A compendium of corruption: Some of the notorious (and some alleged) scandals in sports history
FIFA President Joseph “Sepp” Blatter won reelection Wednesday the old-fashioned way — after his only opponent pulled out amid allegations of attempted bribery.
That’s not to say Blatter wouldn’t have won anyway, had the election been held before the charges and subsequent suspension of his rival, Mohamed bin Hammam of Qatar, became known. It was that kind of week for FIFA, filled with accusations — including claims of Qatar’s “buying” the 2022 World Cup — and leaving soccer fans with the reminder of a dirty, not-so-little secret: Corruption in sports has existed longer than most can remember.
“There are places in the world where giving officials money in order to get things accomplished is also ingrained in the government way of doing things,” said Ed Edmonds, a sports law professor at Notre Dame. “Doing business in certain countries works that way. . . . In almost all incidents, it is the money.”
The money has led to bribes in the domestic and international sports world, including one documented case of a team’s intentionally losing the World Series, and many other claims of conspiracy that will probably remain unconfirmed.
“From an economic standpoint, the reward to winning is so high, there are just enormous incentives to cheat within sports,” said Lee Ohanian, a UCLA professor of economics. “The payoffs for victory versus defeat are just remarkably higher, and because of this, you tend to see lots of cheating and corruption.”
Or put another way, just follow the money.
So come along as we revisit some of the biggest sports corruption scandals (ranked for your discussion pleasure), both real and rumored.
In some incidents, the cheating and corruption has led to teams losing or trimming leads, as in three of our five cases of confirmed corruption.
And other times, it is the man in charge who turns out to be the most corrupt, as urban legend has it in at least three of our five cases of rumored corruption.
Feel free to bring along your own conspiracy theory in this look at a century of sports and corruption.
Up to 200 European soccer games rigged (2009)
Corruption in soccer is not limited to FIFA, as seemingly every year one club or another is accused of throwing a game. In this instance, though, it was way more than one club.
Some 200 matches spread over nine countries may have been influenced so gamblers could cash in. In a sport known for its indiscretions, this deception was described by Peter Limacher, a spokesman for European’s governing body UEFA, as “the biggest match-fixing scandal ever to hit Europe.”
Salt Lake City Olympics (1998, 2002)
In 1998 it was revealed the Salt Lake City bid had bribed at least 10 voters — akin to the current accusations against Qatar and its winning 2022 World Cup bid.
Then in 2002, a French figure skating judge allegedly was pressured by the head of the French skating organization to vote for the Russian pairs entry as part of a deal in which the French were to receive reciprocal treatment in the ice dance competition. At first it cost the Canadian pair a gold medal.
The IOC later awarded gold medals to both the Russian and Canadian couples, and the French judge and official were suspended for three years and banned from the 2006 Winter Olympics.
Black Sox (1919)
Eight Chicago White Sox players harbored such bitterness over their small salaries that they lost the World Series on purpose.
The heavily favored White Sox fell to the Cincinnati Reds, five games to three, in a best-of-nine series after a New York organized crime figure promised the players a total of $100,000 to lose.
Though the players — including legendary outfielder “Shoeless” Joe Jackson — were acquitted of all charges, baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis felt their guilt was certain and banned all eight from the game for life. In the decades following, five of the eight admitted guilt.
CCNY Point-Shaving (1950-1951)
The season after City College of New York won both the NCAA and National Invitation tournaments, seven players were accused of point-shaving and arrested. In the end, 33 players from seven schools were implicated in the scandal.
The corruption had lasted at least four seasons, and the total number of “fixed” games was never truly known. Madison Square Garden banned CCNY, and the NCAA did not return its championship game to the New York area until 1996. In addition, Kentucky’s 1952-53 season was cancelled.
SMU Death Penalty (1987)
When the NCAA handed Southern Methodist the “death penalty” in 1987, it ended a decade of corruption in the program. The NCAA had imposed sanctions against SMU five times between 1974 and 1985.
When SMU’s board of governors met following the 1985 season, led by chairman Bill Clements, governor of Texas from 1979 to 1983, it was said the program had “a payroll to meet.” In the following year, 13 players reportedly were paid a total of $61,000.
A Dallas TV station revealed the continued payments, and after an NCAA investigation the Mustangs’ 1987 season was canceled. SMU canceled the 1988 season because of the crippling nature of the penalties. In January 1987, Clements began his second term as Texas governor.
Ali’s “Phantom Punch” (1965)
The first title bout between Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) and Sonny Liston in 1964 had ended in controversy, with Clay claiming a liquid on Liston’s gloves blinded him during the fourth round. Then, Liston refused to leave his corner after the sixth round, citing a mysterious shoulder injury.
Yet, it was the 1965 bout that screamed corruption after Liston hit the mat midway through the first round. Even Ali apparently didn’t know why Liston went down, reportedly asking his corner, “Did I hit him?”
Many theorize Liston had massive gambling debts owed to organized crime, and was either paid to lose the fight or bet on himself to lose.
Michael Jordan’s first retirement (1993)
Did Jordan retire on his own, or was he about to be suspended from the NBA because of gambling?
During the 1993 playoffs, Jordan was spotted at an Atlantic City casino the morning of a game. This came after the superstar had testified in court that he’d paid a convicted drug dealer $57,000 to cover gambling losses. Those transgressions led NBA Commissioner David Stern to investigate the extent of Jordan’s gambling.
Before the investigation concluded, Jordan retired from the NBA. Many still believe he retired to avoid an expected suspension. During his retirement news conference, Jordan said he might return to the NBA “if David Stern lets me back in the league.” He missed two seasons and returned in 1995.
3. NBA Draft (1984)
In the first NBA draft lottery, Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing was expected to be the top pick. The 7-foot center would bring one lucky franchise great promise and fan appeal.
First-year Commissioner Stern reached into a pile of envelopes to pick the draft order. The first envelope drawn happened to be that of the New York Knicks, a big-market team in need of a superstar.
Did Stern grab a folded envelope, or perhaps a chilled envelope, to ensure the Knicks’ drafting of Ewing and the revival of professional basketball in New York?
The New England Patriots and Coach Bill Belichick were caught red-handed taping Jets signals in September 2007. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell levied $750,000 in fines and docked New England its first-round draft pick.
But, was that an isolated incident, or the end of a pattern? Belichick is alleged to have admitted to Goodell he had been recording signals since 2000, even recording a pre-Super Bowl walk-through by the Rams in 2002.
Yet the evidence turned over to the NFL by the Patriots was destroyed, and Goodell declared the matter closed, possibly saving the NFL from revelations of corrupted games going back a decade.
The Shot Heard Round the World (1951)
The 1951 New York Giants stormed back in the final seven weeks of the season to erase a 13½-game deficit and catch the Brooklyn Dodgers on the last day of the season. But some believed the Giants’ comeback was abetted by sign stealing — stationing someone behind center field with binoculars to steal the opposing catcher’s signals.
In the final game of a three-game playoff, Bobby Thomson hit a game-winning home run. Thomson insisted he did not get a signal on the pitch from Brooklyn’s Ralph Branca. Apparently, in the final month of the season, the Giants failed to relay the signal one time, on the most important pitch of the season.