With America’s news landscape littered with the exploits of a juiced-up
outfielder, a degenerative NBA referee and a dog-drowning Pro Bowl quarterback,
sports fans have grown all too familiar with headline-grabbing scandals.
In sports, as in all of life, people make mistakes. We see the shortstop
stare into his glove after an error, looking for answers. Or there’s the
receiver tapping his fingers to his chest after the dropped pass in the
international signal for "my bad." These lapses in hand-eye coordination are
just one part of the human condition.
Yet sometimes these slip-ups have a more sinister cause. Occasionally in
sports we witness mistakes that weren’t accidents, but the by-products of simple
greed and jealousy. With an adoring public so eager to place players on the
pedestal of fame and fortune, we are forced to cringe and turn away when they
plummet unceremoniously back to earth.
Even as we shake our heads and look for answers, we can take solace in the fact
that the sporting world knows how to handle its black eyes, on and off the
field. For as long as fans have paid admission, there have been athletes who’ve
looked past them to the promise of fame, glory and the easy dollar.
On occasion, these exploits can be rather harmless, such as Rosie Ruiz’s
infamous 1980 Boston Marathon "win," in which she snuck into the race just a
mile before the finish line on her way to a record-smashing time. Other
instances, such as the 1919 Black Sox scandal, have brought an entire league to
Always on the level, Player would like to take you on a sordid journey through
the seedy underbelly of American sports. So double-check your tax returns, put
away the crib sheets and get those aces out of your sleeve as we reveal the top
sports scandals of all time.
10. Salt Lake City Busted for Bribery
For the better part of the 20th century, Salt Lake City did its damnedest to
secure a winning bid as a Winter Olympics host city, falling short on five
separate occasions. In 1932 they lost out to Lake Placid, New York. In 1972 it
was Sapporo, Japan, and four years later it was Innsbruck, Austria’s turn. Still
determined, they went for it in 1992 but saw Albertville, France take the prize.
Yet even after seven decades of falling short, the city still held out hope for
the 1998 games. Nagano, Japan edged them out with 52 percent of the vote.
After that, the Salt Lake Bid Committee decided it was no more Mr. Nice Guy.
Casting aside any hint of an inferiority complex, they went all out in their
quest for the 2002 Games. Despite their buttoned-down reputation, the Beehive
State started making it rain like Pacman Jones at an exotic dancing convention.
The International Olympic Committee found itself showered with gifts from these
focused Utahns. What kind of gifts you ask? Well, for starters there were some
free ski vacations. Then Super Bowl tickets found their way into IOC hands.
There were also plastic surgery expenses, a crooked real estate deal,
considerable scholarships and even some coveted local jobs going to the families
of Committee members. Oh yeah, and there was some cash under the table. Bags of
it. Really big bags.
So, as luck would have it, Salt Lake City finally got its first Olympic Games.
But when Swiss IOC member Marc Hodler broke the news that members of the
Committee had taken bribes, heads began to roll. Shortly thereafter, Salt Lake
Olympic Committee President Frank Joklik and Vice President Dave Johnson were
removed from their positions and ten IOC members either resigned or were given
the boot as well.
But with so much already underway and so little time for another city to
prepare, Salt Lake City was not stripped of its coveted Games, and the city’s
denizens were nothing if not gracious hosts.
Not coincidentally, longtime IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch also received
a gift: over $2,000 worth of firearms from the Salt Lake City crew. A man so
used to power he demanded to be addressed as "His Excellency," Samaranch said he
didn’t want to insult the city by refusing the valuable gift.
By welcoming weapons over the ol’ bag with the dollar sign, it appears His
Excellency favored bang over buck.
9. Jim Thorpe Gets Stripped
If there was a type of physical competition the chances were pretty good Jim
Thorpe could beat you.
Nearly unchallenged in the 1950s in being named the "Greatest Athlete of the
First Half of the Century" by the Associated Press, Thorpe was a natural athlete
in the highest degree. He became famous as a four-position football player and a
track and field standout in nearly every event. But he was also a renowned
baseball, basketball, lacrosse and tennis player, as well as a skilled golfer,
rower, bowler, pool player and gymnast.
But when it came to transforming himself from man to legend, the road begins and
ends at the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. It was there that Thorpe,
known for his Native American heritage and modest physical stature, put on a
display of physical prowess never before seen on a world stage. Thorpe won the
decathlon with a point total that would stand for almost 20 years, and would
have been good enough for a silver medal almost four decades later.
In the pentathlon he was not expected to defeat home-grown specimen Hugo
Wieslander, but instead, stunned the masses by handling the Swede with a
688-point margin of victory. This earned him international recognition and the
enthusiastic praise of both an adoring American public and Sweden’s King Gustav
V, who would personally congratulate the Sac-and-Fox Indian, calling him "the
greatest athlete in the world."
More than six months after the hoopla surrounding Thorpe’s Herculean
performance, it was announced that he was to be stripped of his gold medals,
sending shock waves across the sporting world. A newspaper reporter discovered
that Thorpe had received payment as a minor league baseball player during the
summers of 1909 and 1910, naively using his real name instead of an alias, a
tactic used by many would-be amateurs at the time.
The Amateur Athletic Union retroactively rescinded Thorpe’s amateur status, and
the International Olympic Committee followed suit. Thorpe begged for his
eligibility, stating straightforwardly that at the time he had been "simply an
Indian schoolboy [who] did not know all about such things."
Despite his pleas—and a rule stating that all protests must be made within a
month of the closing Olympic ceremonies—his gold medals were revoked. Wieslander
and Ferdinand Bie, whom Thorpe had defeated in the decathlon, both refused to
accept the gold.
But in the end, Thorpe reclaimed his prize. In 1982, almost 30 years after his
death, the International Olympic Committee reinstated him and presented his
children with duplicate medals. It’s a fitting end for a man many believe to be
the greatest athlete who ever lived.
8. Danny Almonte Pulls a Fast One
Plenty of guys—more than many people think—have had the fantasy. The one where
they’re dunking on ten-year-olds or skating circles around pee-wees. It’s
ludicrous and it’s juvenile, but that’s what sport fantasies are all about.
In 2001 one young man lived out one of these fantasies in one of the greatest
sports hoaxes of the modern era.
Danny Almonte was the diesel-armed star of his Bronx baseball team, leading them
to the Little League World Series. Speaking almost no English whatsoever, his
pitching did all the talking. He played like a man among boys as American
families sat slack-jawed in front of their television sets.
In the Mid-Atlantic Regional finals the Dominican-born hurler threw a no-no
against the State College, Pennsylvania team. Then, four days later, he threw
the first perfect game in a Little League World Series in 44 years, attracting
national media attention for two reasons.
First, there were his incredible statistics. Of the 72 batters he would face in
the tournament, only ten would avoid striking out. He gave up an average of one
hit per start and had only one unearned run on his stat sheet. He also received
attention due to his unusual size and skill, the likes of which few 12-year-olds
possess. The kid they called "Little Unit" stood 5’8" and threw a 75 mph
fastball, the Major League equivalent of 98.
So after bagging a third-place finish in the tournament, a ceremony at Yankee
Stadium, and a key to the city from Mayor Rudy Giuliani, rumors that Danny might
be older than the league-limit began circulating. But in-depth searches by
private investigators, Little League Baseball and Dominican officials found
nothing out of the ordinary.
A few weeks later, after a Sports Illustrated investigation and exhaustive
research by the head of Dominican public records, it was announced that Danny’s
father Felipe had lied about his son’s age, using 1989 instead of his 1987 birth
year on all personal records submitted for the tournament. Danny was two full
years older than the maximum for the tournament.
His team was promptly stripped of its wins and records. Felipe Almonte had
Dominican criminal charges brought against him and was banned for life by Little
League. Soon thereafter it was also discovered that Danny had not even been
enrolled in an American school, nor resided on American soil, through mid-June
of that year. This made him ineligible no matter what his age, and made his
cheating father a scumbag on two separate fronts.
Despite being despicably taken advantage of by his own father, Danny would go on
to a successful high school pitching career in New York City and at 19 married a
30-year-old hairdresser from a local salon. Too young or too old, it appears the
kid never learned to act his own age.
7. Those Cheatin’ Gophers
The St. Paul Pioneer Press created quite a stir in March of 1999 when it first
broke a story about allegations of academic dishonesty at the University of
Minnesota. But the Golden Gophers were a team familiar with high-profile legal
trouble. In 1986 they were involved in a trial that made headlines across the
country when three players were charged with sexually assaulting a female
student at another university. And although all three were eventually acquitted,
a change was clearly needed.
Enter Clem Haskins, a former college and NBA standout brought in from Western
Kentucky University. His new job? To clean up the program. And for over a decade
he appeared to have done just that.
But under the eternal mantra of "better late than never," office manager Jan
Gangelhoff came forward to the Pioneer Press with a startling revelation that
shook the former Big 10 power. She admitted to writing, with the help of her
sister, over 400 papers for members of the men’s basketball team over six
seasons, years that included several NCAA Tournament appearances.
With the university’s pants around its ankles, four of its accused players were
abruptly held out of the team’s opening round game of the NCAA tournament, just
days after the allegations first surfaced. This all but doomed the team and it
fell to Gonzaga as controversy swirled.
Soon a corrupt system of control was revealed, one led by none other than Coach
Haskins. During his early years as coach, he had persuaded university officials
to alter the rules surrounding academic counseling for his team alone, in what
was labeled as an "experiment" to help at-risk student-athletes. This new system
allowed Haskins to give his players a grossly dishonest edge to meet academic
eligibility requirements without any of the checks and balances of other teams
at the school. It would be years until he dropped his categorical denial and
admitted his considerable role in the violations.
But after an earnest and sweeping restructuring of its athletic tutoring system,
a self-imposed postseason ban and a cut in basketball scholarships, the Gophers
received a relatively light punishment. The NCAA placed the school on four years
of probation and further reduced their scholarships as well as their number of
allowed recruiting visits.
The school was also forced to expunge all wins from their record books during
the period of academic dishonesty, a stretch that covered most of the 1990s.
Most embarrassing of all, Minnesota had its 1997 NCAA Tournament Final Four
banner removed from the rafters of the Williams Arena, known locally as "The
With a name like that, it should come as no surprise that their former coach was
an expert at shoveling you-know-what.
6. Kerrigan vs. Harding
It was a story inspired by a poorly written soap opera.
Nancy Kerrigan, the 24-year-old Olympic medalist, had just exited the ice after
a practice skate for the U.S. Olympic trials. After walking over to speak with a
reporter, a man ran up to her, struck her in the knee with a metal baton and
escaped the building into the crowded sidewalk outside.
The footage of a hysterical Kerrigan holding her knee and sobbing "Why?" was
broadcast into homes coast-to-coast, rallying Americans behind the pride of
The Washington Post reported the story the next day, mentioning fellow Olympic
hopeful Tonya Harding briefly at the end, saying that the former American
champion had "been the object of threats" in the past as well, but "now employs
a bodyguard service."
This service, World Bodyguard, had only one client: Harding. Within days, its
owner, Shawn Eckardt, was implicated in the assault and soon admitted to hiring
two men to attack Kerrigan. Eckardt’s attorney said his 350-pound client wanted
to take responsibility for his role, saying it made him "feel ugly."
Soon thereafter, the man who assaulted Kerrigan and the getaway driver joined
Eckardt in custody, with Harding’s slimy ex-husband following days later. But
despite openly admitting to knowledge of the attackers’ plot after the assault
and a confession from her ex-husband that Harding was deeply involved in the
plot, Harding was not denied her spot at the Olympics after threatening a $20
This created the ridiculous and unforgettable situation of both Harding and
Kerrigan competing for the same gold medal, each trying their best to skate
around the metaphorical elephant in the rink.
Kerrigan would fall just short, with 16-year-old Oksana Baiul taking the gold.
But she would go on to capture a silver medal, America’s heart and several big
Harding, on the other hand, fell even shorter. Finishing eighth as an Olympic
pariah, she was later fined, put on criminal probation, stripped of her former
U.S. title and banned from the U.S. Figure Skating Association for life. She
would go on to stints as, among other things, boxer, wrestling manager and
singer, and would receive jail time for a failed field sobriety test.
But the shame of Portland, Oregon would make headlines again for a domestic
disturbance in which she punched her boyfriend in the face and threw a hubcap at
him. But you know what they say: There’s no such thing as bad publicity.
5. Steroids Sully Baseball
In the late 1990s it wasn’t just chicks who dug the long ball; it seemed like
every baseball fan had fallen in love with Major League Baseball’s new penchant
for towering round-trippers. The three-run dinger had replaced the hit-and-run
for game time strategy, and big was the new fast.
Slowly, talk of steroids leaked into the national consciousness. But, as a
never-ending barrage of baseballs soared into the evening sky, nobody worried
about such things as the veracity of baseball’s record book. Who cares if
they’re soiling the national pastime, as long as they keep knocking ‘em off the
scoreboard, right? America was paying to see 10-8 blast-fests, not 2-1
extra-inning nail-biters. So when it was rumored that anabolic steroids might be
playing a role in the power surge, baseball officials didn’t exactly spring into
As early as 1995, one general manager publicly called the use of
performance-enhancers "the secret we’re not supposed to talk about," and future
Hall-of-Famer Tony Gwynn estimated steroid use to be as high as one in three.
Home run production in the majors soared by almost 32 percent between 1990 and
2000, a decade without any new DH rules, mound height alterations or strike zone
But even with private knowledge of rampant use across Major League clubhouses,
the public discovery of steroid precursor Androstenedione in home run king Mark
McGwire’s locker in 1998, and a general beefing-up of everyone but the batboys,
no wheels were set in motion.
The winds began changing with a widely read 2002 article in Sports Illustrated,
which featured former All-Star Ken Caminiti admitting extensive steroid use and
crediting it for his MVP season. Less than a year later 23-year-old Orioles
pitcher Steve Bechler would die in spring training, with the popular amphetamine
Ephedra linked to his death.
Soon thereafter began the infamous BALCO trial, and steroid use officially hit
the mainstream when a world of designer drugs and untraceable performance
enhancers was revealed in black-and-white in newspapers across the country.
Baseball pariah Jose Conseco’s sensationalistic autobiography Juiced hit shelves
two years later. Canseco estimated steroid use to be as high as 85 percent in
the majors. The following month gave America the now legendary Reform Committee
hearing, which featured a tearfully unresponsive Mark McGwire, a furious Rafael
Palmeiro and a suddenly monolingual Sammy Sosa responding to steroid
allegations. Pitcher Jason Grimsley had his home raided by federal agents in
2006 and admitted steroid use. Grimsley even supplied the names of several
high-profile players he said used steroids.
It was so clear steroids were out of control in baseball that Congress decided
to step in to push baseball towards a new testing and discipline plan. But even
today, with a new plan in place and punishments ready to be doled out, the
record books have all been tainted. With no way to be sure who used and who
didn’t, hitting statistics have been rendered all but meaningless during the Era
of the Long Ball.
But hey, it sure made SportsCenter fun, right?
4. SMU Gets the Death Penalty
Few could say they were shocked when it was revealed in 1986 that some Southern
Methodist University football players received money in return for their
services. After all, the Mustangs were already in the middle of a two-year
probation for similar violations. But when the scope and magnitude of the
payments were made public, jaws began dropping well beyond the campus nicknamed
"Southern Millionaires University."
A slush fund was created with booster money for 13 players to receive cash
payouts every month. When investigators calculated the total amount that had
been paid out, they were stunned as it soared past the $60,000 mark.
Athletic Director Bob Hitch, head coach Bobby Collins and assistant coach Henry
Lee Parker were all forced to resign during the scandal, but SMU offered them
their remaining contract earnings in full (a total of about $850,000) if they
remained silent on the matter.
They did, and the NCAA was not amused. Infuriated at the full-scale stonewalling
that continues to this day, they passed down their first "Death Penalty"
punishment on February 25, 1987. The entire 1987 SMU football season was
cancelled, as well as every 1988 SMU home game. SMU would later elect to cancel
the remaining road games, citing an inability to field a competitive team. Also,
scores of scholarships were eliminated. It wouldn’t be until 1992 that SMU got
their full allotment back.
But most shocking of all were the statements of Texas governor and SMU fanatic
Bill Clements six days later, in which he confessed to not only knowledge of the
payments but that he actually approved their continuation when he sat on the
school’s Board of Governors. When confronted about his previous lies on the
subject, the two-term Republican governor replied, "There wasn’t a Bible in the
The alma mater of such football legends as Doak Walker, Don Meredith and Eric
Dickerson, SMU was relegated to the dregs of college football and remains a
thousand miles from its former days as a national championship contender.
The "Death Penalty" punishment, the harshest and most far-reaching NCAA
sanctions of any football program in collegiate history, was never used by them
again, despite a handful of opportunities. This led one university president to
compare it to the atomic bomb, noting that only upon its release did we see its
Nicknamed "Ponygate," this scandal has served as a terrible warning for would-be
tricksters across college football’s major conferences, reminding them all that
their final days among the football elite are only a few ill-conceived payouts
3. NYC Point-Shaving Scandals
Today, anybody and their mother can tell you college basketball is a profitable
business. Schools compete for a spot in the NCAA Tournament to earn the big-time
money that comes with creating a big-time program.
Sixty years ago the college basketball landscape was far different, though still
wildly popular. But then, like today, it seemed impossible to imagine a scandal
so big that the very foundation of collegiate athletics could be called into
On January 18, 1951, a colossal point-shaving scandal first broke for the whole
world to see, dominating the front page of the New York Times. By the time the
sheer magnitude of the damage was unearthed, the entire college basketball
universe seemed ready to implode.
Over the course of the year an astounding 32 players from seven different
schools were indicted for their involvement in a massive gambling ring that
involved point-shaving during various games, many of these held in Madison
Square Garden, nestled within the icy embrace of New York City’s extensive
organized crime syndicates.
But what made these indictments so astonishing was the caliber of the players
involved. These weren’t forgettable role players on marginal squads. Some of the
nation’s top players were found guilty, many for crimes they committed while
starting for NCAA and NIT champions and contenders.
By far the biggest shockwave of the seemingly unending scandal was in October of
1951, when New York District Attorney Frank Hogan arrested two of the top
basketball players in the country, Ralph Beard and Alex Groza. At the University
of Kentucky, under the guidance of legendary coach Adolph Rupp, the pair had won
two NCAA championships. They were highly praised Olympic gold medalists, and at
the time of their arrest, they were stars for the NBA’s Indianapolis Olympians.
But along with Kentucky teammate, Dale Barnstable, the two had accepted bribes
to shave points in an NIT game at Madison Square Garden two years earlier. They
received a suspended sentence and probation and were barred from sports for
three years. The NBA then suspended them, and soon thereafter the Indianapolis
franchise folded completely.
Another of Rupp’s supposedly "untouchable" championship players, All-American
center Bill Spivey, was later banned from entering the NBA after accusations
that he too was crooked. For their players’ unforgivable transgressions,
powerhouse Kentucky was suspended by the NCAA for the entire 1952-53 basketball
But the most egregious offenders were New York City schools: Long Island
University, City College, Manhattan College and NYU. Once upon a time these were
big names in college basketball. But after word of the scandal got out, these
schools became a college basketball afterthought, continuing into the decades to
follow. And with organized crime’s affiliation with point-shaving still making
headlines today, smart money is on this trend continuing.
2. Pete Rose Bets it All
If there is anything in the world that Pete Rose is an expert on, it’s baseball
hardware. Major League Baseball’s all-time hit king was the 1963 Rookie of the
Year and 1973 NL MVP. He earned two Gold Gloves and three batting titles. He
appeared in 17 All-Star Games at a mind-blowing five different positions. And
don’t forget the three World Series rings.
But if there is anything that Rose left by the wayside, it’s self-control. As
manager of the Cincinnati Reds, Rose saw early signs of tarnish on his sterling
baseball legacy when some startling reports surfaced. Rumors that he had gambled
illegally on sporting events led to an investigation that caught the eye of both
outgoing baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth and the man who would fill his
shoes, A. Bartlett Giamatti.
When attorney John Dowd released his report to Giamatti in May of 1989, what
remained of Rose’s legacy turned to ash. A gambling addict of the first degree,
Dowd cited Rose for illegal sports gambling that included Major League Baseball
games. Most damning of all were findings that as manager, Rose placed scores of
bets, for thousands of dollars at a time, on his own team.
Just three months later, Rose’s reputation was entombed, as he accepted a
permanent spot on baseball’s ineligible list and was replaced as manager of the
Reds. The following summer he would serve five months in prison for tax fraud,
and that winter, the Hall of Fame would alter its rules to ban ineligible
players from induction.
Almost a full decade later, it appeared Rose might get his chance to sneak back
into baseball’s good graces when he was named by fans to the All-Century Team in
1999 and received the loudest ovation of any player present.
His autobiography My Prison Without Walls, was released in 2004 with the hopes
of swaying the public’s favor toward his reinstatement. After years of publicly
and fervently denying that he bet on baseball games, Rose finally admitted his
greatest sin on ABC’s Primetime television program. But the self-serving profit
motive and ill timing of the release served only to turn most fans away from
Rose. He remains chained up in baseball’s doghouse.
In 2004, legendary pitcher Bob Feller echoed the opinions of many when he said
that when it came to the Hall of Fame, "I don’t want him, the Hall of Famers
don’t want him, and no honest American wants him." It seems that after falling
about as far and as hard as any one player in history, Rose is forced to toss
and turn in a bed he made himself.
1. The 1919 Black Sox
If there is one American sports scandal that sets the standard for
headline-grabbing coast-to-coast public mania, it has to be the story of the
1919 Black Sox. Even after 88 long years it remains the biggest, most
all-encompassing sports debacle the country has ever seen, forever tainting the
1919 World Series.
A cartel of gamblers and a handful of players teamed up to ensure that the
heavily favored Sox lost the most hallowed of all sports championships to the
underdog Cincinnati Reds. First baseman Chick Gandil led the fix, getting
starting pitchers Eddie Cicotte and Lefty Williams on board, along with several
others. But the gamblers failed to pony up the money in time as incredibly heavy
betting swung the odds until the Reds were 5 to 1 favorites. Tricked, the
players turned bitter as the public grew suspicious.
The Sox would go on to lose the Series and eventually found themselves indicted
on fraud and gambling charges. But in true Chicago fashion, a highly dubious
trial—one featuring the theft of player confessions—led to "not guilty" verdicts
all around. Disregarding the suspect ruling, new Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain
Landis banned all eight men from baseball for life. Despite pleas, appeals, and
the concerted efforts of elected officials past and present, all bans remain in
effect to this day.
The players did it for a variety of reasons. For some, it was seen as an easy
way to pocket a few thousand dollars, a small fortune in post–World War I
America. For others, it was payback. Chicago’s tightfisted owner Charles
Comiskey was a miser in a league of his own. His players were among the lowest
paid in the league; their very nickname Black Sox had come from his
unwillingness to pay for their uniforms to be cleaned regularly.
But for at least one of the banned men, simple ignorance seems to be the motive.
And as luck would have it, he was one of the greatest to ever lace up spikes. As
a hitter this man’s swing was so pure even Babe Ruth said he copied his style,
calling him the greatest hitter he’d ever seen. Legendary outfielder Shoeless
Joe Jackson, the original American sports tragedy, was banned for his role in
the plot, despite leading the Series in hits, knocking in six RBI and blasting
the only home run. He also handled 30 balls without making an error.
Easily manipulated by his teammates, he had no proper schooling of any kind, and
had never learned to read or write as a dirt-poor boy in South Carolina. Barely
able to even pen his own name unassisted, he usually just signed with an ‘X’.
Supposedly, Jackson approached Comiskey and his personal secretary after he
received his unwanted money from the gamblers. Comiskey allegedly knew plenty
about the fix but wanted to avoid being linked in any way, so he told Jackson it
was his to keep and that everything would be taken care of.
Although he may not have known what the inside of a classroom looked like,
Shoeless Joe knew how to let go. Usually in good spirits, it was shortly before
his death that the religious Jackson said, "I’m going to meet the greatest
umpire of them all—and He knows I’m innocent."