Tonya Harding’s Attack on Nancy Kerrigan
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17 Biggest American Sports Scandals

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Lance Armstrong
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Foul Play

Remember your Little League coach telling you to “just go out there and have fun” or your parents cheering for you during your first pee-wee basketball game even though you could hardly dribble the ball? Maybe you still get chills when you see a high school football field lit up at night as you fondly remember your glory days. At the root of baseball, football, basketball, and every other sport, there’s a love of the game that drives it all. Unfortunately, that passion isn’t enough to keep every sport honest or without the occasional scandal. From intentionally throwing games in exchange for money to the use of performance-enhancing drugs, here are some of the most noteworthy scandals in sports. Let us know which other ones you would include in the comments.


Related: The Most Lopsided Victories in Sports History

Baseball Pitcher
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MLB’s Sticky Situation

After years of pitchers using “sticky stuff” (like pine tar or the more extreme Spider Tack) on their hands — a method meant to change the way the ball spins when it comes out of their hand — Major League Baseball finally started to crack down more seriously and eject players for using any sticky substances while pitching in 2021. For the 2022 season, MLB released updated sticky stuff guidelines — pitchers are now subject to frequent, random checks of their gloves, belts, hats, fingers, and hands by umpires and if a player is found to have possession of any forbidden substance, they will be immediately ejected from the game and face subsequent suspensions.


Related: The Greatest Baseball Movies of All Time, According to Critics

Pete Rose
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Pete Rose Gambles His Baseball Career Away

Under Pete Rose’s belt is the Rookie of the Year award, three batting titles, three World Series titles, two Gold Glove awards, and 17 All-Star appearances. The Cincinnati Reds legend also holds MLB records for most games played, hits, at-bats, singles, and outs. To round out his decorated track record, Rose is also responsible for one of the biggest scandals in the history of baseball. In 1989, Rose was in his final year as the manager of the Cincinnati Reds when he was permanently banned from the sport and subsequently removed from Hall of Fame consideration after being accused of betting on games. Rose reportedly bet on games as both a player and manager, which he vehemently denied for quite some time. By 2004, he finally admitted his guilt in his book “My Prison Without Bars,” explaining that he never bet against the Reds, but only ever wagered in their favor. 


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The New England Patriots’ Deflategate
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The New England Patriots’ 'Deflategate'

It was as if the hiss of air leaving a football could be heard ’round the world when allegations that Tom Brady ordered the deflation of the footballs used in the 2014 AFC Championship Game between Brady’s New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts took the media by storm. The alleged deflation was said to be because Brady preferred the feel of a less firm football, but an investigation later discovered that the air pressure in the balls was actually only off due to the weather conditions they were playing in that day. The scandal led to a four-game suspension for Brady, a $1 million fine for the Patriots, a costly investigation, and a lawsuit against the NFL.


The Chicago Black Sox Throw the 1919 World Series
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The Chicago Black Sox Throw the 1919 World Series

Baseball has seen scandals since before Prohibition times. During the 1919 World Series, eight players on the Chicago Black Sox were notoriously accused of throwing the game against the Cincinnati Reds. The players allegedly received payment from a gambling syndicate for intentionally losing the game, and although they were acquitted, all eight players were permanently banned from the sport.

Tonya Harding’s Attack on Nancy Kerrigan
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Tonya Harding’s Hit on Nancy Kerrigan

When figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was bludgeoned with a telescopic baton as she walked through a corridor in Detroit’s Cobo Arena, her right thigh suffered such a blow that she was unable to participate in the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. An investigation revealed that the attack was actually planned and organized by rival figure skater Tonya Harding, along with her husband and another associate. That year, both skaters went on to perform at the Winter Olympics, but after Harding’s guilt was revealed, she was banned for life from USFSA figure skating events.


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Roid Rage in MLB
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Roid Rage in MLB

There have been several uproars related to steroid use in Major League Baseball. Big-name players including Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez were hit with multi-game suspensions after their steroid usage was revealed. Notably, Jose Canseco’s book “Juiced” discusses his own experiences with doping and calls out other baseball greats like Mark McGwire. Even more recently, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were denied Hall of Fame elections based on their own doping. Still, despite how many players have used steroids, MLB stopped testing players for performance-enhancing substances in early 2022 for the first time in almost 20 years.


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larry nassar
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Larry Nassar’s USA Gymnastics Sex Abuse Conviction

Former doctor for Michigan State University and for USA Gymnastics, Larry Nassar, was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison after being found guilty of sexually assaulting hundreds of girls and women. Nassar’s abuse of his sports medicine position also sounded the alarm for the institutions that did not pick up on his behavior. His conviction led to the resignation of the entire USA Gymnastics board and the president of Michigan State.

Lance Armstrong
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Lance Armstrong Gets Caught Using Steroids

It’s safe to say that Lance Armstrong is one of the most famous cyclists there has ever been. Not only did he beat cancer and start the Livestrong charitable organization, but he won seven consecutive Tour de France races, cementing himself as a legend on two wheels. As it turns out, his skill and endurance wasn’t all his own — Armstrong admitted to using illegal steroids, which cost him endorsements, his position as chairman of Livestrong, and he was stripped of all of his Tour de France titles and banned from ever participating in the race again.


Houston Astros v Los Angeles Dodgers
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Houston Astros Sign Stealing

The Houston Astros’ first world championship title was ultimately revealed as the team’s biggest controversy, too. The Astros won the 2017 World Series and two years later, an investigation published in “The Athletic” unveiled a massive sign stealing scandal. The team illegally used cameras to capture the signs used by the opposing team’s catcher, and communicated with the batter by making loud, banging noises from the dugout by doing things like hitting trash cans, so players knew what pitch to expect. The MLB commissioner issued a one-year suspension to the team’s manager and general manager, and subsequently, the team fired both of them the same day. 

Rosie Ruiz After Winning Boston Marathon
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Rosie Ruiz Takes the Train During the Boston Marathon

Twenty-six-year-old Rosie Ruiz finished first in the women’s division of the 1980 Boston Marathon, but she only got to enjoy her medal for eight days before she was stripped of her win when officials discovered she didn’t begin the race until a mile from the finish line, giving her a beyond rule-breaking head start. Apparently, Ruiz took the subway for much of the race and intended to enter at the halfway point, but miscalculated things and ended up with the win. 

The New Orleans Saints
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The New Orleans Saints’ 'Bountygate'

After an investigation in 2012 revealed that several members of the New Orleans Saints (coaches and players) paid out “bounties” for injuring players on opposing teams, the NFL commissioner Roger Goodell doled out some of the most severe punishments in league history including several suspensions across management. Sean Payton, the Saints’ head coach, was suspended for the entire season, marking the first time since the ’70s that a head coach received a suspension. The organization was also fined $500,000 and several players were suspended, too, although their sanctions were ultimately overturned after it was determined most of the involvement fell on the coaching and management staff rather than the players.

Eddie House
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Arizona State University’s Basketball Team Shaves Points

ASU’s 1993-94 men’s basketball team was headed toward NCAA Tournament contention and senior point guard Steven Smith was well on his way to becoming a first-round draft pick for the NBA, but he literally gambled away his basketball career. Smith and Burton owed campus bookmaker and student Benny Sillman money and according to Smith, the players agreed to fix games in order to repay Sillman, who he said offered to pay him about $20,000 each time he fixed a game. At the end of the ’94 season, Burton and Smith pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy, resulting in nearly four years behind bars for Silman. The Netflix documentary “Bad Sport” details the controversy and includes extensive interviews from Smith, Burton, and Silman.

Professional Football Players Face Widespread Brain Damage
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Football Players Face Widespread Brain Damage

In 2016, a health official affiliated with the NFL revealed a link to the sport and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — a brain disorder associated with repetitive head trauma. The following year, a study published in the “Journal of the American Medical Association” revealed some disturbing finds after researchers looked at the brains of 202 deceased men who played football at all levels from high school to the NFL, analyzing them for signs of CTE and speaking with their families to learn more about each player’s history. Out of the 202 brains analyzed, 87% were diagnosed with CTE. When it came to the 111 NFL players’ brains that were examined, the study found that 99% of them had CTE.

The New England Patriots’
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The New England Patriots’ Illegal Videotaping

After being caught illegally videotaping the sidelines during a game, the New England Patriots lost their 2021 third-round draft pick and were slapped with a hefty $1.1 million fine. But that wasn’t the team’s first tango with taping — in 2007, the NFL disciplined the Patriots for filming the New York Jets’ defensive coaches’ signals from an unapproved location — the incident was referred to in the media as ‘Spygate.’

SMU Football Team
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SMU Football Team Receives ‘The Death Penalty’

After breaking a handful of rules between the 1970s and mid-’80s — including paying players and families to entice them to join the team — the NCAA issued the “death penalty” to Southern Methodist University’s football team, canceling the team’s entire 1987 season.

Boston College Basketball
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1978-79 Boston College Basketball Shaves Points for the Mafia

Three basketball players at Boston College — Jim Sweeney, Ernie Cobb, and Richard Kuhn — became entangled with members of the Mafia in a points-shaving scandal during the 1978-79 season. The scheme began with small-time gamblers Rocco and Anthony Perla who devised a plan with the players to deliberately shave points on specific games to win corresponding bets. Soon after, the brothers formed a betting syndicate, involving their friend Paul Mazzei who had big-time gambling connections including the real-life "Goodfellas" Henry Hill and James Burke, members of the Lucchese crime family, whom he brought in to expand the bookmaker network and make their operation more lucrative. By 1980, the conspiracy was busted wide open when Hill was arrested on drug trafficking charges. To avoid prison time, he admitted his involvement in the points-shaving debacle and agreed to testify as a witness against the others involved. Ultimately, the Perla brothers, Mazzei, Sweeney, and Kuhn were all indicted by a grand jury. While Sweeney did not have to serve prison time and Cobb was acquitted entirely, Kuhn, Mazzei, and Anthony Perla were all sentenced to 10 years in prison, Rocco was sentenced to four years, and Burke was sentenced to 12 years.

Manti Te'o
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Notre Dame Linebacker Manti Te'o Gets Catfished

With a promising football career ahead of him, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o was in Heisman trophy contention when he received a phone call letting him know that his grandmother passed away. Six hours later, he got another call that his girlfriend died, too. Still, Te’o pushed through his senior year, and Notre Dame finished its 2012 regular season undefeated. Behind the scenes, Te’o’s not-so-dead girlfriend was actually a man who stole pictures of a female and pretended to be someone else (a deception known as “catfishing”) and when he felt things were getting too out of control, he faked the death to end things permanently, which unraveled as quite the painful experience for Te’o, despite never meeting his girlfriend face-to-face. When it came out that the whole thing was a hoax, people thought that Te’o had to be in on it. Recently, the documentary “Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn't Exist” — which unpacks the catfishing scandal and the toll it took on his career — debuted on Netflix and quickly became one of the streaming service’s top movies.  


Related: The Greatest Football Movies of All Time, According to Critics