“Everyone has a plan ’till they get punched in the mouth” —Mike Tyson
For many of us, sports can be an escape from an increasingly complicated outside world. When things on the news get too negative, too violent, or too dramatic, it can be relaxing to immerse oneself in the relatively simple dynamics of professional athletics.
But, then again, sports aren’t always so simple. Professional athletes are often world-famous multi-millionares—with a fair amount of free time. As a result, it’s not exactly rare for them to find themselves at the center of sensational media-fueled scandals, sometimes wholly unrelated to their professional work. Indeed, for some of the more badly-adjusted stars, they’re off-field antics become entirely more widely-recognized then their actual play.
So here we count down some the most shocking sporting scandals ever to grave the pages of Sports Illustrated. National Enquirer, and Times Magazine alike. Happy reading.
43. Stabbed In The Back
Tennis world number one Monica Seles was at the top of her game when, in 1993, she was stabbed in the back—literally—by a spectator during a match at the Citizen Cup in Germany. The assailant was revealed to be an obsessed fan of Seles’ main rival, Steffi Graf. While Seles wasn’t seriously injured, she was psychologically scarred and retreated from tennis while Graf became one of the most successful tennis players in history.
42. Stolen Gold?
In the midst of the Cold War, another US vs Soviet Union battle raged on a basketball court at the 1972 Olympics. With three seconds left in the final, the US were leading by a single point when the Soviets called a time-out. When the buzzer ran out, the US claimed a win, but because the floor wasn’t properly cleared, the three seconds were put back on the clock. The Soviet Union then scored a basket to win. The US team refused to take their silver medals home.
41. The Black Sox
Rumors of match-fixing were swirling before the favored Chicago White Sox and Cincinnati Reds clashed at the baseball World Series. After the Sox’s shock loss, eight players were discovered to have taken bribes to lose the series. The group, dubbed “Black Sox,” went on trial for conspiracy, but key prosecution documents vanished, the case collapsed, and they were found not guilty. The day after the verdicts, the eight were banned from baseball for life.
40. The Scandal That Rocked Duke
In 2006, a stripper accused members of the Duke University lacrosse team of raping her while she performed at a house party. Three players were charged, the team was suspended from playing, and the coach was forced to resign. Then, prosecutors dropped the charges and took the unusual step of declaring the players innocent.
39. Drama on Ice
Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan may have been US Olympic figure skating teammates, but their rivalry ended both their careers. In 1994, as they prepared for the Winter Olympics, a mystery assailant hit Kerrigan in the leg with a baton. The attacker was later revealed to have been hired by Harding’s ex-husband and her bodyguard. Harding plead guilty to conspiring to hinder the prosecution of those involved in the attack, and was banned from the ice.
38. Trading Places
It was one of the most shocking trades in NHL history: in 1988, the entirety of Canada was collectively stunned when Edmonton Oilers captain (and potentially the Greatest Hockey Player of All-Time) Wayne Gretzky was unceremoniously shipped off to the Los Angeles Kings, like so much expired deli meat.
The deal was absolutely shocking. In exchange for their leading scorer (along with two other filler players), the Oilers received Jimmy Carson, Martin Gélinas, 3 first-round draft picks… and $15 million in cash. Almost immediately, fans saw the trade for what it was: a transparent (and desperate) cash-grab by the Oilers’ embattled owner, Peter Pocklington. The outrage was loud, dramatic, and ultimately changed nothing. The press conference announcing the trade went ahead as scheduled, and the resulting pictures of Gretzky in tears as he shared the news graced the front of newspapers across North America.
37. A Predator in Their Midst
In 2011, the Penn State community was rocked by revelations that former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky had sexually abused children for decades. He was alleged to have groomed kids through his charitable organization. Other Penn State officials were also charged with and later convicted of child endangerment for failing to stop and even covering up Sandusky’s offenses.
The soccer world was turned upside down in 2015 when executives from FIFA and other organizations were engulfed in a scandal over alleged World Cup hosting bribes, irregular payments, and other misconduct. The heads of both FIFA and UEFA were forced to step down as a corruption investigation was launched.
35. Not So Squeaky Clean
Martina Hingis is regarded as one of tennis’ greats but in 2007, she tested positive for cocaine while playing at Wimbledon. She was suspended from the sport for two years.
34. The Big Fix
South African cricket captain Hansie Cronje was an international hero throughout the 1990s. But all the while, he was asking his teammates to lose games so he could profit from a match-fixing racket. Cronje’s dirty deals were exposed in 2000, and a number of other cricketers were also caught and banned from the game. Cronje died in a plane crash two years later.
33. Motorsport’s Darkest Hour
A year after Formula One star Nelson Piquet smashed into a wall at the 2008 F1 Singapore Grand Prix, Piquet revealed he had been ordered to crash so his Renault teammate, Fernando Alonso, could win. The team was charged with conspiracy and later suspended from F1.
32. A Tragic Case
In 2013, New England Patriots player Aaron Hernandez was charged with murdering a friend, for which he was found guilty. He was also charged with killing two others but was acquitted in 2017. Days later, he was found dead from suicide in his jail cell. Scans revealed he was suffering from severe chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease found in athletes and others with repeated head trauma.
31. One-Mile Marathon Dash
Here’s an easy way to win a marathon: don’t run the whole thing. That was the winning strategy for Rosie Ruiz who, in 1980, aged 26, won the Boston Marathon without breaking a sweat. She was quickly revealed as a fraud after witnesses said they saw her run onto the course about a mile out from the finish line. Ruiz was stripped of her medal.
30. Shipping Out
In the middle of the night in 1984, after years of battling to get a new stadium, the Baltimore Colts packed up and moved out. More than a dozen trucks were hired to secretly shift the team to Indianapolis, where they were promised a brand new dome to play in.
29. The Death Penalty
After years of close scrutiny and probation over its violations of recruiting rules, the Southern Methodist University (SMU) football team’s luck ran out. In 1986, it was caught using a slush fund for secret payments to players and their families and handed a “death penalty,” blocking it from playing at all in the 1987 season.
28. A Long Road to Confession
Marion Jones was once considered the world’s greatest female track star. At the same time Jones won three gold medals and two bronzes at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, however, her husband, shotputter CJ Hunter, was caught doping, inciting suspicion. In 2007, Jones at last admitted to using steroids. She was sentenced to six months in jail for earlier lying to federal agents, and stripped of her medals.
27. The Robbery That Wasn’t
Amid the Rio Olympics in 2016, US swimmer Ryan Lochte and three teammates claimed to have been robbed at gunpoint at a gas station. When a police investigation revealed the claim to be false, Lochte fled the country while two teammates were pulled off a plane and detained. They were later freed without charges.
26. Claims and Counterclaims
Kobe Bryant’s 2003 arrest for sexual assault shocked NBA fans everywhere. A woman accused the LA Lakers star of raping her in his room. Bryant, who was married, said they had consensual sex, and the case was dropped when the alleged victim refused to testify. The two sides later settled out of court, with Bryant offering an apology.
25. Blade Runner Turns Killer
Known as “Blade Runner,” South African Paralympic and Olympic running star Oscar Pistorius fell from grace in 2014 after killing his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. He was originally found guilty of culpable homicide—the equivalent of manslaughter—but after an appeal, his conviction was upgraded to murder, and he was sentenced to six years in prison.
24. If You Can’t Win It, Buy It
A great deal of glory goes with hosting the Olympics—so much so that some backers are willing to pay under the table to bring the Games to town. That’s exactly what happened in Salt Lake City when several organizers bought International Olympic Committee votes to host the 2002 Winter Olympics. The scandal broke in 1998 but Salt Lake City was still allowed to host the Games.
23. On Thin Ice
Vote-buying wasn’t the only scandal to rock the 2002 Winter Olympics. After the Russian figure skating pair won gold over Canada by a 5-4 vote, it was revealed a French skating judge, Marie Reine Le Gougne, and the head of France’s ice sports body, Didier Gailhaguet, had colluded to fix the results. They denied wrongdoing but both were suspended from ice skating events for three years as well as from the future 2006 Winter Olympics.
22. The Hand of God
When is a handball okay in soccer? When it’s the “Hand of God,” according to Diego Maradona, who famously used his fist to score the winning goal of Argentina’s 1986 World Cup finals clash with England. The scandalous goal was missed by Bulgarian linesman Bogdan Dochev, who later said failing to spot it ruined his career and his life.
In 2015, NFL’s poster boy Tom Brady and his team, the New England Patriots, were rocked by accusations they’d used under-inflated footballs to gain an unfair advantage over their opponents. Brady was suspended for four games and the team was fined $1 million.
20. To Catch a Spy
Before Deflategate, there was Spygate. In 2007, it was revealed that the New England Patriots had allegedly sent staff to videotape the signals of other teams’ coaches in dozens of games, stolen play sheets from locker rooms, and jammed other teams’ radio lines during games. Patriots coach Bill Belichick was fined $500,000 while the Patriots were fined $250,000 and lost their first-round draft pick.
19. A Doggone Crime
2007 was a dark year for the NFL; it was the same year Atlanta Falcons star Michael Vick was caught running an illegal dog-fighting ring at his home. About 50 pit bulls were seized by authorities. Vick spent 18 months in prison before making an NFL comeback.
18. Suzie Who?
Two days before the 1995 Rugby World Cup final in South Africa, New Zealand’s champion team, the All Blacks, were struck down with severe food poisoning. They went on to lose their match. For two decades since, the incident has been blamed on a waitress called “Suzie” though her identity and the cause of the illness have never been uncovered.
17. Not Worth Their Weight in Gold
Russia’s Olympic prowess is nothing to scoff at—but how much of it was really earned? In 2015, a systemic program of state-sponsored doping was revealed, with dozens of athletes since stripped of their medals from the Beijing and London Olympics—though many have refused to return them.
16. Who Knew What?
The Russian doping scandal enveloped the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), with allegations its president Sebastian Coe knew athletes were using banned substances but failed to stop them. He denied any knowledge. However, the former head of the London Marathon said he’d warned Coe back in 2014.
15. More Than He Could Chew
Soccer players’ theatric falls are part and parcel of the sport. Biting, however, isn’t. During a 2014 World Cup match, Uruguay’s Luis Suárez did just that, leaving Italian Giorgio Chiellini with visible bite marks on his shoulder in the 79th minute of the game. The incident didn’t stop Uruguay from winning 1-0, but Suárez was later banned for four months.
14. Underarm Tactics
You’d be forgiven for not understanding the rules of cricket—but players generally have to follow them. The final of the 1981 World Cup witnessed one of the sport’s most scandalous moments when Australian bowler Trevor Chappell denied New Zealand the match-winning runs with an underarm bowl, ten-pin bowling style. The move was declared legal but against the spirit of the game.
13. Too Grown Up
In 2001, Danny Almonte was the star of the Little League—except he was too old to be playing there. The child baseball standout was 14 but the age limit was 12. Almonte’s father was reported to have altered his birth certificate, a move that cost Almonte a shot at the big time.
12. Clipped for Racism
In 2014, LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling was caught on tape telling his girlfriend “It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people”. He was banned from the NBA for life and ordered to sell the team he’d owned since 1981.
11. The Bite Fight
Mike Tyson’s 1997 match-up with Evander Holyfield was one of the biggest bouts in boxing history—and one of the most controversial. After being unintentionally headbutted by Holyfield, Tyson bit back—literally—taking a chunk out of Holyfield’s right ear before later biting his left. The match was called off, and Holyfield went straight to hospital for surgery.
10. The Price of Rejuvenation
In 2010, New York Yankees star Alex Rodriguez was in the prime of his baseball career—but he was also using banned drugs from a rejuvenation clinic in what became known as the Biogenesis scandal. A-Rod was suspended from Major League Baseball for the entire 2014 season.
9. All Bets Are On
Thirteen proved to be an unlucky number for NBA referee Tim Donaghy. After 13 years officiating at basketball games, he was arrested in a major betting scandal. Donaghy admitted to receiving money to provide insider tips about players and teams. He went on to serve 13 months behind bars.
8. Won, Then Lost, Then Won Again
Jim Thorpe may have been the greatest athlete of all time but it took the International Olympic Committee 70 years to admit it. He won gold in both the pentathlon and decathlon in 1912 but was stripped of his medals when it was later revealed he’d once played Major League Baseball professionally. In 1982, 17 years after his death, the IOC agreed to reinstate his medals.
7. Knockout Blow to His Own Career
Baltimore Ravens NFL star Ray Rice and his fiancée Janay Palmer were arrested in February 2014 over a “minor physical altercation”—but a leaked video revealed Rice dragging an unconscious Palmer out of an elevator. Rice dodged prosecution and was suspended for two games by the NFL until another video revealed him punching Palmer in the face in the elevator. He was dropped by his team and suspended by the NFL indefinitely.
6. Doctor’s Orders
In 2016, former tennis number one Maria Sharapova revealed she had tested positive for recently-banned meldonium and was suspended for two years (later reduced to 15 months after it was found she had taken the substance at her doctor’s recommendation). She returned to tennis in April 2017, though her world ranking didn’t recover.
5. A Gambling Man
Pete Rose was one of the best batters of all time but he harboured a dirty secret: throughout his career as a Cincinnati Reds player, and later as the team’s manager, he bet on baseball games. Rose still denies the allegations that he bet on games as a player.
4. Many Mistresses
World number one golfer Tiger Woods was at the peak of his career when, in 2009, it was revealed he’d had extramarital affairs with at least a dozen women. He was dumped by his sponsors, split with his wife, and took a leave of absence from golf. His career never recovered.
3. Can’t Trump The NFL
Long before he became President of the United States, Donald Trump tried to make his mark on another American institution: the NFL.
Trump, along with a group of other wealthy businessmen, was an instrumental part in setting up the fledgling United States Football League, which was conceived as a rival league to the NFL. The idea was that by controlling costs, and playing a spring/summer schedule, the league could compete with the more established product of the NFL and begin to make a name for itself. And for a time, the plan worked: the USFL played its first season in 1983, and quickly gained a reputation for entertaining games and professional (if somewhat haphazard) venues. Before long, they’d begun to sow the seeds of doubt in executives for the NFL, who they referred to as the No Fun League.
But the dream quickly went off the rails. Teams began recklessly spending on player salaries—handing out multi-million dollar contracts to unestablished college players, and eventually even bidding on eye-catching NFL stars. Meanwhile, several owners had trouble financing their teams, and there was a rash of relocations, name changes, and news-worthy ownership drama.
Eventually, as it became increasingly clear that the USFL was doomed to failure, Trump made pains to publically blame the NFL for monopolizing network coverage. Along with the other USFL owners, he sued—and won—but instead of receiving the $1.2 billion damages he sought, a jury awarded the plaintiffs just $1. Shortly after that, the USFL folded for good.
2. If The Gloves Don’t Fit…
In 1994, former NFL running back O.J. Simpson was arrested and charged with the brutal murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman.
You might have heard about it.
His trial was one of the most highly-publicized in history, and Simpson was eventually acquitted—in part because the gloves the killer was alleged to have worn didn’t fit his hands.
The entire ordeal has become a landmark event, not only for the history of sports, but for the American legal system as a whole. In the years since, there have been countless books, movies, podcasts, and essays seeking to contextualize the legal case (and subsequent media circus) in American history. Critics have used it as an example of a society consumed with celebrity worship, racism inherent to American society, and even plain old miscarriage of justice.
1. All Doped Up
Throughout his career, seven-time Tour de France cycling champion Lance Armstrong was plagued by doping accusations—yet the world was shocked when, in 2012, he was stripped of his medals after he was accused of leading a major doping program in US cycling. In 2013, he admitted taking performance-enhancing drugs in a no-holds-barred interview with Oprah Winfrey.