The New England Patriots are in trouble, with star quarterback Tom Brady suspended for a quarter of the next NFL season for his knowledge that the footballs he was using had been deflated, making them easier for him to throw. It is not the first time the team has faced accusations of cheating: in 2007 coach Bill Belichick filmed an opposing team’s defensive signals. The so-called “spygate” cost him a fine of $500,000.
Here are seven of the biggest scandals in the history of American sports – biggest perhaps not in terms of size, but in terms of impact.
1) The Black Sox
In 1919, every “expert” expected the Chicago White Sox to defeat the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series – and turned out to be wrong. But before and during the series, signs were evident that something was amiss: gamblers offered unusual odds, and several members of the White Sox committed strange errors. In fact, gamblers had offered money to eight White Sox players to throw the series, and they did. The eight were indicted on conspiracy to defraud. A jury acquitted them, but the response by major league baseball to the scandal proved historically significant. The owners agreed to create a new governing structure and named as the first commissioner a federal judge, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who did a great deal to restore public faith in the game. He banned the eight players for life, setting a precedent against gambling that still influences the game – just ask Pete Rose. Landis insisted on absolute authority, which he retained until his death in 1944. Unfortunately, he used his power to help keep African Americans out of major league baseball, and team owners have never allowed another commissioner to wield nearly so much influence.
2) Lance Armstrong and Cycling
Lance Armstrong was an American sports icon: a seven-time winner of the Tour de France after being diagnosed with cancer. But after he overcame disease to continue winning, rumors increasingly spread that he was using some form of performance-enhancing drug. Armstrong not only denied them strenuously, he even filed lawsuits against some who dared to make the suggestion. But in 2012, the United States Anti-Doping Agency concluded that Armstrong had been using PED’s and was part of a large doping ring involving other athletes. He was stripped of his Tour de France titles, lost more than $70 million in advertising and sponsorship contracts, and became the subject of a whistleblower lawsuit by another cyclist and user of performance enhancing drugs, Floyd Landis, on charges that Armstrong had defrauded the U.S. government because one of his sponsors was the U.S. Postal Service.
3) Baseball and Performance Enhancing Drugs
Major league baseball has also gone through a series of drug-related scandals. In the 1970s and 1980s, several players suffered from addiction and were suspended at various times – one of them, pitcher Steve Howe, seven times during a 17-year career for alcohol and cocaine use. Then, a 2007 report based on a 21-month investigation by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell concluded that 88 players had used steroids or human growth hormones during the 1990s and early 2000s. In 2013, the “biogenesis” scandal led to the suspensions of 13 players for at least a third of the season – and New York Yankees star Alex Rodriguez for a full season – for using human growth hormone they obtained from a clinic, Biogenesis of America. The findings about HGH and other performance enhancing drugs called into question the home run marks set by Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire, the pitching records of Roger Clemens, and other leading players.
4) The 2002 Olympics
The International Olympic Committee had long been associated with questionable actions, from their handling of issues of performance enhancing drugs, to overlooking the presence of professionals among supposedly amateur athletes, to continuing the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich after eleven Israeli athletes had died at the hands of terrorists. But the 2002 Olympics set another standard. First, committee members accepted bribes to choose Salt Lake City as the Olympic site. While federal prosecutors were unable to secure the conviction of those involved, the scandal did lead to new IOC rules, the expulsion of several members, and other investigations that revealed previous bribes from host cities. Then, after charges that the judging had been fixed in the figure skating competition, the International Skating Union revamped the scoring system to try to avoid a similar scandal.
5) CCNY Point Shaving
Seven schools – four in the New York City area, three in the Midwest – and more than 30 players during the 1949-50 college basketball season were part of a point shaving scandal that also involved organized crime interests looking for an advantage in gambling on the games. Several players went to prison, and those who had gone on to play pro basketball were suspended. The NCAA suspended the University of Kentucky from playing basketball for one season and steered clear of playing tournament games in New York City for decades. Kentucky was the only one of the seven schools to retain its status as a basketball powerhouse, and one of the players who went to jail, Sherman White, pointed out that the coaches should have known whether their players were performing up to par, did nothing about it, and paid none of the price paid by the student athletes. There would be other point-shaving scandals in college basketball, but none with such lasting effects.
6) Pete Rozelle and Gambling in the NFL
In 1963, the NFL’s young commissioner, Pete Rozelle, in his third year on the job, found out that two star players had gambled on NFL games: Paul Hornung, the “Golden Boy” of the Green Bay Packers, and Alex Karras of the Detroit Lions. Rozelle suspended both of them for a year. As Rozelle’s biographer Jerry Izenberg pointed out, Rozelle asked for no advice but simply told Hornung’s coach, Vince Lombardi, what would happen, and that there would be no appeal. “He was new in the job, and yet he challenged the most powerful man in the league. The next day…he had suspended both players. The day after that, the problem was gone,” Izenberg wrote. A year later, having established his control, Rozelle negotiated the largest television contract in NFL history, then led the efforts to merge the NFL with the rising American Football League, started the Super Bowl, pushed the league into prime-time with Monday Night Football, and led the NFL to unparalleled profits and popularity until he retired in 1989.
All too often, discrimination in sports is considered part of history rather than the scandal it is. The plight of African Americans in most sports has been well documented – for example, their inability to play major league baseball until 1947, and what Jackie Robinson and other pioneers encountered after that; the discriminatory practices of the owner of the NFL’s Washington franchise, George Preston Marshall, who originally chose the team name that continues to be the center of controversy; Boston Celtic great Bill Russell’s complaints about racism in his home city; the problems faced by African American golfers before Tiger Woods; the comparatively small number of African American coaches and managers with professional franchises. But Latin players often have been degraded or lacked translators to help them communicate, and women have had few opportunities in the front office or on the field of major professional sports (the NFL just named its first woman field official, and no woman has umpired in major league baseball, although the NBA has taken steps to add women officials).
Chief Justice Earl Warren once said that the front pages described man’s failures but the sports pages displayed his accomplishments. As long as winning is the main accomplishment in sports – and it always will be – sports scandals will be front-page news.