Sordid affairs. Underhanded schemes. Disturbing crimes. Stories like these prove that sports aren’t always fun and games. Athletes are revered all over the world—but their wild lives of excellence, excess, and extravagance have led countless icons down chilling paths. Read on to discover the most scandalous stories in the history of sport.
Sports Scandals Facts
1. 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.
2. Trading Places
It was one of the most shocking trades in the history of sports: in 1988, all of Canada was collectively stunned when Edmonton Oilers captain (and 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 the GOAT (along with two other filler players), the Oilers received Jimmy Carson, Martin Gélinas, 3 first-round draft picks…and of course, $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.
3. A Tragic Case
In 2013, New England Patriots player Aaron Hernandez was charged with murdering a friend, Odin Lloyd, and was found guilty. He was also charged with killing two others but was acquitted in 2017. Days after the acquittal, 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.
4. Down the Rabbit Hole
After Hernandez’s murder conviction, further scrutiny was cast upon potential crimes from his past, including a 2012 double homicide in Boston and the attempted murder of his friend Alexander Bradley, who police found after being shot between the eyes in February 2013.
5. His Secret
Though he kept it a secret for his entire life, Hernandez was bisexual, having pursued relationships with men when he was young. Police believed that Hernandez was motivated to kill Lloyd after the latter said something that broke his trust. Some have speculated that Lloyd had discovered his friend’s orientation and was going to out Hernandez publicly.
6. Tragic End
Though it has never been confirmed, evidence suggests that Hernandez was ashamed of his bisexuality—potentially stemming from terrible abuse he suffered as a child. Just days before his death, a Boston-area morning sports show implied that Hernandez was gay, and some believe that being outed in such a way might have played a factor in Hernandez’s suicide.
7. 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.
The soccer world was turned upside down in 2015 when a scandal engulfed executives from FIFA and other organizations 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.
9. Not So Squeaky Clean
Martina Hingis is regarded as one of tennis’ greats but in 2007, she tested positive for illicit substances while playing at Wimbledon. Tennis’s governing body suspended her from the sport for two years.
10. 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 came to light 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.
11. Dangerous Collusion
A year after Formula One star Nelson Piquet smashed into a wall at the 2008 F1 Singapore Grand Prix, Piquet revealed his team’s shocking secret: They had ordered him to crash so his Renault teammate Fernando Alonso could win. The FIA charged the team with conspiracy and later suspended them from F1.
12. Stolen Gold?
In the midst of the Cold War, another US vs. USSR 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 game resumed and 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. In the extra time, the Soviets scored a basket to win.
The furious US team refused to take their silver medals home.
In 1919, a man named Charles Comiskey owned the White Sox. His players absolutely hated him—he was an infamous miser and treated his team extremely poorly, despite the fact that they’d won him a World Series in 1917. Finally, in 1919, several of his stars got fed up. They decided if Comiskey wasn’t going to pay them properly, they were going to get theirs by whatever means necessary…
14. 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 stunning loss, authorities discovered that eight of the team’s players had taken bribes to throw 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.
15. Not the Smartest Move…
One of the names implicated in the Black Sox scandal might have surprised sports fans: Fred McMullin. McMullin wasn’t exactly a star—in fact, he struggled to even get into the White Sox’s lineup. Not exactly the kind of player who can throw a game. So why was McMullin banned with the rest of the conspirators? He overheard the other Black Sox talking about their plan, and he threatened to snitch on them unless they let him in on the action.
Not exactly the best decision he ever made…
16. No-Go For Shoeless Joe
One of the banned Black Sox is more controversial than the others: Baseball legend Shoeless Joe Jackson. While Jackson was named as one of the conspirators, he didn’t actually attend the meeting where the scam was cooked up. Jackson also played great in the series: He hit .375, logged the Series’ only home run, and fielded the ball 30 times without making a single error.
If Jackson was trying to throw the game, he certainly did a bad job of it. Regardless, the league still banned him for life. His career was cut short in the middle of his prime, and he remains barred from the Baseball Hall of Fame today.
17. 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. Since the city of Baltimore threatened to seize the team from its owners, the Colts had to come up with an underhanded scheme. They hired more than a dozen trucks to secretly shift the team to Indianapolis, who had promised them a brand new dome to play in, in the middle of the night.
Baltimore still tried to sue to take the team back, but to no avail. Team legend Johnny Unitas (whose haircut you could set your watch to) was absolutely sickened by the shady move and cut all ties with his old club.
18. 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, the NCAA caught them using a slush fund for secret payments to players and their families. They handed SMU a “death penalty,” blocking the school from playing at all in the 1987 season.
19. A Long Road to Confession
Marion Jones was once considered the world’s greatest female track star. However, right when Jones was winning three gold medals and two bronzes at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, her husband, shotputter CJ Hunter, was caught doping, inciting suspicion. In 2007, Jones at last admitted to using steroids. The IOC stripped her of her medals and she was sentenced to six months in jail for earlier lying to federal agents.
20. The Robbery That Wasn’t
During the 2016 Rio Olympics, 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. His two teammates tried to pull the same thing, but Brazilian authorities pulled them off a plane and detained them. They were later freed without charges, but still—not a great look.
21. Blade Runner Turns Killer
Known as “Blade Runner,” South African Paralympic and Olympic running star Oscar Pistorius inspired people the world over—which made his terrible crime even more shocking. He fell from grace in 2014 after shooting his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp four times, killing her. He was originally found guilty of culpable homicide, the equivalent of manslaughter.
However, after an appeal, the judge upgraded his conviction to murder and sentenced him to six years in prison.
22. 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 planned to give the gold to the Russians so the French could win in ice dancing.
They denied wrongdoing but both were suspended from ice skating events for three years as well as from the future 2006 Winter Olympics.
24. The Hand of God
When is a hand ball 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 Quarter Final clash with England. Bulgarian linesman Bogdan Dochev missed the scandalous goal, and he later said failing to spot it ruined his career and his life. Argentina won the game 2-1, and went on to win the entire tournament.
England continued their World Cup Drought that began in 1966—and continues to this day.
In 2015, the 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. It was a complete mess that dragged on for months, but when the dust settled, the NFL suspended Brady for four games and fined the team $1 million.
26. To Suspend or Not to Suspend
As the NFL learned in the Deflategate scandal, suspending a player like Tom Brady is no simple task. First, the league suspended him for four games in the 2015—a ruling upheld by the commissioner, Roger Goodell, after Brady appealed. However, Brady took his appeal to the federal courts, where the decision was overturned, allowing Brady to play the whole 2015 season.
But it wasn’t over yet! The case then went to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, who reinstated Brady’s suspension. Brady and the Patriots tried to have the case heard one more time, but finally, their luck ran out. Brady accepted the suspension and sat for four games of the 2016 season.
27. 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.
28. 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. Authorities seized about 50 pit bulls from the premises. Vick spent 18 months in prison before making an NFL comeback.
29. Suzie Who?
Two days before the 1995 Rugby World Cup final in South Africa, New Zealand’s champion team, the All Blacks, came down with severe food poisoning. They went on to lose their match. For the two-plus decades since, people have blamed the incident on a waitress called “Suzie,” though no one has yet uncovered her identity nor the cause of the illness.
30. 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 came to light, with dozens of athletes since stripped of their medals from the Beijing and London Olympics—though many have refused to return them.
31. 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, but the former head of the London Marathon said he’d warned Coe back in 2014.
The state-sponsored, systematic doping program in Russian sports has led to the IOC stripping 43 Olympic medals from Russians. That’s more than quadruple the next closest country—in fact, Russia alone makes up for a third of all stripped medals in the history of the Olympics.
33. No Country For Innocent Russians
Not every single Russian athlete was implicated in the doping scandal—leading to a rather unique showing at the 2018 Winter Olympics. Though Russia was banned from the games, innocent Russian athletes were allowed to compete as “Olympic Athletes From Russia.” They competed under the Olympic flag, and the Olympic Anthem played whenever they won medals.
It was…awkward, to say the least.
34. 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 received a ban for four months.
35. 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.
36. Too Grown Up
In 2001, Danny Almonte was the star of the Little League World Series—except he was hiding a secret: he was too old to be playing there. The child baseball standout was 14 but the age limit was 12. Almonte’s father allegedly altered his birth certificate, a move that cost Almonte a shot at the big time.
37. Clipped for Racism
In 2014, LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling was caught on tape telling his girlfriend, Vivian Stiviano, “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.
38. Magic Freaking Johnson
Sterling’s racist tirade against Stiviano was in response to an Instagram post of hers…in which she was posing with Hall of Famer and Lakers legend Magic Johnson.
In the aftermath of the Donald Sterling scandal, his wife Shelly Sterling negotiated to sell the Clippers to one-time Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer for a whopping $2 billion. Shelly claimed her husband had authorized her to make the sale—something he quickly refuted. Sterling denied all charges against him, stated he wouldn’t sell the team, and sued the NBA for $1 billion, saying they’d violated his constitutional rights.
40. Were the Titles Worth It?
As much as he tried, the NBA simply wasn’t going to keep Donald Sterling around. After dropping the charges, then resuming the lawsuit, then suing his wife, the NBA, and league commissioner Adam Silver, courts finally ruled in favor of his wife. Ballmer bought the team for $2 billion, and Shelly received the official titles “Clippers Number One Fan” and “Owner Emeritus.”
41. 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 the hospital for surgery.
42. 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. In an unprecedented move, the MLB suspended A-Rod for the entire 2014 season.
43. All Bets Are On
Thirteen proved to be an unlucky number for NBA referee Tim Donaghy. After 13 years of 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.
44. Won, Then Lost, Then Won Again
Jim Thorpe was one of the greatest athletes 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.
45. Doctor’s Orders
In 2016, former tennis number one Maria Sharapova revealed she had tested positive for the recently-banned substance 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.
46. A Gambling Man
Pete Rose was probably the best hitter ever to play baseball—he’s the all-time MLB leader in hits, games played, at-bats, and singles. But throughout his career, he harbored a dirty secret: While playing for the Cincinnati Reds, and later as their manager, he bet on the team’s games. After denying all accusations for years, Rose admitted to gambling on baseball in 2004—though he still denies the allegations that he bet on games as a player, and claims that as manager, he only ever bet on his team winning.
Regardless, Rose has been banned from baseball since 1989, and despite his legendary numbers, he’s been banned from Baseball Hall of Fame eligibility since 1991.
47. Dowd He Goes
The infamous Dowd Report, which detailed Rose’s extensive gambling, claimed that the MLB legend wagered at least $10,000 a day during the 1987 season.
48. Stay Out
Pete Rose is still banned from entering the Great American Ball Park, where the Reds play. Awkwardly, the Park has several monuments to Rose’s achievements, and is situated right next to “Pete Rose Way.”
49. Many Mistresses
World number one golfer Tiger Woods was at the peak of his career when, in 2009, it all fell apart. Two days after the National Enquirer reported that Woods was having an affair, his wife chased him from his home with a golf club, after which he crashed his car into a fire hydrant near their house. Finally, after years of lies, Woods’ secrets finally came tumbling out.
Woods finally admitted to his marital transgressions. Within a few days of the announcement, more than a dozen women came forward claiming to have had affairs with the golfer. Woods then announced he would be taking a break from professional golf—but no one expected what was coming next.
Soon after the scandal was revealed, Woods’ sponsors started dropping like flies. Companies like Gatorade, General Motors, Gillette and AT&T all dropped him at the same time. It’s estimated that the shareholders of companies connected to Woods lost upwards of $12 billion in the fallout from his affairs.
52. Eleven Years
Woods had been an unstoppable force in golf for over a decade before his affairs came to light—but the fallout from his personal struggles spilled over into his play. Though he saw some success, especially in 2013 and 2014, he never reached the success that he’d enjoyed before 2009. Then finally, in 2019, Woods found himself on top of the golf world once again with a win at The Masters.
It was the 15th major he’d won in his career—but his first since his affairs came to light a decade earlier.
53. 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, after years of vehement denial, Armstrong finally admitted taking performance-enhancing drugs in a no-holds-barred interview with Oprah Winfrey.
54. If The Gloves Don’t Fit…
In 1994, former NFL running back OJ Simpson was arrested and charged with killing 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.
After Simpson did not turn himself into the police when he was supposed to, he gave a note to his friend and lawyer Robert Kardashian, who then read it to the media. The tone and content of the note led many to believe that Simpson had intended to commit suicide. In the note, Simpson urges people to remember him as “the real OJ and not this lost person.” After hearing it read aloud, his mother Eunice collapsed.
56. Yeah, If…
Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of the OJ Simpson saga is his book If I Did It. Penned with ghostwriter Pablo Fenjeves, the book is exactly what it sounds like—a hypothetical scenario in which OJ details what he would have done had he actually committed the crimes he was accused of. Not surprisingly, the families of his victims, who believed he actually did do it, were less than pleased.
57. Chilling Interviews
Pablo Fenjeves, the book’s ghostwriter, has detailed his experience of writing the book with Simpson, and has stated in interviews that he “knows” OJ is a killer.
58. Confessions of a Killer
If I Did It attracted a lot of controversy and its release was eventually canceled—but that’s not the end of the story. In 2007, courts awarded the Goldman family the rights to the book in a bankruptcy case. They had the title changed to If I Did It: Confessions of the Killer, and had the size of the word “If” greatly reduced on the cover.
59. Stabbed In The Back
In 1993, tennis world number one Monica Seles was at the top of her game. Then, suddenly, 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.
60. The Fier Scoop
After several years of speculation, The Athletic reported in January 2020 that the Houston Astros had used a video camera to illegally steal signs from teams during the 2017 and 2018 seasons. It should be noted, of course, that the team won the World Series in 2017. The scoop came from pitcher Mike Fiers, who played for the team that year.
61. That’s Garbage!
Fiers claimed that the Astros had a camera in center-field at Minute Maid Park that sent a feed to the tunnel behind the Astros dugout. A player or staff member would keep an eye on the feed, then bang signals onto a trash can, telling whoever was at bat what kind of pitch was coming. Not long after the news came out, a fan went back through hours of Astros games and posted a video that clearly showed the scheme playing out in real time.
62. A Small Price to Pay
In the aftermath of the scandal, the Astros fired their general manager and field manager. It was later revealed that Alex Cora, by then the manager of the Red Sox, had also been involved in the scandal—he lost his job as well. Caught red-handed, the MLB fined the Astros $5 million and made them forfeit their draft picks in the first two rounds of the 2020 and 2021 drafts.
However, the World Series banner still hangs at Minute Maid Park—so $5 million and a couple draft picks doesn’t seem that bad…
63. Snitches Get Stitches
While many people across the league were furious about the scandal—especially those involved with the teams who the Astros beat on the road to their championship—not everyone feels the same way. Though the use of technology to steal signs is illegal, many people still consider sign-stealing an unofficial part of baseball.
Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez even went on the record criticizing Mike Fiers for speaking to reporters about the scheme, saying he broke the unwritten rule “what happens in the clubhouse stays in the clubhouse.”
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