At their best, sports are a tribute to the human spirit and an honorable competition between two athletes or teams. At their worst, however, they can expose sports figures as unethical, filled with greed and willing to anything it takes to win. Here’s a look at the worst incidents in professional sports history. Keep in mind, however, that this list is dedicated solely to professional sports scandals, so you won’t see anything involving college sports, the Olympics or even Little League Baseball here.
10. Operation Slap Shot
In February 2006, professional hockey was rocked when New Jersey law enforcement officials uncovered a multi-million gambling ring involving former NHL player and then Coyotes assistant coach Rick Tocchet, as well as Janet Jones, the wife of the legendary Wayne Gretzky. Tocchet was one of three men accused of organizing a betting operation centering around NCAA football and the Super Bowl, but reportedly not hockey itself. In May 2007, Tocchet reached a plea bargain and was placed on two years of probation, and despite rumors to the contrary, no other NHL personnel were ever connected to the investigation, not even Gretzky.
9. NFL Players Gone Wild
When it comes to professional football scandals, there are simply too many to choose from. There’s former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick and his dogfighting ring. There’s Pacman Jones and multiple off-the-field incidents. There’s the Cincinnati Bengals and the fact that members of the team were arrested 13 times between December 2005 and June 2007. There’s Tank Johnson and his weapon charges and DUI allegations, as well as Cedric Benson’s alcohol-related incidents. Is there any wonder why NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wanted to institute a personal conduct policy?
8. Mike Tyson Rape Conviction
Mike Tyson has been at the center of many, many controversies during his career. After all, this is a man who once said he wanted to eat Lennox Lewis’s children and bit the ear off of Evander Holyfield. However, no incident was as serious as Tyson’s 1992 conviction for the rape of Rhode Island native Desiree Washington. Washington accused Tyson of raping her in an Indianapolis hotel room in 1991, and after a lengthy trial, Tyson was found guilty and sentenced to six years in prison. He would serve only three before being released and returning to the boxing ring.
7. Pete Rose Bets on Baseball
It was in 1989 that baseball first questioned then Cincinnati Reds manager Pete Rose about rumors he had bet on baseball. He denied the charges in February, but new commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti hired a lawyer by the name of John Dowd to investigate Rose and the accusations against him. Dowd uncovered information that claimed Rose had bet on more than 50 Reds games in 1987 alone. Rose denied the allegations until August 1989, when he agreed to an indefinite ban from baseball. He has since admitted to betting on baseball and specifically on the Reds, and has applied for reinstatement to Major League Baseball, but remains banned from the game to this day. As it is, Rose is ineligible for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, a controversial situation in and of itself that many fans and sports journalists feel should be rectified.
6. The Kobe Bryant Sexual Assault Case
During the summer of 2003, Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting a 19-year-old Colorado woman. Bryant had been staying at a hotel in the Eagle, Colorado area in preparation for knee surgery when the incident took place. Charges were dropped after the accuser refused to testify, and a civil lawsuit was settled out of court. Bryant would later admit that he had indeed had sexual relations with the woman, but claimed that it was a consensual affair. As a result, Bryant lost several of his endorsement deals, including a lucrative one with fast food giant McDonalds. The Bryant case was voted the top sports story of 2003 by the Associated Press.
5. Tim Donaghy
Former NBA referee Tim Donaghy set off a firestorm of controversy in 2007. That summer, an FBI investigation found that Donaghy had placed tens of thousands of dollars worth of bets on games that he officiated. Worse yet, he admitted that he made calls that affected the outcome of the game, so that he could manipulate the point spread and win his wagers. Donaghy also went on to say that he was not the only NBA referee involved in such behavior, and that the league themselves sometimes ordered officials to extend playoff series to help increase TV ratings and ticket sales. Commissioner David Stern has denied this charge, and while the furor surrounding this scandal has died down in recent months, it nonetheless called into question the integrity of an entire sports league.
4. Tour de France Doping Allegations
Doping scandals at the Tour de France date back to the early 1900s, but it was in 1998 that the first major doping scandal erupted, complete with hotel-room raids by French police and a sit-down strike by riders on the 17th stage. Stricter drug testing requirements followed, as well as the formation of the World Anti-Doping Agency. Nonetheless, doping allegations remain a constant at the Tour de France, with seven-time former champion Lance Armstrong being a favorite target. Despite relentless accusations, Armstrong has never been found guilty of using illegal performance enhancers, although several others have, including Jan Ullrich and Floyd Landis in 2006 and Alexander Vinokourov and Cristian Moreni in 2007.
3. The Black Sox Scandal
The subject of the excellent book and movie Eight Men Out, the Black Sox Scandal involves the involvement of several members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox in a conspiracy to fix the World Series. As the legend goes, it was Sox first baseman Arnold Gandil who first came up with the idea to throw the Series, and used his underworld connections to set things up. He played on his teammates’ mutual distaste for Chicago owner Charles Comiskey. Gandil and seven other players (Eddie Cicotte, Oscar Felsch, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, Fred McMullen, “Buck” Weaver, Charles Risberg and Claude “Lefty” Williams) were banned from baseball for their part in the fix, which led baseball owners to create the new office of Commissioner of Baseball to oversee league activities.
2. MLB and Steroids
From BALCO to the Mitchell Report and everything in between, baseball and steroid scandals have become inexorably linked. Several players, such as former stars Jose Canseco and Ken Caminiti as well as Yankees DH Jason Giambi, admitted to using steroids during their careers. Several others, including Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Miguel Tejada, were named in the Mitchell Report, filed by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell following a lengthy investigation. 500-home run hitter Rafael Palmeiro tested positive for steroids, while unsubstantiated allegations continue to surround all-time home run king Barry Bonds. There is no doubt that few scandals have has as much on a impact on a sport, both in perception as well as in reality, as the steroid scandal that has touched Major League Baseball.
1. The O.J. Simpson Trials
Never has a professional athlete fallen from such heights to such depths as O.J. Simpson has. Simpson, a former Heisman Trophy winner, a longtime NFL star running back and a member of the Professional Football Hall of Fame. In 1973, he became the first running back to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a single season. After his career was over, he became a football analyst, an actor and a commercial spokesman. Then, shockingly, he was arrested in 1994 and charged with the murder of former wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ronald Goldman. The trial was one of the most publicized legal proceedings ever. Simpson was acquitted of the murder charges but was later found criminally liable for Goldman’s death by a civil jury. He and a co-defendant were also recently found guilty of multiple felony counts, including kidnapping and armed robbery. The former football star now faces the possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison.
Of course, by no stretch of the imagination could we include all of the major scandals to ever cast a pall over professional sports. Among those that were close, but just couldn’t make the cut, include the fixed fight between Jake LaMotta and Billy Fox in 1947, the Minnesota Viking’s Party Boat incident in 2005, the 2007 Formula One espionage scandal and, of course, the New England Patriots’ Spygate scandal. Any other notable sporting scandals you think should have been included on our list? Post your comments below and let us know about them!
by Chuck Bednar