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February 9, 2009 at 8:15 PM

Worst sports scandals of all-time

Seems that my comment earlier today about A-Rod’s positive drug test pehaps turning into the biggest sports scandal of all-time has drawn lots of interest in the blogosphere. The New York Times, of all places, linked to the comment earlier this afternoon. Well, it’s one thing to make a hyperbolic statement. Quite another to back it up. I’ve compiled a list of what I think are the greatest sports scandals of all-time in terms of their impact on the sports themselves from a global perspective, how people view those sports afterward and the longevity of the black mark they carry with them.
For this reason, you won’t find any mention of Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan debacle from the 1994 lead up to the Winter Olympics’ figure skating competition. While that was a nice little “Made-in-the-USA” soap opera, it reflected more on the personalities involved than the sport of figure skating itself. I’d argue that all of the Olympic ice dancing fiascos that occured with judges in the years since were a lot more hurtful to their sport overall. And besides, neither Kerrigan nor Harding even won a gold medal. In fact, it can be argued that Harding-Kerrigan actually helped figure skating in terms of boosted TV ratings. No, we’ll look at the real ugly scandals here and leave Harding-Kerrigan for reality TV.
For the worst of the truly awful scandals, those with long-term impact, I nominate:
1. Steroids Era as defined by A-Rod’s positive test
This gets the nod because of what it will mean to the overall context of the so-called Steroids Era of the past 15 years. As Jayson Stark of ESPN mentioned earlier today, we’re getting to the point where baseball records have been forever tarnished. And records are the foundation that helped elevate MLB to a position of being a part of Amercia’s very fabric. The stuff that great novels were written about. That inspired movies. You rarely hear people talk about NFL records the same way they did Hank Aaron’s career home run total, Babe Ruth’s mark before that, or Lou Gehrig’s consecutives games streak (since eclipsed by Cal Ripken Jr.). Take away baseball’s records and their sanctity and the sport loses its soul. I believe that this is the fundamental reason why fans seem to care more about steroids in baseball than they do in football. Baseball’s drug culture has caused the game’s very foundation — it’s individual records as measured over the past century — to crumble. It made a mockery of the career achievements of baseball legends whose on-field feats have transcended time.
A-Rod was supposed to help restore some sanctity to those records. He was the “clean” player who was going to eclipse the Barry Bonds career home run mark, which was recently snatched away from Aaron under a shroud of steroids accusations. Now, that plan lies in ruins. A-Rod is just as tainted as all the rest of the biggest names the game has seen this decade and in the 1990s. A generation of baseball fans has grown up watching a lie. This is not a scandal limited to any one particular year. It’s one now going on two decades, ensnaring the biggest names the sport has known during that time. And some of the biggest names to play in any era of the sport’s history. It has rattled the trust placed in the sport by fans. Part of what made baseball great, made it endure for as long as it has, was the ability to reference records of the past and measure them against the present. Now, that’s gone forever.
If A-Rod can no longer carry that torch, who can? How many more decades will it take? And how many fans of the game itself will the sport lose? Perhaps, baseball is now destined to become like any other team sport, with fans whose loyalties remain to individual teams and their efforts at winning championships. Not to the beauty of the game itself and all of the elements that go with that. cheering a team to a championship can still be fun stuff. But it’s rarely what gets great novels written.
So, that’s my reason I nominate this A-Rod debacle as having crystalized the Steroids Era as the worst sports scandal of all-time.
Here are the rest of my nominees:
2. The Ben Johnson Olympic Steroids Scandal of 1988
Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson taking on American icon Carl Lewis in the 100-meter final at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea, was one of the most globally-watched sporting events of all-time. Johnson shattered the world record by clocking in at 9.79 seconds, but the aftermath of his positive test for the anabolic steroid stanozolol nearly ruined track and field.
The Johnson scandal cast a cloud over those Olympics and became symbolic of Olympic drug problems in general. Results of previous medal winners were thrown into disrepute. Organizers of track and field events throughout the world reported a downturn in fan interest and loss of revenue for years to come. In Canada, the government held an official inquiry into drugs in sport that took years to play out and which became a model for other countries to follow. But the trust that fans had placed in the sport of track and field was lost. Each new world record became the subject of cynicism. Sure, the Soviets and East Germans were doping long before Johnson stepped into his starting blocks. But if you want to find the flashpoint for an Olympic doping crisis that has lasted decades, look no further than Johnson’s mad dash against Lewis in 1988. The fact that nearly the entire finalist field from that event was later caught taking one banned substance or another tells you all you need to know about how rampant track and field’s drug problems were in 1988. And while progress has been made, we’ve seen from Marion Jones and others that the sport still, in many ways, has yet to recover.
3. 1919 Black Sox Scandal
It’s because of the Chicago White Sox throwing their World Series in 1919 that baseball now has a commissioner and Pete Rose is not allowed into the Hall of Fame. Indeed, for pure longevity, this scandal has all other beat. It has inspired movies like Eight Men Out and novels like Shoeless Joe. There are still organizations dedicated to clearing the names of players like Buck Weaver, said to have been innocents in the whole affair. If not for the home run hitting feats of Babe Ruth in the 1920s, the baseball betting scandal may have toppled the sport for good. Let’s not forget, just like A-Rod and Barry Bonds are the flashpoints for their sport’s scandal, and Ben Johnson was for his, the 1919 “Black Sox” were only one major element to a betting problem that went beyond their one team. Fan confidence in the sport was becoming eroded daily as new accounts of the thrown World Series continued to emerge. I’d argue that, in today’s internet age, basbeall might not have survived 1919. But back then, with news coming out a lot more slowly, it bought the game time to right itself. The strict, anti-gambling rules that emerged help ruin the legacy of Pete Rose decades later when he was found to have bet on baseball. But Rose was just the continuation of what the Black Sox started. Had he ever been found to have bet against his own team, the way the 1919 Black Sox did, his own scandal might have been just as damning. For now, it remains a pretty big element of one of the worst sports scandals of all-time.
4. Olympique Marseille 1993 soccer match-fixing scandal
Imagine actually winning a World Series and then having to give it back the next year while your team gets banished to Class AAA. That’s exactly what happened to Olympique de Marseille (Photo Credit: Getty Images), which defeated AC Milan in 1993 to become the first French team to ever win a European Champions League title. That’s huge stuff over in Europe, where arguably the world’s best soccer leagues are located. But Marseille had to forfeit its French title the following year (it got to keep the European crown, but was banned from defending it in 1994) and its owner, Bernard Tapie, headed off to prison when it was found one of the team’s opponents had been paid to lose. At the heart of the case was that three players from the second-division Valenciennes team in France were bribed by Marseille players and officials to throw a regular season game and not injure any Marseille players. In soccer, the regular season and “Champions League” playoffs from the previous year always overlap. Like playing last year’s World Series in the middle of next May, surrounded by a bunch of regular season games for 2009. It sounds weird, but this is how soccer is. Marseille wanted Valenciennes to go easy on its squad so it could be better prepared for the upcoming Champions League final against AC Milan a week later.
Marseille won that European final, then went on to claim a fifth straight French League championship. The whole plot nearly worked, until some folks started chirping. As a result, Marseille was stripped of its French title from 1993. I mean, when’s the last time you saw that happen to any squad winning a championship? Not only that, but Marseille was relegated to second-division soccer for two years. Ouch! That’ll kill some reputations and leave wounds that are tough to heal. Marseille has never again reached the same on-field heights it once did. The Italian soccer club, Juventus, had a similar scandal a few years back. But unlike Olympique Marseille, the Juventus team was not the defending European champ, so I’ll give Marseille top billing on my scandal rank meter.

5. The Alan Eagleson NHL scandal of the 1990s
This one had nothing to do with throwing games, but severely impacted the lives of hundreds of National Hockey League players from the 1960s,1970s and 1980s. Alan Eagleson, a pioneering agent and head of the NHL Players’ Association for 25 years starting in 1967, was essentially accused by players of colluding with favored team owners to keep the wages of his union clients in-check. He was also accused, in criminal court, of embezzling money from the players’ pension funds and later served 18 months in a Canadian prison after being convicted of embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from Canada Cup (international tournament featuring many NHL players) profits in 1984, 1987 and 1991. Eagleson also pleaded guilty to three counts of mail fraud totalling $700,000 in the U.S. Eagleson went from an international hockey icon and arguably the most powerful figure in any sport to a disgraced villain almost overnight. His impact on the lives of pro hockey players, many of whom were left financially destitute by a pension plan that failed to meet their needs, was immeasurable. His union legacy, in which hockey salaries were kept low comapred to other North American sports, may have contributed to harming the league’s progress in the decades since. The players’ union toughened its stance in the years that followed the revelations about Eagleson, resulting in an explosion of salaries never seen before in the NHL. By 2004-2005, the league, claiming an inability to finance those salaries, locked its players out and caused an entire season to be lost. It’s hard not to see how the decades of salary suppression in the NHL — with Eagleson helping league owners maintain it — likely caused the pendulum to swing too far in the other direction as the 1990s and this decade played out. No other North American sports league ever experienced a union scandal like this one. And no league, it can be argued, paid as hefty a price in terms of its overall popularity and product.
6. 1940s and 1950s college basketball points-shaving scandal
Likely the worst scandal in the history of college sports, where top teams and players took payoffs from gamblers to ensure their clubs did not cover the points-spread in games. The scandal erupted with the arrests of seven men in an undercover sting operation in January of 1951, three of which were stars on the City College of New York (CCNY) team which had won the 1950 NCAA and NIT championships. Kentucky All-Americans Ralph Beard and Alex Groza were among those who accepted payoffs. How bad was this scandal? Some will say that because of the CCNY involvement, as well as that of Manhattan College, Long Island University and New York University, the City of New York, once a mecca of basketball in this country, lost its status for good and has not come close to regaining it since. The NCAA tournament — fearful of a repeat incident — kept its championship game away from New York for almost 50 years until returning in 1996. Like the Black Sox and Olympique Marseille scandals, what made this one so devastating was that it struck at the heart of the assumption that the results of the games themselves could not be disputed.
7. NBA Referee Scandal of 2007
The NBA reacted swiftly and severely to allegations in 2007 that referee Tim Donaghy had bet on games, including some he’d officiated in. Like the college scandals of the 1940s and 1950s, this one cut to the very heart of whether game results were valid. The prospect of a referee, with the power to change the flow of a game, being on-the-hook to gambling interests terrified the NBA. Donaghy had apparently gotten himself into debt and was trying to work it off by betting on games. There were also concerns that Donaghy was in a position to have compromised the results of some playoff games. He had also been approached by low-level mob figures to work on a fixing scheme. Donaghy was suspended immediately by the NBA when word of an FBI investigation into him was reported by the media. He later said that other referees were involved in betting as well — something the referees’ union has denied. A document filed in court by Donaghy’s attorneys later claimed that two referees conspired to fix Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals between the Lakers and Kings. Donaghy was sentenced last summer in Brooklyn federal court to 15 months in prison. For now, the NBA appears to have survived the scandal with no lasting harm. But events are still occuring and the prognosis for the league could quickly change if any other referees are found to have been involved in similar activities as Donaghy has alleged.
8. Hornung and Karras NFL gambling suspensions in 1963
Almost a half-century after the Black Sox Scandal in baseball, the National Football League was rocked by its own problem when Commissioner Pete Rozelle suspended Packers running back Paul Hornung and Lions All-Pro defensive tackle Alex Karras (remember him from the Webster TV show?) in 1963 for betting on games and associating with gamblers. Both players sat out a full-season and were reinstated. Five other Detroit players were fined for betting on the 1962 NFL title game. Hornung was later elected into the Hall of Fame.
Rather than damaging the league, the incidents were largely forgotten in the decades that followed — just one of the many examples of how the NFL manages to dodge trouble that its baseball counterparts cannot. A potentially more explosive scandal was headed off by the NFL last year after New England Patriots coach Bill Belicheck was accused of having videotaped the walk-through practice of the highly favored St. Louis Rams prior to the 2002 Super Bowl. That accusation arose in the aftermath of the so-called SpyGate affair, when Belickeck was said to have ordered the videotaping of Jets’ sideline signals from coaches during a Sept. 2007 game. Belicheck was fined $500,000 for that incident, the Patriots were docked another $250,000 and were forced to forfeit a first-round draft pick. Six months later, the Boston Herald cited an anonymous source saying the 2002 Super Bowl walk-through had been videotaped as well. The NFL investigated, but closed the case after talking with Mat Walsh — New England’s video co-ordinator at the time. Walsh told league officials he was present at the walk-through and set up camera equipment for the game but never did any taping. The Herald issued an apology for the article.
9. SMU gets the Death Penalty
Nowadays, the concept of boosters paying college football players to play would draw yawns from any serious sports fan. Recruting violations of all kinds still take place at the college level, some more serious than others. But back in 1986, the hammer came down on Southern Methodist University and set the tone for decades to follow: cheat and your program could die. The Mustangs were already in the midst of a two-year probation for similar violations. But when the magnitude of all the payoffs became clear, astonishment reigned. A slush fund had been created for 13 players to receive cash payouts every month — with more than $60,000 having been given. The school’s athletic director, head coach and assistant coach all resigned during the scandal, but were offered $850,000 in remaining salary if they kept quiet about just how bad things were. Once the NCAA got wind of it all, SMU had its entire 1987 season cancelled and was banned from playing any home games in 1988. The school later cancelled its road games as well because it lacked the home gate revenue to fund the team. It wasn’t until 1992 that SMU got its full allotment of scholarships back. Texas Gov. Bill Clements made things worse in 1987, when, six days after the “Death Penalty” was handed down, he told reporters that, while heading SMU’s board of governors, he’d helped approve a plan to continue slush-fund payments to Mustangs players while the school was on probation. Like I said, nowadays, to jaded sports fans, the scandal might not seem like much. But it was huge in the 1980s and the penalty imposed scared the wits out of teams that had been going down the same, improper paths. There have been harsh punishments handed down since. But this was a pioneering measure taken against one of the most abusive programs the nation has ever seen. In the years since, after much criticism for its punitive measures, the NCAA has been loathe to drop such a so-called “atomic bomb” on subsequent violators.
10. Jim Thorpe stripped of medals
Hard for some to comprehend just what this scandal meant back in 1913, but Thorpe was everything Carl Lewis was and more. Same with Jesse Owens. Thorpe was a hero to Native Americans and a true, international superstar, having won gold in the decathlon and pentathlon events at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm. Forget about his other feats as a football and baseball player for a moment. His decathlon record would stand for 20 years. And he would also never get the chance to compete in that event again. That’s because, unlike today, strict rules that the Olympics were an amateurs-only affair were in-place. Thorpe’s medals would ultimately be stripped after U.S. newspapers reported in January 1913 that he had played professional baseball. While that part was true, Thorpe was only paid roughly $2 per game and $35 per month. it was also customary at the time for college players to play pro ball, but they did so under aliases. As it turns out, the IOC did not follow its own rules for disqualification, which stated that notice had to be filed within 30 days from the closing of the Games. Instead, the Thorpe disqualification was initiated six months later. It wasn’t until 1983, three decades after Thorpe’s death, that his name was reinstated and commemorative medals given to his surviving family. While Olympic athletes now generate millions in sponsorship money for themselves, the legacy of the Thorpe disqualification had a chilling effect on other athletes for decades. His was the most prominent and woeful tale of what could happen to an Olympic hopeful who tried to make a few dollars on the side in the world of sport.



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