Sports are often viewed as an extension of the rest of the world.
Sure, there are only a handful of individuals talented enough to compete at the highest level. Regardless, nearly all of the problems of the real world seem to intersect the world of sports in at least some way.
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Greed. Criminality. Injustice. The list goes on and on. The human nature of the athletes involved opens sports up to the constant possibility of controversy.
Some scandals are driven by financial greed. Sometimes there are links to gambling or organized crime. Potentially both. In other instances, it involves collegiate athletes who accept money, despite knowing the serious punishments facing them, their teammates and the university if they are caught doing so.
Others emerge from poor decisions in an athlete's personal life. Whether these missteps lead to a criminal trial, a hefty financial settlement or merely persecution in the eyes of the public, these events almost always tarnish the reputation of the individual involved.
And of course, when the stakes are high, there is always going to be someone looking for a competitive advantage. Sports is no exception, as individuals have resorted to performance-enhancing-drugs, espionage and occasionally violence in order to gain an edge over the competition.
While it is the tremendous athletic feats and team accomplishments that have shaped the passion of fans for countless years, the presence of controversy is always lurking in the shadows.
Here is a look at the 20 biggest scandals in the history of sports, and while this counts down, they are in no particular order because we're trying to determine which awful scandal is more egregious than the other.
20 biggest sports scandals
Revealing the 20 biggest sports scandals of all time
20. Reggie Bush forfeits Heisman, USC hammered by the NCAA
From 2003 to 2005, Reggie Bush gained national recognition as one of the most electric players we have ever seen in college football.
Bush finished his career with 6,551 all-purpose yards and 42 total touchdowns, earning a reputation as a player capable of breaking off a touchdown on any given play. Entering the 2005 college football season, he had already helped bring a BCS National Championship to USC, in addition to two AP national titles. He was also coming off a sophomore season in which he was named the 2004 Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year and a consensus All-American.
As a junior, Bush compiled 18 total touchdowns while leading the nation with 2,218 yards from scrimmage and an astonishing 8.7 yards per carry. That year, he led the Trojans to a BCS National Championship runner-up performance, earned consensus All-American and Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year honors once again and was named the winner of the Doak Walker, Walter Camp and AP Player of the Year Awards.
The most prestigious accolade, however, came when he was named the seventh player in USC history to win the Heisman Trophy.
Unfortunately, his legendary collegiate career would be followed by a scandal that received just as much media attention. It was discovered that Bush and his family had accepted impermissible benefits from an aspiring sports agent, and as a result, the running back would forfeit his 2005 Heisman Trophy.
USC would pay the biggest price, though.
The NCAA handed down one of the harshest punishments in the organization’s controversial history, in what appeared to be an overzealous attempt to send a message.
The Trojans received a two-year postseason ban, a reduction in scholarships and all wins that Bush participated in dating back to December 2004 were vacated. USC’s 2004 national title was also vacated by the Bowl Championship Series.
(Photo by Kirby Lee/Getty Images)
19. USA basketball loses gold medal match to Soviet Union in the 1972 Olympics
In 1972, the United States and the Soviet Union were in the middle of the Cold War, a period of extreme political tension between the two nations. Sports was viewed as an escape from all of this, but that changed in the basketball gold medal match of the 1972 Olympics in Munich.
The Soviets inbounded the ball, but play was stopped due to a disturbance caused by their assistant coach regarding not being awarded a timeout during the previous free throw. Rather than assessing a technical foul for disrupting play, the officials cancelled the play altogether.
On the following inbound play, a clock malfunction caused the final horn to sound after just one second, as the Americans tipped the Soviet pass out-of-bounds. The United States began to celebrate what they thought to be a victory. Once again, however, the play was wiped out and their opponent was awarded yet another chance.
This time, everything fell into place for the Soviets, as they connected on a length-of-the-court pass that led to an uncontested lay-up with time expiring. After losing a protest, the USA basketball team refused to accept their silver medals.
Over four decades later, the Americans still refuse to acknowledge the controversial Soviet victory.
“If there hadn’t been the scandal, the controversy, if we’d lost that game fair and square I would proudly wear a silver medal,” Michael Bantom, a forward on the 1972 team said. “But it doesn’t matter if it’s one year, ten years or forty years it doesn’t make sense for me to accept the medal I don’t think I deserve.”
Current USA basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski remembers the event as ‘a shocking example of politics meddling in sport.’
(Photo credit should read STAFF/AFP/Getty Images)
17. Tonya Harding — Nancy Kerrigan
The Tonya Harding — Nancy Kerrigan incident of 1994 featured a shocking combination of win-at-all-costs attitude, hit men and an FBI investigation that would be unprecedented in almost any sport, much less the graceful art of figure skating.
With Harding in danger of missing the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics, she allegedly turned to a trio of goons, including her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, in order to derail her top competition. Kerrigan was considered the favorite to win the U.S. Figure Skating Championships that year, and was the main obstacle standing between Harding and her second trip to the Olympics.
On January 6th, Kerrigan was assaulted following a practice round for the championships. Shane Stant, who was hired by Gillooly and Harding’s bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt to carry out the attack, clubbed Kerrigan with a baton just above her right knee.
The incident caused her to withdraw from the event, which Harding would win, sending her to the Olympics. Kerrigan was still able to perform in Lillehammer as well, though, and managed to walk away with a silver medal. Harding would finish in eighth place.
All three men involved would face jail time.
Harding admitted that she learned of the plan after the attack, and failed to come forward to the authorities. According to her ex-husband, however, she was very much involved in the conspiracy to injure Kerrigan.
(Photo credit should read CHRIS WILKINS/AFP/Getty Images)
16. Lance Armstrong admits to using PEDs
During his reign of dominance over the sport of cycling, Lance Armstrong was one of the most uplifting stories in all of sports.
Two years removed from winning a near-fatal bout with testicular cancer, Armstrong began a streak of seven consecutive Tour de France victories that would span from 1999 to 2005. Due to the feel-good nature of his personal story, as well as his tremendous charity work in supporting cancer patients through the Livestrong Foundation, he became an iconic figure in the world of sports.
Unfortunately, these accomplishments would be tarnished by performance-enhancing-drug use.
In 2010, disgraced former teammate Floyd Landis made startling accusations against the legendary cyclist, claiming that the he had been using PEDs throughout his career. Two and a half years later, Armstrong came clean during an interview with Oprah Winfrey.
During the interview, he admitted to using some form of blood doping or PEDs during all seven of his Tour wins.
While it does not excuse his transgression’s, the USADA report that implicated him pointed out a much larger problem at hand: eighty percent of the Tour de France medalists from 1996 to 2010 were similarly connected to blood doping or PED use.
(Photo by George Burns/Oprah Winfrey Network via Getty Images)
13. Black Sox scandal
In 1919, the Chicago White Sox were widely considered the best team in baseball. After winning the American League pennant with an 88-52 record, they were the favorites to beat the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series.
During a time when fixing baseball games was not unprecedented, eight members of the White Sox did the unthinkable: they threw the World Series.
The scandal involved mob connections, wealthy gamblers and death threats, as well as a complete disregard for the integrity of the game. The players involved were allegedly promised $100,000 for their actions.
Among those involved was one of the greatest players that baseball had ever seen, outfielder Shoeless Joe Jackson, whose .359 career batting average ranks third all-time. The other perpetrators were first baseman Arnold Gandil, pitchers Eddie Cicotte and Claude Williams, outfielder Oscar Felsch and infielders Swede Risberg, Buck Weaver and Fred McMullin.
The Reds won the series five games to three.
While the players would not be charged criminally for their actions, all eight were banned from baseball for life in 1921 by commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. The incident remains one of the most infamous occurrences in sports history, and is known as the Black Sox scandal.
(Photo by New York Times Co./Getty Images)
9. 2015 FIFA corruption case
FIFA has never been thought to be free of corruption and scandal, but the events onthe morning of May 27, 2015 shined a light on just how widespread and serious the problems within the organization were.
Swiss authorities raided a hotel in Zurich, arresting seven top-ranking executives from the world’s governing body of football on charges stemming from an FBI investigation. The United States would indict a total of 14 FIFA officials and corporate executives on charges of racketeering conspiracy and corruption.
Among those indicted were two current FIFA vice presidents, as well as the current and former presidents of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF). While not charged criminally, FIFA President Sepp Blatter was also a major part of the investigation, and has announced his intentions to resign once a new president is named.
The indictments come following the controversial awarding of the 2018 Russia and 2022 Qatar World Cups. The investigation goes back much farther than these two bidding processes, though, and has unveiled over two decades of corruption at the top of the organization.
A centerpiece of the investigation is an alleged $10 million bribe, which secured votes for the 2010 South Africa World Cup.
(Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)
8. Tim Donaghy NBA betting scandal
Shocking revelations involving a veteran referee, mob associates and a betting scandal rocked the NBA community in the summer of 2007. Just over a year later, the referee involved, Tim Donaghy, was sentenced to 15 months in prison for his actions.
Donaghy had a severe gambling addiction, and allegedly made tens of thousands of dollars in bets on NBA games from 2005 to 2007. During this time, point spreads were significantly affected by games in which he officiated. His involvement in the scheme was revealed when his name came up during an unrelated FBI investigation into organized crime.
In addition to the negative publicity that Donaghy brought upon the NBA, he also revived one of the league’s biggest conspiracies: the alleged fixing of Game 6 of the 2002 NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings.
The game featured one of the most embarrassing displays of officiating in the history of the sport, and allowed the Lakers to come back and eventually advance to the finals, where they won their third consecutive NBA championship.
Donaghy claimed that one of the referees officiating the game informed him that they were working in the league’s interest to force a Game 7.
(Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images)
4. Jim Thorpe stripped of his Olympic gold medals
Jim Thorpe is widely considered one of the most versatile athletes in the history of sports. Thorpe was named “The Greatest Athlete of the First Half of the Century” by the Associated Press, and his long list of accomplishments is nothing short of outstanding.
As a college football player at Carlisle Indian School, he emerged as a star that could dominate at nearly any position on the field. He was named an All-American twice, while also competing in baseball, track and lacrosse.
The Jim Thorpe Award, given annually to the best defensive back in college football, is named in his honor. In addition, Thorpe would help found the American Professional Football Association, which eventually developed into the National Football League.
Thorpe’s most impressive athletic feat, however, was taken away from him in 1913.
At the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, he delivered a record-setting performance, winning the decathlon and pentathlon. Thorpe was beloved by fans when he returned home, but months later, his amateur status was revoked as a result of him playing minor league baseball prior to the Olympics. Despite the protest from the Amateur Athletic Union coming far past the legal limit of 30 days after the closing ceremony, the International Olympic Committee voted to strip him of his records and medals from the events.
Many believe the elimination of his records had more to do with Thorpe’s Native American heritage than it did the question of his amateur status, however.
“Those Olympic records are the best proof that he was superb, and they aren’t official,” Kate Buford, author of the Jim Thorpe biography, Native American Son, toldSmithsonian Magazine. “He’s like the phantom contender.”
His medals were eventually restored in 1983, long after he had passed away.
The fact that Thorpe’s accomplishments were not even a part of the Olympics’ official history for so long further adds to the myth surrounding one of the greatest athletes of all-time.
(Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images)
2. O.J. Simpson murder trial
O.J. Simpson is without a doubt one of the most polarizing sports figures of the 20th century.
Simpson rose to national prominence at USC, where he became a two-time consensus All-American and was named the recipient of the 1968 Heisman Trophy. He would go on to experience a successful pro career after being drafted No .1 overall by the Buffalo Bills in 1969. Simpson claimed four rushing titles and the 1973 MVP Award on his way to a Hall of Fame career.
On June, 12 1994, though, his ex-wife, Nicole Brown, and her friend Ronald Goldman were found murdered outside of her home. Shortly after, Simpson led police on a highly publicized chase in an infamous white Ford Bronco, which ended with him being charged with two counts of murder.
The trial turned into a media spectacle that ended with Simpson being acquitted of the criminal charges, despite being found liable for $33.5 million in damages from a coinciding civil trial. He is currently in jail after being found guilty of kidnapping and armed robbery, stemming a confrontation at a Las Vegas hotel in which he claims to have been attempting to retrieve sports memorabilia that was stolen from him.
Simpson is not the first NFL player to be involved in a murder case, with former players Rae Carruth and Aaron Hernandez currently incarcerated on murder-related charges. The high-profile nature of the trial and the fact that he walked free despite mounting evidence, however, makes it one of the most notorious scandals in sports history.
(Photo credit should read Vince Bucci/AFP/Getty Images)