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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.