Infamous Sports Scandals That Rocked the Sports World

By Andi Depre
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Photo Courtesy: Claudio Schwarz/Unsplash

There's something intense and gratifying about watching professional sports. The thrill of competition and the agony of defeat can take humans to the pinnacles of joy and the depths of despair — at least for a few hours. As fans, we want to choose our favorites and stick by them through thick and thin, but they don’t always make it easy.

Professional athletic clubs aren’t immune to scandal, and sometimes those scandals make it pretty hard to remain a loyal fan. Thanks to the recent accusations leveled against the Houston Astros and other baseball teams, we decided to take a look at some of the most controversial scandals in sports history.

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Astros Sign Stealing

A recent scandal in Major League Baseball involved the Houston Astros and their alleged sign-stealing during the 2017 and 2018 seasons. The practice of sign-stealing was widely accepted by professional baseball until MLB issued a memorandum in 2001 prohibiting all teams from using electronic equipment to communicate with each other during games.

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Photo Courtesy: Alex Bregman/Wikimedia Commons

The Astros won a World Series title in 2017 but lost the series to the Nationals in 2019. Since then, a plethora of footage has been released, claiming to show the Astros using trash cans and electronic buzzers to communicate upcoming pitches to batters.

The Hand of God

International football — what most Americans rebelliously refer to as soccer because we have our own football — experienced one of its most controversial World Cup matches during the 1986 quarter-finals in Mexico. The two competitors — Argentina and England — had developed an intense rivalry, leading up to this game. Captain Diego Maradona scored two goals for Argentina in dramatic fashion.

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Photo Courtesy: El Grafico/Getty Images

His second goal was a no-brainer that soared past England's goalkeeper, but it was his first that caused so much controversy. After the game, video evidence proved that Maradona had touched the ball with his hands. After the goal, Maradona told his teammates, "Come hug me, or the referee isn't going to allow it."

1985 NBA Draft Fraud

The first draft using the NBA's lottery system happened in 1985 when the New York Knicks selected the first overall pick, Patrick Ewing. Fans accused NBA Commissioner David Stern of fixing the lottery to support his hometown team. The lottery system involved a random drawing of seven envelopes containing the logo of non-playoff teams from a hopper.

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Photo Courtesy: ESPN/YouTube

They repeated the process until the league determined the order of all seven lottery picks. Protestors claimed that someone refrigerated the Knicks' envelope before the lottery. The moisture allegedly absorbed into the paper, allowing Stern to recognize and select it instantly.

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Coach Zach Smith’s Domestic Violence Charges

Zach Smith was an assistant football coach for the Ohio State Buckeyes. Everything was going fine until ex-ESPN journalist Brett McMurphy published a report on Smith detailing a history of domestic abuse. News broke following a Facebook post by Smith's ex-wife, Courtney, in which she described Zach's physical and mental abuse throughout their marriage.

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Photo Courtesy: ESPN/YouTube

The report alleged that head coach Urban Meyer knew about the continued abuse after Courtney Smith opened up to Meyer's wife, Shelley. Urban claims he did not know about Zach's behavior and moved to fire his assistant coach as soon as he found out.

Duke Lacrosse Rape Accusations

Fans and students of Duke University were stunned when a woman accused three players on the school's lacrosse team of rape. Crystal Mangum, a stripper and student from North Carolina Central University, performed for the team at the home of two of the team's captains. After the alleged incident, tensions arose related to racism, sexual violence, media bias and due process.

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Photo Courtesy: Caroline Culler/Wikimedia Commons

The lead prosecutor and Durham County District Attorney resigned in disgrace when authorities discovered that he lied about sharing DNA tests. The new prosecutor dropped the charges against all three players, even though Mangum persisted with her story.

Steve Bartman’s Game Interference

The Florida Marlins played the Chicago Bears during MLB's 2003 postseason. The controversy happened during Game 6 of the National League Championship Series at Wrigley Field. Marlins batter Luis Castillo hit a fly ball toward foul territory. Cubs left fielder Moises Alou pursued the ball to the wall and leaped up to catch it — with very good odds of success.

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Photo Courtesy: MLB/YouTube

However, one of the fans in the stands, Steve Bartman, reached out for the ball that was still in play. He deflected the ball away from Alou, spoiling a potential out. Instead of nailing out number two, the Cubs gave up eight runs that inning and lost the series during Game 7.

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University of North Carolina Eligibility Fraud

The USC admissions scandal earned a lot of attention in 2019, but fraud is nothing new in higher education. In 2010, the University of North Carolina’s African and Afro-American Studies department, otherwise known as AFAM, was caught creating questionable courses, making unauthorized grade changes and forging faculty signatures to benefit their student athletes.

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Photo Courtesy: Carolina Basketball/Twitter

Reports released in 2011 and 2012 showed a disproportionate number of independent study credits compared to other departments. After a review, many students were defined as academically unqualified to continue enrollment. The university's accrediting body placed them on probation, and the school has since implemented new standards and policies.

2018 NFC Championship Missed Penalty

The National Football League is not without its fair share of scandal. In 2018, the Los Angeles Rams faced off against the New Orleans Saints at the Superdome. The hard fought battle saw the Rams come back from a 13-0 deficit, and the game remained tied at the end of regulation time.

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Photo Courtesy: NFL/YouTube

The scandal didn’t come from questionable calls, but rather from questionable no-calls. A critical missed call happened in the fourth quarter after Drew Brees threw a pass to Tommylee Lewis. Cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman deliberately made helmet-to-helmet contact, but there was no flag in sight.

SMU “Death Penalty”

Southern Methodist University, a small school with only 6,000 students, finished the 1982 football season undefeated and ranked second in the nation. The team went on to win the Cotton Bowl and added a second conference championship two years later.

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Photo Courtesy: Fox 4 News/YouTube

No one could believe that a small college could match up with NCAA powerhouses like Texas, Texas A&M and Arkansas. In 1987, the dream seasons turned into a nightmare when the NCAA discovered SMU had paid several of its players. As a punishment, the NCAA wiped out the school's entire 1987 season.

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Isiah Thomas’ Sexual Harassment

Isiah Thomas is a 12-time NBA All-Star who ranks as one of the top 50 greatest players in NBA history. A former Pistons player, he became a coach for the Pacers and the Knicks before entering a career in broadcasting. However, the long and storied career of the professional basketball player hit the skids in 2006 after a sexual harassment lawsuit.

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Anucha Browne Sanders is a former women’s basketball player and executive for the New York Knicks. She accused Thomas of sexual harassment and filed and won a lawsuit against him Madison Square Garden Company following her wrongful termination.

The Mitchell Report

When reports of illegal performance enhancing drugs within Major League Baseball came out, Commissioner Bud Selig appointed former Walt Disney Company chairman George Mitchell to lead the investigation. Following the release of the book Game of Shadows by Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada, superstar players Barry Bonds, Gary Sheffield and Jason Giambi came under scrutiny for using steroids and growth hormones.

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Mitchell argued that the Major League Baseball Players Association was uncooperative during the investigation. The report found that 89 players tested positive for performance enhancing substances.

Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston

The first bout between Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston for the World Heavyweight Championship occurred on February 25, 1964. Clay was a 7-to-1 underdog who won after Liston gave up in the seventh round. They scheduled a highly anticipated rematch between the two boxers for May of the following year.

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In that fight, Muhammad Ali, the defending champion, dodged a left jab and answered with a quick right. Liston fell to the ground, and a famous photograph captured the moment. Chaos ensued, and the referee awarded Ali the knock-out, but fans accused Ali of delivering a phantom punch in a fixed fight.

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2001 Little League World Series Age Disqualifications

Apparently, sports controversies aren’t just limited to professional sports. The Little League World Series brings together some of the best youth baseball players from around the world every year. In 2001, the tournament came down to a championship game between teams from Tokyo and Florida.

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Photo Courtesy: Public Domain/The White House Archives

The Japanese tykes earned themselves a decisive victory when Nobuhisa Baba hit a single in the 6th inning to drive in the winning run. After the dust settled, officials discovered that pitcher Danny Almonte from one of the U.S. teams, who threw 76 mile-per-hour fastballs, was two years over the maximum age limits, and all his team’s wins were retroactively forfeited.

Tim Donaghy Illegal Betting

Tim Donaghy was a veteran referee with the NBA who worked for 13 seasons, accumulating 772 regular season games and 20 playoff contests on his resume. In 2007, a columnist with the New York Post wrote an article about an FBI investigation that focused on allegations of a referee betting on games based on full control of point spreads.

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NBA Commissioner David Stern assured fans that the league was going "to bring to justice an individual who has betrayed the most sacred trust in professional sports and to take the necessary steps to protect against this ever happening again."

Reggie Bush’s Illegal Compensation

Reggie Bush received a scholarship to attend the University of Southern California under head coach Pete Carroll in 2003. He earned his first-team Freshman All-American selection that year for his ability to run, catch, pass and return the ball. Bush amassed more than 2,600 all-purpose yards and earned the prestigious Heisman Trophy.

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That year, reports surfaced of Bush's family receiving gifts that were in clear violation of NCAA rules. He lost a bid for confidential arbitration before the case settled in 2010. The NCAA proceeded to impose sanctions on USC, and Bush forfeited his Heisman.

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Battle of the Sexes

Bobby Riggs enjoyed a long and successful tennis career that included winning six major titles. He retired in 1951 to become a commentator. He didn’t hold back on his views regarding female players, describing them as inferior and claiming he could beat any of the top female players at the age of 55.

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Photo Courtesy: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Riggs challenged Billie Jean King to a match, and she respectfully declined, so he played and defeated Margaret Court. He continued his taunts until King agreed to the competition. Fifty million people watched King make Riggs eat his words when she beat him in three straight sets.

Bountygate

Bounties are non-contract bonuses — allegedly used without the league's consent — paid to players for targeting individuals on the opposing teams. Collective bargaining agreements and the NFL Players Association both forbid bounties, but players admit the practice is widespread throughout the league. In 2010, an anonymous player told the NFL that the Saints defense targeted Brett Favre and Kurt Warner.

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Photo Courtesy: New Orleans Saints/Twitter

The New Orleans Saints won Super Bowl XLIV in 2009, the year the alleged "Bountygate" began. Commissioner Roger Goodell levied some of the harshest punishments ever administered on the players and head coach Sean Payton.

Ray Rice’s Domestic Violence

Celebrity gossip site TMZ posted a video of the Baltimore Ravens running back and his fiancée, Janay Palmer, entering an elevator at the Revel Casino in Atlantic City. The video clearly showed Rice punching Palmer in the head, rendering her unconscious. Rice then proceeded to drag her out of the elevator.

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A grand jury indicted Rice for third-degree aggravated assault, and he faced three to five years behind bars. Rice married Palmer six weeks later and only received a two-game suspension from the NFL. Roger Goodell claims the league "didn't get [the suspension decision] right" and now levies longer suspensions for domestic violence.

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Kobe Bryant’s Sexual Assault Arrest

In 2003, the Lakers were playing in Denver, Colorado, when a 19-year-old employee at the team's hotel filed a complaint with law enforcement. She accused star Kobe Bryant of raping her in his hotel room. Police arrested Bryant and questioned him about the bruises on the girl's neck.

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Bryant admitted to a sexual encounter with the girl but insisted their casual fling was purely consensual. During pre-trial hearings, the girl submitted underpants for testing that contained a different man's DNA. The judge dismissed the criminal charges against Bryant, and he settled with his accuser during the civil case.

USFL Antitrust Lawsuit

The United States Football League became an alternative to the NFL in 1983, with games played in the spring and summer seasons. In 1985, the league decided to compete with the NFL in the autumn and winter seasons at the request of New Jersey Generals majority owner, Donald Trump.

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The USFL filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL in 1986, but the victory was an utter failure, as a jury awarded the USFL a judgment of $1. That amount was tripled based on antitrust statutes. The league lost so much money during the lawsuit that they shuttered operations before the 1986 season.

Tuck Rule Mismanagement

The controversial Tuck Rule states that "any intentional forward movement of [an offensive player's] arm starts a forward pass, even if the player loses possession of the ball as he is attempting to tuck it back toward his body. If the player has tucked the ball into his body and then loses possession, it is a fumble."

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Photo Courtesy: NFL/YouTube

During a 2001 game between the Raiders and the Patriots, Tom Brady halted in the middle of a throwing motion and tucked the ball before Charles Woodson knocked it loose and caused a fumble. Referee Walt Coleman reversed the call (labeling it an incomplete pass), but he later admitted the error.

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Michael Vick’s Illegal Dog Fights

In 2007, law enforcement was investigating Michael Vick's cousin, Davon Boddie, on drug charges. Authorities executed a search warrant on a property owned by Vick in Virginia, which led to the discovery of an illegal dog fighting ring. The federal government joined the investigation, and the story gained widespread attention.

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Vick and three others accepted a plea bargain for felony operation of interstate dog fighting through his business known as Bad Newz Kennels. Vick took responsibility for financing the majority of the company. He also admitted to killing dogs that did not perform up to expectations. Football fans were shocked — to say the least — when he resumed playing in the NFL after completing his prison sentence.

Tanya Harding’s Assault Scheme

One day before the United States Figure Skating Championship, Nancy Kerrigan was attacked by a man after a practice session. Media outlets from around the world covered the incident. The assailant, Shane Stant, turned himself in to the FBI and admitted to accepting a contract for the assault from the ex-husband of Kerrigan's opponent, Tonya Harding.

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After 10 hours of questioning from the FBI and District Attorney, Harding admitted to knowing about the conspiracy. In an emotional speech, she apologized to Kerrigan for the attack and publicly accepted responsibility. Later that year, the two shared the ice during another practice session.

Michael Jordan’s Strange Retirement

Michael Jordan is arguably one of the most electrifying athletes in all professional sports. Many consider him to be the greatest basketball player to ever play the game. After leading the Chicago Bulls to six titles in the 1990s, including two three-peats, Jordan announced his retirement from the NBA. The timing of his announcement caused significant suspicion due to his known gambling problem.

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A convicted drug dealer named James Bouler had possession of a personal check for $57,000 signed by Jordan. Jordan first said it was a business loan, but he later admitted it was for gambling losses over the course of a weekend.

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Spygate

The New England Patriots are no strangers to controversy in the NFL. During a game against the New York Jets in 2007, multiple people accused the Patriots of videotaping their opponents. Although taping another team isn’t illegal, the Patriots had also been recording the Jets' coaches along their sideline. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell decided this violated league rules.

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Photo Courtesy: Keith Allison/Wikimedia Commons

The Patriots refused to turn over any tapes or recordings, even after they were ordered to do so by the league. At that point, league officials traveled to the Patriot's facility and destroyed all videos. Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick still says he believed he operated within the rules.

Deflategate

Seven years after the dust from Spygate settled, the New England Patriots became embroiled in another controversy. During the 2014 AFC Championship, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady ordered the partial deflation of game balls used to secure the team's victory. The league initially suspended Brady for four games during the 2015 season.

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The league fined him $1 million while also forfeiting the team’s picks in the 2016 NFL Draft. However, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided to withdraw Brady's suspension. Brady suffered extensive fan mistrust and disappointment, but he still earned MVP honors during Super Bowl LI that year.

Larry Nassar’s Medical Abuse

Larry Nassar served as the doctor for the USA Gymnastics national team from 1996 to 2014. In 2015, accusations of sexual assault were brought against him by more than 250 young women and girls. Some of the cases dated as far back as 1992. Nassar admitted to 10 of the allegations.

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In July 2017, a judge sentenced him to 60 years in federal prison after he pled guilty to charges of possessing child pornography. A Michigan court found him guilty on seven counts of sexual assault of minors, leading to a sentence of 175 years in state prison.

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Black Sox

One of the oldest known professional sports scandals dates back to the 1919 World Series. The contest between the Cincinnati Reds and the Chicago White Sox wasn’t as clean-cut as it should have been. A gambling syndicate paid off eight members of the White Sox to throw the series in favor of the Reds.

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Although a court acquitted the ball players on all charges, Major League Baseball permanently banned them from the sport. Additionally, none of the players, including the infamous "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, are allowed in the Hall of Fame. The topic was part of the storyline for the film Field of Dreams.

Pete Rose’s Sports Gambling

Another scandal involving gambling and professional baseball includes Pete Rose, who was one of the greatest hitters of all time. Following his retirement as a player in 1986, Rose became the Reds’ manager until 1989. That year, Sports Illustrated released an article detailing allegations of Rose placing bets on baseball games in March.

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Photo Courtesy: @PeteRose/Twitter

An investigation found that Rose placed thousands of dollars in bets as far back as 1987. He denied all claims, but he voluntarily accepted his permanent ban from baseball. To this day, fans argue about whether or not he should be allowed his well-earned spot in the Hall of Fame.

Jerry Sandusky

Jerry Sandusky spent 30 years of his career as an assistant coach to Joe Paterno at Pennsylvania State University. He received "Assistant Coach of the Year" honors in both 1986 and 1999. Sandusky also founded a charity to help the state's at-risk and underprivileged youth. In 2011, his positive reputation dramatically changed.

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Photo Courtesy: The New York Times/YouTube

Allegations were made of child abuse, and a grand jury investigation discovered a long history of child sexual abuse and rape. He connected with most of his victims through his charity. The court found Sandusky guilty on 45 counts, and he will likely spend his remaining days behind bars in a high-security prison.

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