mafia; specifically, people believe that the mafia not only forced Liston to lose the fight, because they had wagered money on Ali, but that Liston was under further pressure from the mafia because of his own debts he had with them. To make matters even more intriguing, Liston died five years after the fight, with his death being ruled as an overdose. You can connect the dots from there.
No professional athlete in American sports is so synonymous with “scandals” as Pete Rose. That fact is incredibly sad, given how much he accomplished as a player: finishing as the all-time leader in hits and games played, while winning three batting titles, two Gold Gloves, and three World Series titles.
But in August of 1989, MLB levied a lifetime ban against Rose after accusations that Rose gambled on baseball games in which his team played in, while he played for and managed his Cincinnati Reds. As part of his lifetime ban, he became permanently ineligible from being inducted into the Hall of Fame. While the initial accusations remained only at that level, documents in recent years corroborated that Rose, in fact, did bet on games in which he could directly affect the outcome through his participation.
Zach Smith Fired By Ohio State University
A relatively obscure position coach for Ohio State University’s football program became a household name when wide receivers coach Zach Smith was fired by the University after his wife filed for a protection order against him. The story caught fire amidst a sports climate that really cracked down on domestic conflicts among athletes and sports professionals.
However, the story got even more publicity as news emerged that Smith’s transgressions dated as far back as 2012. If that was the case, then Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer had to have known about the charges, and still did nothing to discipline Smith; in fact, in many ways, it appeared that Meyer looked the other way on Smith’s behavior. In the eyes of many, Meyer stepping away from Ohio State at the end of 2018 was far from coincidental.
Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics
Of any name on this list, Larry Nassar is one of the two that should forever live in infamy. The former USA Gymnastics national team doctor and osteopathic physician at Michigan State University was charged to have performed improper treatments and pursued improper relations with dozens of young female gymnasts whom he was supposed to be treating medically.
He admitted to at least 10 of the accusations brought forth against him by victims. Nassar was sentenced to 175 years in a Michigan state prison, on the heels of fiery testimony levied by many of his victims.
Jerry Sandusky and “The Second Mile” Charity
For decades, Jerry Sandusky was the chief lieutenant to Hall of Fame coach Joe Paterno at Penn State University, and presumed to be the heir to the head coaching mantle at the program. But Sandusky’s charity, named “The Second Mile,” came under a grand jury investigation that, after two years, concluded with Sandusky’s arrest in 2011 on 52 accounts of abusing children whom that charity served.
What casts a much darker shadow on the entire situation, in the eyes of the college football world, is the question of just how much knowledge Paterno might’ve had (if any) of Sandusky’s transgressions over the years, given the emergence of circumstantial evidence that could reasonably lead one to believe Paterno had some level of knowledge.