Sports is riddled with conspiracy theories. As long as there have been organized sports, there have been accusations of cheating, collusion, and conspiracy. Professional sports is no different.
There have been numerous situations throughout sports history where moments seemed too good to be true. There have been other moments tarnished by rumor of ongoings behind the scenes. Here are ten of the biggest conspiracy theories in sports history.
Honorable mentions include the Montreal Screwjob being a work, the NBA Draft being rigged in favor of the Cleveland Cavaliers after Lebron James left for the Miami Heat, the power outage during Super Bowl XVLII was on purpose to keep the game from being a blowout, and Bobby Riggs threw his “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match against Billie Jean King.
10: Michael Phelps and the 100-meter butterfly at the 2008 Olympics
United States swimmer Michael Phelps was projected to have a historical run at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Phelps lived up to these expectations, collecting eight gold medals in all eight events in which he competed. These eight medals broke the previous record of most gold medals won in swimming at a single Olympic Games.
One such event was the 100-meter butterfly. In the event, Phelps defeated Serbian swimmer Milorad Čavić by one-hundredth of a second. 50.58 seconds to 50.59 seconds. Prior to the event, Čavić mentioned that he believed it would be best for the popularity of swimming if Phelps was defeated. The margin of victory was so close that Serbia petitioned for a review. However, video evidence wasn’t conclusive enough to overrule the original decision.
Video and photo review of the event showed the margin so close that some claim Čavić did beat Phelps. The conspiracy theory is that the Olympic Committee, knowing the race would be tight, made Phelps’ touchpad extra sensitive so that it would read him as completing the race right before touching it.
9: Game 6 of the 2002 NBA Western Conference Finals was rigged
In 2002, the defending-champion Los Angeles Lakers were competing against the Sacramento Kings in the Western Conference Finals. The Kings were leading the series, 3-2, going into Game 6 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
The Lakers would win the game, 106-102, to force a Game 7. But, the Lakers’ victory wasn’t the most talked about aspect of that game. During the game, several phantom fouls and other egregious calls were made in favor of the Lakers. Los Angeles would go to the free throw line 40 times, compared to Sacramento’s 25 attempts. Thirty-one personal fouls were called against the Kings, whereas only 24 were called against the Lakers. “I believe to this day, it was the worst officiated game in NBA history,” Kings play-by-play announcer Grant Napear said.
The Lakers would eventually win Game 7, 112-106, and defeat the New Jersey Nets in the NBA Finals, 4 games to 0.
Five years later, NBA referee Tim Donaghy was arrested and sentenced for gambling on games of which he officiated. In 2008, Donaghy’s lawyer filed a court document claiming that Donaghy and another referee for Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals conspired to make sure the Lakers won to make it a 7-game series.
8: Sonny Liston took a dive in his 1965 fight against Muhammad Ali
On Feb. 24, 1964, boxing world heavyweight champion Sonny Liston would put his title on the line against then-uprising star Cassius Clay, who would become known as Muhammad Ali. When Liston refused to come out for the seventh round, Ali was declared the winner and the new heavyweight champion.
The anticipated rematch would occur on May 25, 1965. Ali knocked Liston down in the first round. Liston attempted to use the ropes to get back up, but would fall again, leading to the fight being called in favor of Ali.
Liston, due to his ties with organized crime, was accused of throwing the fight. Upon video replays, it had looked as thought Ali didnt’t land the supposed punch that knocked Liston down.
Publicly, Liston denied the allegations. However, Sports Illustrated writer Mark Kram would claim that Liston told him years later: “That guy (Ali) was crazy. I didn’t want anything to do with him. And the Muslims were coming up. Who needed that? So I went down. I wasn’t hit.”
7: NFL destroyed “Spygate” tapes to hide investigation results
The New England Patriots had a near-20-year dynasty that lasted from 2001 to 2020. During that time, they had won the AFC East every season but 2002 and 2008, made the playoffs every year but 2002 and 2008, made it to the AFC Championship game 13 times, played in nine Super Bowls, and won six of them.
This stretch of success wasn’t without its controversy. On numerous occasions, the Patriots had been accused of cheating, with “Spygate” being one of the biggest contentions.
On Sept. 9, 2007, New England was caught videotaping coaching signals of their opponent, the New York Jets, during their Week 1 victory. After an NFL investigation, commissioner Roger Goodell fined head coach Bill Belichick 500,000 dollars and the franchise 250,000 dollars. In addition, the Patriots would lose their first-round pick in the following year’s NFL Draft.
After the investigation, the NFL made the decision to destroy the tapes. This brought speculation that the NFL was hiding more than was released. This conspiracy became stronger when Sen. Arlen Specter claimed that Goodell told him that New England had been recording opponents since Belichick’s hire in 2000.
Goodell has continued to deny these allegations. “I have nothing to hide,” Goodell said.
6: The 2005 NHL draft was rigged for the Penguins
The Pittsburgh Penguins are one of the premier franchises in the NHL. Led by Mario Lemieux, the team rose to prominence in the 1980’s and 1990’s.
However, upon Lemieux’s retirement, the franchise suffered from losing seasons throughout the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. In the 2003-04 season, the Penguins accumulated only 58 points in the standings, the worst in the NHL.
The 2004-05 season was canceled due to a dispute between the owners and the players union. This left a tough decision for how to decide the draft order for the 2005 NHL Draft. This draft was seen as having numerous major and highly touted prospects, led by 17-year-old phenom Sidney Crosby.
It was decided that the draft lottery would be decided as so: Teams that hadn’t reached the playoffs in the previous three seasons and hadn’t won the draft lottery in the same timeframe were given the best odds of the first pick. These teams were the Buffalo Sabres, Columbus Blue Jackets, New York Rangers, and the Penguins. These teams had a 6.25 percent chance of the first pick.
Pittsburgh would win the pick and draft Crosby. Crosby has helped the Penguins win three Stanley Cups, winning in 2008-09, 2015-16, and 2016-17.
Upon winning the first pick, conspiracy theories began flying. The Penguins had narrowly avoided bankruptcy, and, if theories are to be believed, the NHL wanted to help the fledging franchise by giving them the opportunity to draft can’t-miss prospect Crosby.
5: 1972 USA Men’s Basketball team was robbed of gold medal
The United States Men’s Basketball team was dominating their way through the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, eventually facing their Cold War foes, the Soviet Union, in the gold medal game.
With three seconds left in the game, USA’s Doug Collins hit a free throw to put the Americans up, 50-49. The Soviets inbounded the ball, seemingly ending the game. However, assistant coach Sergei Bashkin ran to the scorer’s table, claiming that they had called a timeout prior to the inbound. The timeout was recognized, and the play was restarted.
On the second inbound, the Soviet’s threw the ball away and time expired. As the Americans began celebrating, the officials conferenced, and they found there was an issue with the game clock. They decided to restart the play for a second time.
On the third inbound, the Soviets found Alexander Belov at the far end of the court. Belov made the layup, and the Soviets won the game, 51-50, taking the gold medal.
The USA immediately claimed conspiracy, stating that there were anti-American biases. International Basketball Federation (FIBA) secretary general R. William Jones, upon investigation, was quoted as saying, “The Americans have to learn how to lose, even if they think they are right.”
4: “Invictus” food poisoning
In 1995, amongst turmoil in the region, the South African rugby team, backed by Nelson Mandela, would pull an upset in the 1995 Rugby World Cup Finals against the heavily favorited New Zealand squad, 15-12.
The Rugby World Cup win was seen as a moment of hope for South Africa, eventually being turned into a blockbuster movie titled “Invictus” and starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon.
After the 1995 Rugby World Cup, New Zealand revealed that two-thirds of the team had suffered from an illness the night before the finals. These players were projectile vomiting and seen as incredibly sick.
It is believed that the New Zealand team was purposely given food poisoning to set up the win for South Africa. Rory Steyn, a former bodyguard of Nelson Mandela, went on record to share his belief in the conspiracy. He believed it was betting syndicates, and not South Africa, that gave New Zealand food poisoning.
“Do I think it was intentional? Absolutely,” said Steyn. “Do I think South African Rugby was involved? Absolutely not.”
3: Cal Ripken, Jr.’s streak saved by intentional power outage
Cal Ripken, Jr. is considered one of the greatest shortstops in the history of MLB. Ripken collected over 3,000 hits and 400 home runs during his career that spanned from 1982 to 2001. His most impressive feat was his consecutive games played streak. Between 1982 and 1998, Ripken played in 2,632 consecutive games without sitting, surpassing Lou Gehrig’s streak of 2,130 games.
There were numerous points during this stretch where the streak almost ended. But, there is one rumor that continues to appear. According to the rumor, Ripken and his wife were letting friend and actor Kevin Costner stay with him after wrapping up production of “The Postman.” On Aug. 14, 1997, the Baltimore Orioles, Ripken’s team, were hosting the Seattle Mariners. On his way to the stadium, Ripken realized he forgot his cleats and turned around to grab them at home.
When he arrived, Ripken caught his wife cheating on him with Costner. Ripken called the Orioles, and he said he was so distraught he couldn’t play that day, potentially ending his playing streak.
The Orioles immediately came up with a plan to save the streak: They would shut off the lights at their home field, Camden Yards, and claim there was a power outage, postponing the game. Ripken would play the next day, and the streak was safe.
This conspiracy theory has been disproven. Snopes wrote an article showing the facts in the story not lining. In addition, both Ripken and Costner have both vehemently denied the story. Yet, it still is one of the most-shared rumors and conspiracies in baseball history.
2: The “frozen envelope”
The 1985 Draft saw a once-in-a-generation talent in Patrick Ewing. Ewing finished an extremely successful career at Georgetown University, and he was the surefire number one pick in the draft.
One of the teams with a chance at the first overall pick was the New York Knicks. After success in the early 1970’s, the Knicks had a string of poor-performing seasons, hitting rock bottom leading into the 1985 Draft Lottery.
Although they had a chance, they still didn’t have the best chance at winning the first overall pick. Yet, when the Draft Lottery arrived, New York won the pick, which they used to select Ewing. Ewing would go to lead the Knicks to an NBA Finals appearance, culminating in election into the National Basketball Hall of Fame.
After the Knicks won the first pick, rumors and conspiracies began spreading. It was known that the Knicks desperately needed a center. It was believed that the NBA was desperate to have a competitive team in New York. Rumor goes that NBA commissioner David Stern, when selecting the envelopes for the draft order during the Draft Lottery, made sure the Knicks’ envelope was frozen. He would know by touch which was New York’s, allowing him to pick it last to reveal them as the first pick.
1: Jordan’s first retirement was a secret suspension
Michael Jordan is considered by many to be the greatest basketball player of all time. Jordan finished in the top five all time in scoring, and he won six NBA Titles in six trips to the Finals, along with other countless awards and honors.
Jordan also retired on three separate occasions. He retired in 1993 after his third NBA Championship, in 1998 after his sixth NBA Championship, and a final time in 2003. Although his retirements in 1998 and 2003 were almost expected, Jordan’s first retirement was a shock to the basketball community.
Jordan had retired after the murder of his father. He wanted to explore other avenues, and he did so by attempting a professional baseball career between his first retirement and his return to the NBA at the end of the 1994-95 season.
It was also known that Jordan had a borderline addiction to gambling. His bets with teammates became legendary. So, when he abruptly retired the first time, fans thought there was more than what was being released publicly. Making connections, a conspiracy theory began circulating that commissioner David Stern was suspending Jordan due to his gambling addiction under the guise of a retirement.
Although Stern had denied such rumors for the remainder of his life, and Jordan still does deny them, this is, even now, one of the most popular sports conspiracy theories.
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