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29+ Controversial Moments in Sports History

Felicia Brown sports /
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The sporting world has known its fair share of controversies. But some moments have lived on history for decades. From mafia interference to doping speculations, here are some of the industry's darkest days.

NCAA Death Penalty

Back in 1985, it appeared that Southern Methodist University just wouldn't learn their lesson. And after seven violations, the tipping point came, forcing the NCAA to pull out the big guns to reprimand them.

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Come 1986, news broke that the school's donors were providing roughly two dozen players with unsanctioned funds. With violation after violation under their belt, the NCAA had to hit SMU where it hurt. Known as SMU's "death penalty" the team was barred from multiple games and had their funding slashed for the following years.

Deflategate

Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots once found themselves in hot water. The infamous 2014 incident incriminated the Pats QB, Tom Brady in a scandal that left many confused to this day... After all, how could a deflated football be of service to anyone?

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Regardless of the reasoning, Tom Brady was suspected of demanding tampered balls during the AFC championship game against Indianapolis Colts. In the grand scheme of things, Brady got away with a slap on the wrist from the league. But with a Super Bowl win that year, few felt he really learned his lesson.

Muhammad Ali's "Phantom Punch"

One of boxing's most famous moments of all time was also subject to some controversy. Many believed that Muhammed Ali's iconic win over Sonny Liston wasn't as genuine as it seemed. Was this legendary piece of sporting history nothing more than a staged scandal? 

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Well, that depends on how you feel about the theories that circulated. Mafia forces were suspected at play during the 1965 rematch. In fact, theories circulated that Ali's winning hit was nothing more than a "phantom punch." It was rumored that Liston threw the fight due to gang pressure. 

The Tuck Rule

On January 19th, 2002 in Foxborough, Massachusetts, the NFL arguably decreed one of its most disputed calls, known as the "Tuck Rule." It was the AFC Divisional Playoff game, also known as the Snow Bowl, between the New England Patriots and the Oakland Raiders. And in one split-second move by QB Tom Brady, history was made.

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Moments before completing a throw, Brady quickly retracted the ball towards himself. In the same instant, the Raiders defensive tackler, Charles Woodson lunged, and the ball hit the ground. The NFL ruled that the fumble was an incomplete pass, returning possession to the Pats. This controversial call is still argued to this day.

Steve Bartman and Moisés Alou

For many long-time Chicago Cubs fans, Steve Bartman was enemy number one ever since that fateful game in October 2003. Bartman's unfortunate actions cost Chicago a 3-0 lead in the sixth game of the National League Championship Series. And also secured himself a spot as one of the sport's most controversial spectators.

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Bartman, who was sat in prime ball catching territory, lunged for a ball coming his way, but inadvertently bumped it away from the Cubs' outfielder, Moisés Alou. The historic fumble spiraled into an 8-3 loss for the Cubs. The public shaming that Bartman faced in the aftermath led him to flee town under a new identity.

Floyd Landis Doping Case

At the time of his win in 2006, American cyclist Floyd Landis brought enormous pride to Tour de France fans following his last-minute podium snag. However, following the race, the story took a scandalous turn. And a shocking discovery would taint his reputation for good.

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A toxicology report showed the appearance of performance-enhancing substances at a limit triple to what was permitted. At first, Landis vehemently refuted the claims. But four years later, Landis faced the music, potentially prompting the next athlete to be put under the microscope.

Lance Armstrong

Armstrong arguably had even more at stake than Floyd Landis. After seven consecutive Tour de France wins, Armstrong was revered as a cycling legend in America and beyond. But unfortunately, his past caught up with him and he faced a similar fate to that of his fellow athlete.

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After a career haunted by speculation, Lance eventually owned up to his own past of doping. According to Sports Illustrated, Armstrong denied everything, even as his titles were stripped. But in an Oprah Winfrey interview, the athlete came clean and admitted to it all. His career arguably remains one of the most scandalous of all time.

NBA Referee Corruption

From 1994 to 2007, Tim Donaghy was one of basketball's most trusted referees. During his thirteen-year career, the NBA's poster boy of impartiality oversaw nearly 800 games and grew a reputation amongst many as a man to be trusted. But that all came into question in 2007 when he became embroiled in an FBI case.

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The veteran referee was accused of corrupt call-making that fueled illegal betting on the games. Faced with the legal pressure of the FBI, Tim fessed up to two counts and was sentenced to over a year in prison. In court, Donaghy was full of remorse, saying "I brought shame on myself, my family, and the profession."

"The Battle of the Sexes"

In 1973, female tennis star Billie Jean King decided to take a stand against sexism in tennis. Her target? Male tennis vet Bobby Riggs. Riggs, aged 55, made it his mission to make fun of his fellow female athletes and went so far as to invite women to go racket to racket with a cash prize on the line. And King accepted.

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The match took place on September 20th, 1973, and ended with Billie Jean King winning big. But even after defeating her opponent, scandal continued as viewers credited her win to their twenty-six-year age gap. Furthermore, news broke of Riggs setting the whole farse up in order to recoup some cash to cover old debts.

Bountygate

This next NFL scandal shifted attention to the New Orleans Saints. Back in the 2010-2011 season, the Saints were embroiled in accusations of incentivizing defensive players to target fixed players on opposing teams. The "bounties" were being rewarded to those successful in their mission. But no mob activity to blame this time…

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It was the Saints' coaches themselves who were footing this illegal bill, including then-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. He was caught encouraging one of his men to target the Minnesota Vikings' QB, Brett Favre during a championship game. Both Williams and the head coach faced temporary suspension but have since returned.

Sabotage at the 1994 Winter Olympics

In a bleak turn of events, viewership for figure skating events at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer skyrocketed from past years, as reported by the Washington Post. Why bleak? Well, a great deal of interest came from an off-ice scandal in the lead-up to the international competition, rather than the sport itself.

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Just a day before the U.S. Figure Skating Championship in 1994, Nancy Kerrigan, a skater, was attacked after practice. The investigation later revealed that the hit was connected to Kerrigan's competitor, Tonya Harding. While Kerrigan went on to win silver that year, Harding received a lifetime ban from the sport.

1986 FIFA Quarterfinals: Argentina vs. England

The England versus Argentina game at the FIFA World Cup in 1986 was an emotional one for everyone in the stadium. But some felt it was far more controversial than others. Depending on your alliance, Argentina's Diego Maradona either went down as a national hero or a foul-escaping player during that fateful game.

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Argentina's Maradona jumped up, making clear contact with the ball using his left hand. His action resulted in a goal, with no objections from the refs. After the match, Maradona went on to credit his controversial score to help from "his head, and a little with the hand of God." Argentina went on to finish first.

The Mitchell Report

In 2007, an investigative report came out that knocked the MLB off its feet. The document's long official title was eventually referred to by its shortened version, the Mitchell Report (referring to then-Senator George Mitchell). The twelve-part document exposed the rampant usage of performance enhancers in the league.

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The independent report identified 89 prominent league players suspected of performance enhancers or illegal substance usage. To the shock of many loyal MLB fans, big names including Andrew Pettitte and Barry Bonds were among the men that were exposed. And ever since, the league has been trying to restore its image.

Danny "The Little Unit" Almonte

A group of ambitious baseball players captured the hearts of fans during the 2001 Little League World Series. One member from the Bronx's team, in particular, was making major waves in the sports community. His name was Danny Almonte, but folks started calling him "The Little Unit" in honor of Randy "The Big Unit" Johnson.

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The nickname spurred from Almonte's jaw-dropping fastballs, which were clocked at 76 miles. Suspicions of his developed build resulted in officials taking a closer look at Almonte's file. The hunches were true, as it was revealed that the young athlete had lied about his age to enter the tournament.

UNC's Paper Class Controversy

This next scandal revealed a long and sordid history of corruption within the University of North Carolina's administration. In 2014 a third-party investigation revealed that throughout nearly two decades, UNC had knowingly fabricated fake classes to meet the academic requirements of student-athletes.

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The scandal dated back eighteen years and involved thousands of athletes. In the aftermath, the university's administration owned up to their willingness and participation in the controversy. They took action by dismissing nine guilty staff members but also faced a year-long ban from NCAA, though some felt that wasn't enough...

LeBron at the 2010 Conference Semifinals

For loyal Cleveland Cavaliers fans, this next scandal may reopen some wounds. Back in 2010, the Cavs suffered a tragic loss to their conference opponents, the Boston Celtics. Many fans went into game six with confidence, partially due to their legendary forward, LeBron James. But they were in for a bad ending and controversy.

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To the dismay of Cavs fans, James shot 8 for 21 that game. The team lost, and many pointed to the Delonte West and James family scandal as the cause. West was rumored to be coupled up with LeBron's mother, Gloria. And while LeBron never addressed the gossip, many believed it fueled the game's outcome and his move to Miami Heat.

Bad Newz Kennels

One of the darker scandals surrounding the National Football League's former players put former Atlanta Flacons quarterback, Michael Vick, under the spotlight. The wide-spread controversy pinned Vick responsible for housing a dogfighting ring on his land in Surry County, Virginia.

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Over 50 wounded canines were evacuated from the grounds, with lacerations pointing towards the inhumane illegal sport. As the case unraveled, Vick lost his life's savings to legal fees and financial repercussions. Eventually, he had to claim bankruptcy under Chapter 11, facing time in prison for his actions.

The "Lucky Draw" at the NBA Draft Lottery

Back in the day, the National Basketball Association Draft Lottery looked a whole lot different from how it does now. And the way they handled business back in 1985 made them the subject of some scandalous rumors. Let's take a look at why the former NBA Commissioner David Stern felt the heat.

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The system in place involved Stern pulling envelopes at random. But skeptics believe his actions were far from that. As the New York Knicks business was struggling, many believe that Stern rigged the results of the lottery to enable a better pick. The flack they received prompted a move to a different lottery system altogether.

Michael Jordan's Retirement

For many NBA fans, Michael Jordan's retirement in 1993 was one of the most contentious events in the association's history. The Chicago Bulls legend should have been riding high from the back-to-back-to-back championship wins, triple MVP title, and the Barcelona Olympic win, so few understood why he was throwing in the towel.

Michael Jordan Retirement
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According to the press release, Jordan's exit was catalyzed by the passing of his dad and his wishes to play in the MLB. But behind the scenes, whispers spread of another cause. According to the rumors, Jordan was pushed out by former Commissioner David Stern for his outrageous poker problem.

Game Six of Lakers vs. Kings

Most skeptics with a brewing conspiracy theory against the National Basketball Association and its referees point to this game as a prime example that confirmed their suspicions. In the sixth game of the 2002 Western Conference Finals, the Lakers and Kings faced off in one of the most controversial games ever.

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Many sources, including the tarnished Tim Donaghy, spoke to the controversial calls. According to the whistleblowers, the Lakers were "league preferred" and consequently clenched a vital win to ensure an additional conference game. To add fuel to the fire, many fans agreed that the Kings had a better performance overall.

Reggie Bush's College Years

Reggie Bush's successes dated back way before signing with the New Orleans Saints. The running back had made a serious name for himself during his time at USC, resulting in a Heisman Trophy win and two championship titles. But his college years on the field would soon be tarnished by a scandalous NCAA ruling.

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From 2006 to 2010, controversy followed Bush as rumors spilled of special gifts given to him and his family in USC's attempts to woo him. Eventually, the NCAA decided in 2010 that the claims were true, resulting in a two-year championship bar for the Californian college. Reggie spent his career trying to shake the scandal.

Missed Call at the 2018 NFC Championship

Referees in nearly every professional league have gotten flack for their calls (or lack thereof). But one case, in particular, angered NFL fans to an extreme point, especially those rooting for the New Orleans Saints. And it all boiled down to the final moments of the NFC Championship game between the Saints and Rams.

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With the clock ticking, Saints QB Drew Brees hurled the ball towards Tommy Lee Lewis. But in a questionable move, Rams' defense player Nickell Robey-Coleman interfered in the pass. However, it went unnoticed by the referees, concluding in a victory for the Los Angeles Rams. Fans spiraled in rage over the missed call.

Len Bias's Tragic Passing

Back in 1986, NBA diehards were raving over the fresh face that came out of the University of Maryland. Len Bias had been selected first overall by the Boston Celtics during that year's draft, and many couldn't wait to see what new talents he would bring to the court. But the excitement passed as quickly as it came.

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Len Bias's potential remained just that. The budding basketball star tragically lost his life the next morning, after an evening of celebrations got out of control. According to accounts, the eager baller experienced a fatal reaction to substances he consumed, resulting in his passing, seen as a terrible loss in the NBA community.

The Black Sox Scandal

For those who don't know, there wasn't actually a team named the Black Sox, but rather, this term referred to the controversy that smeared the World Series games between the Chicago White Sox and the Cincinnati Reds back in the year 1919.

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Following Chicago's 5-3 series loss, eight White Sox players were under criminal investigation. Cicotte, Williams, Gandil, Risberg, Weaver, Jackson, Felsch, and McMullin were suspected of throwing the World Series for up to $100,000 of mob money each. They were eventually acquitted in court, but the players were banned for life.

Spygate

The New England Patriots were no strangers to controversy, but the 2007 videotaping scandal brought some unsuspected consequences for the team. The Spygate incident involved accusations brought against the Pats coach, Bill Belichick by then-New York Jets head coach, Eric Mangini. And Mangini made some big claims.

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According to Eric, the Pats were illegally recording the Jets' gestures during a game. The NFL sided with the Jets and slapped the Pats with a fine of $500 grand. In addition, the Pats lost their first turn at the following year's draft. But the team wasn't fazed, as they charged their way through to the playoffs.

The USFL's Quick Burnout

The idea for the United States Football League came into fruition during the 1980s, but the dream didn't last long, partially due to a familiar face. But back then, Donald Trump was a mere property mogul based in New York. And after purchasing one of the league's franchises, he pulled a move that arguably doomed the USFL for good.

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Trump strong-armed other franchise owners to file a lawsuit against the NFL, hoping to bump their season to the autumn. In an unlikely turn of events, the USFL won $3 million from the case, but that wasn't enough. The league went belly-up, leaving Trump apparently bitter towards NFL hotshots, according to The New York Times.

The Pete Rose Controversy

It was widely seen among MLB fans that no one took a harder fall than Pete Rose. Back in his prime, he took his team to new heights and brought three world series titles home. Throw in some batting records and league awards, and Rose was seen as unstoppable. But that all changed when a scandal came out. 

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It was revealed that during his time on the field and as coach, Pete participated in illegal gambling on his own matches. The MLB struck back with an iron fist and issued a lifetime Ban on the legendary player. Plus, they blocked him from the hall of fame. Rose apologized to fans by signing "sorry I bet on baseball" on gear.

Isiah Thomas's HR Nightmare

There were few fans of Isiah Thomas during his stint as President of Basketball Operations for the New York Knicks. In fact, there were many who believed that his actions jeopardized the franchise's success. Isiah ran a tight ship and wouldn't hear any criticism, but one of his employees decided she'd had enough.

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Anucha Browne Sanders, an executive with the Knicks at the time, put Thomas in the hot seat over claims of harassment. She said that Isiah behaved unprofessionally around her, and even terminated her employment when she sought support from the HR department. This scandal further tarnished his already controversial leadership.

University of Michigan's "Fab Five" Controversy

Jimmy King, Jalen Rose, Chris Webber, Ray Jackson, and Juwan Howard were seen by many as one of college basketball's greatest recruits of all time. Unfortunately, their golden reputation with the University of Michigan would come under scrutiny following an enormous investigation launched by the NCAA and national authorities.

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The inspection found evidence that tarnished their good name. The "fab five," backed by Ed Martin, a prominent university donor, were implicated in a financial scandal. Martin was hoarding out loads of cash to the players, on the condition of repayment once their NBA careers kicked off. Think that's extreme? Keep scrolling…

University of Miami's Corrupt Funding

This next controversy brought the University of Miami's football program down to its knees after corruption was found lurking behind the scenes. And it all started with professional fraudster Nevin Shapiro and his shell company named Capitol Investments USA.

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Shapiro used his laundered money to spoil the University of Miami football players. They were living the good life on Shapiro's dime, but the gimmick came crashing down around them. But that wasn't it, when Nevin was outed by the feds, he pointed the finger right back to the university, causing harsh sanctions for the team.