There’s nothing that satisfies our bizarre celebrity idolizing culture like a juicy sports scandal. You might think such events are only recent phenomena, but you would be wrong; they predate the internet, smart phones, television even radio, allowing generations to experience the satiating thrill of combining sports with titillating revelations of misdeeds and miscreants. They have also caused a great deal of collective soul-searching, as they have consistently demonstrated how far some people are willing to go and how much they are willing to risk in the name of fame and fortune. They also show how ravenous we are as a society, watching in a compulsively obsessive fashion as an individual we have built up as an athletic celebrity is brought to task by some form of personal crisis; their loss becomes our fascination. Despite a vast archive to choose from, the following are our top 10 most epic sports scandals in history.
10. 1919 Chicago ‘Black Sox’ (‘Say it ain’t so, Joe.’)
This infamous incident has long been considered to be the forerunner of the modern sports scandal, one that had all the unsavory elements we have come to recognize in the modern era; shocking revelations, criminality, star athletes in compromising circumstances, MLB executives complicit in the affair, a media feeding frenzy and a disbelieving public stunned by the fall from grace of America’s national pastime.
It all began with a U.S. grand jury investigation into allegations of gambling after the 1919 World Series between the Chicago White Sox and Cincinnati Reds, won by the Reds 5 games to 3. During the hearings, four members of the White Sox admitted to intentionally throwing the series in exchange for bribes, with eight of them (Fred McMullin, ‘Shoeless Joe’ Jackson, George ‘Buck’ Weaver, Eddie Cicotte, Oscar ‘Happy’ Felsch, Arnold ‘Chick’ Gandil, Charles ‘Swede’ Risberg and Claude ‘Lefty’ Williams) eventually being charged. Much of the sensational testimony centered on how poorly miserly White Sox owner Charlie Comisky paid his all-star team, and how badly he treated them. This provided much of the motivation for the scheme, in that the 8 players were promised to share between seventy and one hundred thousand dollars to throw the series.
Though gambling in baseball had been prevalent long before this sorry episode, and with the country focusing on World War I, the news that America’s hallowed game could be so completely corrupt was devastating to fans around the country. The eight implicated players were subsequently banned from professional baseball for life, though none were ever convicted of fraud, nor were any of them gamblers. It was widely believed however, that the financier of the plan was well known New York City racketeer Arnold Rothstein. This truly was a watershed moment in the history of professional sports in America, as millions of fans were exposed to the seedy underbelly of just how closely their favorite pastime was aligned with criminal elements, and how willing mostly everyone was to simply ignore it all in order to play ball.
9. Diego Maradona – ‘Hand of God’ – 1986 World Cup
FIFA’s World Cup has seen its fair share of controversy, but none stands out as being as wholly avoidable as the 1986 quarter-final match between Argentina and England in Mexico City. Led by their immensely talented superstar Diego Maradona, the Argentinians were favored to beat England, but certainly not in the manner in which this was accomplished. In the 50th minute, Maradona appeared to head the ball past English goalkeeper Peter Shilton, sending the Argentine fans into a frenzy. However, the immediacy of instant replay left millions worldwide wondering how this goal was allowed to stand, as numerous angles clearly showed Maradona using his left hand to punch the ball past Shilton and into the gaping net behind him.
The English side was outraged, it was beyond evident that not only should the goal be disallowed, but that Maradona should have been sent off for this egregious violation. In typical soccer fashion however, there was no reasoning with the referee, who refused to validate the irrefutable evidence that was being beamed to fans around the world in real time. Meanwhile, the Argentinians were unconcerned about the entire situation, probably feeling (and rightly so, as it turns out), that there would be no reason to expect the goal would be overturned, and it wasn’t.
As if to make up for his flagrant transgression, Maradona later scored a real beauty by beating five English defenders and Shilton to pot his first legitimate goal of the match. Though England did manage to score a late goal, they lost the game 2-1 while Argentina went on to win the tournament. The backlash was immediate; fans around the world decried FIFA’s decision not to review Maradona’s infraction, and to this day, the ‘Hand of God’ goal (so dubbed because Maradona initially claimed in interviews that the ball must have been directed by a Divine force) remains the single most scandalous foul in the history of the World Cup.
8. Pete Rose – Betting Scandal – 1989
Nicknamed ‘Charlie Hustle’ for his hard-nosed, take no prisoners approach to baseball, Pete Rose was a living legend of the game. In 1989, Rose’s career in baseball came to a screeching halt when it was revealed that the compulsive gambler had wagered on innumerable baseball games, as well as those teams he had both played for and managed. An IRS investigation in April 1989 uncovered Rose’s lengthy gambling history that saw him betting on games almost daily, including those of his own team, from between $8,000 and $16,000 per game since at least 1987. His fingerprints and handwriting were found on countless betting slips that made any attempt by Rose to distance himself from the inevitable backlash he would receive completely impossible.
On August 24, 1989, then Commissioner of Baseball Bart Giamatti called a packed press conference to announce that the MLB had no choice but to accept the findings of the IRS investigation and that baseball’s all-time leading hits superstar had been banned from baseball for life due to his obviously uncontrollable gambling. The news shocked fans all over the world who had come to admire Rose for his grit, determination and talent for the game he clearly loved a little too much. It was almost impossible for most people to see Pete Rose as anything but a giant of the game, and the resulting loss of fan support was devastating for an athlete who had made a career out of earned adulation.
Rose himself had signed a document the night before the press conference in which he neither admitted nor denied betting on ball games (though he did cop to betting on other sports), but that he would nevertheless accept the IRS findings and MLB’s decision. Rose almost immediately began to infer that he had been railroaded, but has never provided a shred of evidence that would dismiss the many allegations against him.
Numerous subsequent attempts by Rose to clear his name and reinstate his eligibility for the Hall of Fame have thus far been unsuccessful, as Major League Baseball has shown no interest in exonerating one of the most successful players in the history of the game. This has served to not only punish Rose for his transgressions, but also as a no nonsense harbinger of what others can expect should they be foolish enough to follow in Rose’s disgraced footsteps, as even ‘Charlie Hustle’ is expected to follow the rules.
7. Michael Vick – Dogfighting Ring – 2007
By January 2007, Michael Vick seemed to have it all. One of the most skilled and exciting quarterbacks in the history of U.S. college football, Vick was selected first overall in the 2001 NFL draft by the Atlanta Falcons who inked him to a 6-year, $62 million contract that included a $15 million signing bonus. It didn’t take long for Vick’s incredible talent to pay dividends, as he led the Falcons to the playoffs and earned a Pro-Bowl appearance in his second year with the team. Plagued by injuries in the 2003 season that saw Vick play minimally, he returned healthy for 2004 and took the Falcons to victory as AFC South champions. He was rewarded for his efforts with a 10-year, $130 million contract extension and was now an undisputed superstar.
Heralded as potentially one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, Vick’s success seemed limitless. Then, the crash came, hard. In 2007, Vick’s cousin Davon Boddie was arrested for drug offenses that led police to seek a search warrant for the house he lived in that was owned by Vick. Police twice searched the property near Surry County, Virginia and what they found there was appalling. They removed over 60 dogs (the vast majority being Pitbulls) in various degrees of ill health kept on the premises in filthy, cramped conditions, confiscated numerous pieces of equipment associated with illegal dogfighting and were deeply disturbed by blood-stained walls seen throughout the home. It didn’t take long for authorities to realize that a well-entrenched and organized criminal element was operating out of the house which was clearly staging regular, vicious dog fights.
Initially Vick denied all knowledge or association with the sordid mess, but it soon surfaced that he was not only involved, but was actually running the entire operation, including training the animals, transporting them across state lines for illegal purposes (another felony) and personally disposing of unsuccessful dogs via drownings, electrocutions and hangings. As news of the scope of his criminality and ethical void began to emerge, football fans around the country reacted with stunned horror; that a young man with Vick’s gifts would resort to such an inhumane form of entertainment that was not only illegal but disgustingly immoral as well, was almost impossible to believe. With evidence mounting against him, Michael Vick as forced to admit that he was indeed the mastermind behind the scheme and the ringleader of its day to day operations, and was promptly suspended by the NFL and indicted on several charges of animal cruelty. His trial was a swift affair, and in the fall of 2007, Vick was sentenced to 23 months in prison for his role in the scandal, after becoming one of the most despised people in the country. After serving 19 months, he was released in 2009 and quickly signed a new contract with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Although Vick has managed to put some of his infamy behind him, there’s little doubt that his career and life will always be haunted by the spectre of his utter inability to recognize right from wrong.
6. Jim Thorpe – Olympic Gold Medals – 1912
American James Francis Thorpe is widely considered to be the single greatest athlete of the 20th century. Born in 1888 to a French-Irish father and Native American mother (a descendant of Chief Black Hawk), Thorpe was actually a twin whose bother Charles died at age 8, leaving the family devastated. By age 15, both of Thorpe’s parents had also died, leaving the young, distraught teenager on his own.
In 1904 he enrolled in Carlisle Industrial Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where he quickly established himself as a premier athlete. Under the watchful eye of legendary trainer/coach Glenn ‘Pop’ Warner, Jim Thorpe harnessed his incredible prowess and rapidly became a household name in American sports. He excelled at track and field, baseball and football, but by 1909 he was growing dissatisfied with the limits Carlisle was placing on his talents, and he basically gave up his amateur status by abandoning his academic interests, deciding instead to play semi-pro baseball in North Carolina. He later returned to Carlisle in 1910 where he only furthered his growing status as one of America’s most successful athletes.
By 1912, Jim Thorpe turned his attentions to international competition, beginning with his appearance at the fifth modern Olympiad in Stockholm, Sweden. Thorpe had earned a place on the US team in the long jump, high jump, pentathlon and decathlon, winning gold in the latter two events. Jim Thorpe was now a world recognized celebrity and was easily considered the greatest athlete to emerge in the early part of the century. However the accolades were not to last; following his Olympic triumphs, an American newspaper revealed Thorpe’s involvement in semi-pro baseball, which was a major infraction of the very strict rules then governing amateur sports. Within a matter of weeks, a hastily convened investigation found Thorpe guilty of violating amateur athletics policy in the U.S. and he was promptly stripped of his gold medals and even suffered the further indignity of having g his name removed from the official Olympic record.
Many people have long considered this harsh penalty to be a result of the enmity towards Thorpe’s Native American heritage, and there is little doubt that some racism likely played a role in the decision. Regardless, Jim Thorpe had little choice but to accept responsibility for his actions and move forward. Although he played both professional baseball between 1913 and 1919, and pro football from 1913 until 1928, Thorpe was never again to be regarded with the same awe that had seen his early sporting career lift him from obscurity to international prominence, and he died a broken man virtually destitute in 1953. His daughter Charlotte Thorpe and his family lobbied unsuccessfully for years to have his Olympic results reinstated, and finally won the battle of sorts in 1982 when the IOC returned two replica gold medals to the family, but they have continued to insist that Thorpe’s Olympic records be nullified.
5. Marion Jones – Steroid Allegations – 2007
After becoming the first woman in history to win five medals (3 gold and 2 bronze) at an individual Olympiad in Sydney in 2000, Marion Jones catapulted from U.S. track star to international acclaim as the greatest female athlete in the world. Rumors persisted however, that Jones had repeatedly used banned substances throughout her career to augment her natural abilities, suspicions which were only strengthened by her Olympic performance. Jones consistently denied any allegations of impropriety, insisting that her success was driven by talent and hard work.
In 2004 the International Olympic Committee (IOC) began an investigation into her Olympic results, and by 2007 had gathered enough evidence to charge Jones with violating the rules regarding banned substances. Despite Jones’ repeated denials, she was eventually forced to admit that she had indeed taken illegal steroids in preparation for the Sydney Games on the advice of her coach, Trevor Graham. In 2008, track and field’s highest authority, the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), found Jones guilty of using illegal substances and nullified all of competitive results since the Sydney Olympics. The IOC quickly followed suit, stripping Jones of her 5 Olympic medals that would complete her fall from grace.
While Jones admitted that she had taken substances provided by her coach, she insisted that she was unaware of their true nature as Graham claimed they were simply nutritional supplements. Unfortunately, these proclamations of innocence by Jones were not well-received, and it’s fair to say that few believed an athlete at her level of acclaim and success would suggest that she was wholly ignorant when it came to what she consumed prior to competition. Jones went on to play professional basketball in the WNBA, but would never again receive the accolades that routinely accompany Olympic champions.
4. Ben Johnson – Steroid Scandal – 1988 Olympics
The Men’s 100-meter dash has long been considered the premier Summer Olympic event, generating enormous media interest and television audiences. In Seoul 1988, the final saw the highly anticipated matchup between American Carl Lewis and Canadian Ben Johnson. A hushed crowd saw Johnson destroy the field and set the fastest time in history at 9.79 seconds in an incredible feat of athletic prowess. However, there was controversy about Johnson’s result from the beginning.
Within three days it was revealed he had failed a doping test and was stripped of his world record title and Olympic gold medal. It was as if a grenade went off in the Olympic Village. The personal fallout was massive; Johnson lost scores of endorsement deals, was publicly vilified both domestically and internationally and became the most highly visible symbol of cheating in history. Though he denied knowledge of any wrongdoing, Johnson was banned from competition; it would be as though he never existed, and indeed he never regained his form after the scandal.
The subsequent Dubin Inquiry in Canada revealed that Johnson’s coach Charlie Francis with help from Dr. Jamie Astaphan, had been administering a long history of anabolic steroids to Big Ben and other athletes. The news shocked the Canadian public, though Johnson himself escaped any charges and quietly slipped away as the fastest unrecognized human being in history.
3. Lance Armstrong – Doping Scandal – 2012
Seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong was a cycling God. That he was also a cancer survivor only added to his mystique. There were dark rumors behind the golden status however, as Armstrong was repeatedly suspected of doping throughout his career, though he was never officially reprimanded. Armstrong was an advertiser’s dream come true; he had multi-million dollar endorsement deals, his own charity foundation and the adulation of fans around the world enthralled by his story. Pernicious rumors of doping continued to follow Armstrong however, and in 2012, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USDA) issued its report after a lengthy investigation that concluded he and his team had been involved in an elaborate doping program that had evaded detection for years.
After over ten years of denials, Lance Armstrong publicly admitted in an interview with Oprah Winfrey that he had taken banned substances for many years. To his fans, the news was devastating; their hero was exposed as a common cheat, banned for life from cycling, his records erased from the history books. Armstrong has claimed that he was merely the best cheater of his generation in cycling, as most of his competitors were similarly doping, but he’s received little affirmation for it. No matter what Armstrong may believe, it’s hard to ignore the fact that he exploited the naivety of the public in such a crass and vulgar manner, any form of redemption seems a long way off.
2. Jerry Sandusky – Penn State Molestation Scandal – 2011
For 32 years Jerry Sandusky was an Assistant Football Coach at Penn State University under revered Head Coach Joe Paterno. It was there that for years Sandusky also preyed upon scores of young boys he was supposedly mentoring under a charity program for at-risk youths he founded called Second Mile.
Despite allegations of molesting young boys surfacing as early as the mid 1990s, it appears everyone from Sandusky and Paterno’s staff and the University executive were involved in a major coverup of any hint of impropriety. Sandusky retired from Penn State in 1999, but retained full access to its facilities for the purposes of his charity. It was here that he was allegedly seen molesting two boys from Second Mile in 2002. It wasn’t until 2008 however, that a new investigation prompted by revelations from a High School student that Sandusky, now a volunteer coach at the boy’s school, had sexually assaulted him. The investigation led to Sandusky being arrested and charged in 2011 with 40 counts relating to sexual abuse of minors.
Penn State was rocked. They were severely criticized for their biased handling of previous allegations, which clearly favored settling privately with the victim’s families rather than leaving Sandusky, the university and its hallowed football program to face legal repercussions. They are still struggling to regain a shred of legitimacy. America was left reeling with the realization that in their society, college football was more important than the safety and well being of vulnerable children. While Penn State and Sandusky have settled several multi-million dollar lawsuits, many others are still pending, and Sandusky himself continues to swear his innocence.
1. O. J. Simpson – Murder Charges – 1994
It’s impossible to describe the sense of sheer astonishment shared everyone watching on June 17, 1994 as a White Ford Bronco slowly made its way across Los Angeles, driven by former football player Al Cowlings and containing distraught former football legend O.J. Simpson, complete with disguise and a gun. Every single network was covering it live. It all started with the discovery of the bodies of Simpson’s ex-wife Nichole Brown and her friend Ronald Goldman outside of her L.A. condo on June 13th, and it didn’t take long for Simpson to emerge as a potential suspect. So naturally, in an obvious attempt to clear his name, Simpson grabbed a gun and a disguise and attempted to get out of town.
After scores of police cars and helicopters trailed him for several hours, with Cowling talking to them via cell phone and claiming Simpson had the gun pointed at his head, they eventually surrendered to police at Simpson’s mansion. His subsequent trial was a bizarre circus from the beginning, with Simpson emphatically pleading not guilty and hiring an all-star defense team led by the flamboyant Johnnie Cochran. The State attempted to prove that Simpson was a violent and repetitively abusive spouse, perfectly capable of the shockingly grisly knife murders of the two victims, while Simpson’s defense were content to poke just enough holes in the D.A.’s case to sow some doubts about their client’s ability to get a fair trial.
The case absolutely gripped the nation and the world, people were fascinated by every new revelation, and the court proceedings continued to grow as bizarre as any soap opera, with lawyers, witnesses and even the judge becoming flavor of the month celebrities during the course of the trial. The entire affair was surreal, and as though to highlight this, Simpson was eventually found not guilty of either murder, despite substantial evidence pointing to him as a primary suspect.
Simpson can’t seem to stay clear of the law however, as he was re-arrested in October 2008 on 12 charges of robbery and kidnapping in connection with an ill-conceived plan he and some friends hatched in revenge against some dealers he felt cheated him on some of his memorabilia. He was sentenced in December 2008 to up to 33 years in prison with the eligibility of parole after 9 years. O.J. Simpson has successfully appealed some of his most recent charges, but remains behind bars, one of the most reviled sports figures of the modern era.