17 Most Talked-About Corruption Scandals in Sports History

17 Most Talked-About Corruption Scandals in Sports History

The biggest scandals in sports history have focused on athletes cheating to make extra cash, or on league officials and arbiters such as umpires and referees – nearly always with financial gain as a motive. After they were caught, athletes have sometimes faced enormous fines and even lifetime bans from their sport, while league officials have been charged with criminal behavior. (These are the athletes most often sidelined by suspensions.)

24/7 Tempo has compiled a list of some of the most talked-about corruption scandals in sports, drawing on sports sites such as Sports Illustrated, NFL.com, and ESPN, as well as general media outlets including the Daily Mail, ABC News, and Forbes. The list is by no means comprehensive, but was assembled based on the impact each scandal had on an individual or a particular sport. (In sports and otherwise, these were the 24 biggest scandals last year.)

The most frequent corrupt behaviors in sports on our list are bribery, match-fixing, betting, and point-shaving. Bribery has occurred in international events such as the Olympic Games and soccer’s World Cup tournament, as well as in college basketball and football. 

Potential host nations offered inducements to officials of the Olympic Games committee and FIFA, the international soccer federation, to cajole them into selecting their country for their epic events. 

Match-fixing has soiled sports such as soccer, cricket, Major League Baseball – even snooker. A match-fixing scandal in cricket tainted the reputation of South African star Hansie Cronje. The worst scandal in the history of baseball occurred in 1919-1920 when the heavily favored Chicago White Sox threw the 1919 World Series.

Pete Rose, baseball’s all-time hits leader, was banned for life from the game because he bet on his team, the Cincinnati Reds. Tim Donaghy, a former referee in the National Basketball Association, was snagged by the FBI for wagering on basketball games and manipulating their outcomes.

College basketball has had many instances of point-shaving schemes, including one involving the basketball squads of City College of New York and six other schools in 1951, and more recently, the Boston College team in the late 1970s.

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Pete Rose’s gambling problem

Pete Rose, former manager of the Cincinnati Reds, was accused in 1989 of betting on baseball games while managing the team. An investigation found evidence that in 1987 Rose had placed dozens of bets on the Reds games. Rose denied the allegations for years. The scandal tarnished his legacy and made him ineligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame. He officially applied for reinstatement in 1997 and presented his case in November 2002 to the commissioner Bud Selig, where he revealed the truth about his betting. As of now, Rose remains on the permanently ineligible list.

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1978 World Cup match-fixing

Argentina defeated Peru 6-0 in the second round of the 1978 World Cup soccer tournament. This win allowed Argentina to advance to the final, in which they defeated Netherlands 3-1, securing their first World Cup victory. However, the match against Peru raised suspicions, as Argentina needed to win by four clear goals to progress, and Peru had been a strong team throughout the tournament. Peru’s goalkeeper, Ramon Quiroga, who was born in Argentina, was implicated in a possible scheme to pay off Peruvian players – accusations which he denied. Later, a former Peruvian senator claimed that the match result was fixed due to a deal between the Argentine and Peruvian governments involving political prisoners, money, and grain. However, none of these theories has been substantiated with concrete evidence.

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Hansie Cronje’s payoffs

One of the most infamous scandals in cricket history unfolded in 2000, when Hansie Cronje, captain of South Africa’s national cricket team and a skilled right-handed all-rounder, admitted to accepting the equivalent of thousands of dollars from bookmakers to manipulate cricket matches. He confessed to influencing the results of matches by underperforming or encouraging other team members to do so. Consequently, he was banned for life from professional cricket. Cronje died in a 2002 plane crash, and there were rumors that he’d been murdered by agents of a cricket betting syndicate. The scandal exposed the vulnerabilities of the sport to corruption and led to greater efforts in enforcing anti-corruption measures in cricket worldwide.

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Olympique de Marseille wins by bribery

Olympique de Marseille, a top-flight French soccer team, won the inaugural UEFA Champions League in 1993, marking a high point in their 101-year history. However, it was subsequently revealed that just a week before the Champions League final, team president Bernard Tapie had bribed several players from a rival team, Valenciennes, during the regular season. This scandal, exposed at the end of 1993, revealed that Tapie had been buying matches against Marseille’s main opponents in the French league for years. As a result, UEFA and the French Football Federation imposed several punishments on Olympique de Marseille. These included a ban from playing international tournaments for one year, loss of their French league champion title for the 1992/1993 season, and relegation to the second French category. Despite the scandal, the team was allowed to retain their Champions League title, though they were barred from appearing in the following season’s competition.

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CCNY basketball winners become losers

CCNY’s basketball team remains the only men’s college basketball team to win the NCAA Tournament and the National Invitation Tournament in the same year – 1950. However, their accomplishments were called into question the following year when they were belatedly accused in a major point-shaving scandal. At the time, Madison Square Garden was a hotbed of illegal sports gambling, with around 4,000 bookmakers operating and over $300,000 bet on each game there. CCNY players first came into contact with gamblers while working summer jobs in the Catskills, where they’d been recruited to play basketball. Gamblers offered players a cut of the pot if they could manipulate the final score. Three CCNY players were caught after authorities wiretapped a former player acting as a liaison between the team and bookies. Ultimately, seven CCNY players were arrested, and 25 players from six other schools – including New York University and the University of Kentucky – confessed to taking bribes to shave points in some 86 games between 1947 and 1950. Bookmaker Harry Gross, who orchestrated the gambling ring, pled guilty to 66 counts of bribery and gambling and was sentenced to eight years in prison.

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Tim Donaghy’s insider bets

In 2007, NBA referee Tim Donaghy was embroiled in a major betting scandal that shook the league. Donaghy was accused of betting on NBA games he officiated using insider information on teams, coaches, players, and other officials to ensure his wagers won. The scandal emerged during an FBI investigation called “Operation Flagrant Foul,” which looked into Donaghy’s ties to the New York mafia. Donaghy pleaded guilty to two federal charges related to the probe in 2008 and was sentenced to 15 months in prison plus three years of supervised release. The NBA instituted new conduct policies for referees in the aftermath to prevent similar scandals in the future.

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Swapping horses for profit

Racehorse veterinarian Mark Gerard bought two horses from Uruguay – Cinzano, who had won seven stakes races in his native country, and Lebon, whose record was much less impressive. In 1977, Gerard anonymously entered Cinzano in a race at Belmont Park in New York – under the name of the long-shot Lebon. Gerard had attested that Cinzano died in a farm accident, and collected a $150,000 payout from Lloyd’s of London for the loss. In reality, it was Lebon who had died, and Gerard began training Cinzano under his name. “Lebon” was a 57-1 longshot in the Belmont Park race. Gerard bet heavily on him to win and to show, and when Cinzano finished first, the vet collected $77,920 in winnings. The scam was uncovered when a Uruguayan racing writer saw a photo of the winning horse and recognized him as Cinzano – who had been named Uruguay’s Horse of the Year in 1976. Gerard, who was also implicated in another horse-swap, was convicted of fraud, fined $1,000, and given a one-year prison sentence, reduced on appeal to eight months.

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Faking disabilities

At the 2000 Sydney Paralympics, the Spanish team playing in the Basketball ID (Intellectually Disabled) competition was embroiled in a major scandal when it was revealed that they had fielded non-disabled athletes to win the gold medal. In 2013, the former head of the Spanish Federation for Mentally Handicapped Sports, Fernando Martin Vicente, was convicted for fraud over the scheme. The deceit began unraveling when team member Carlos Ribagorda claimed that he and others had never been tested for their mental conditions. Out of 12 players, only two actually had qualifying disabilities. After the duplicity was exposed, Spain was stripped of its Paralympics medals and all intellectually disabled sports events were removed from future games because of the difficulty of verifying the eligibility of participants.

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The White Sox World Series fix

The infamous “Black Sox” scandal of 1919 involved Chicago White Sox players conspiring to throw the World Series for money. The plot likely originated when first baseman Chick Gandil and bookie Joseph “Sport” Sullivan first discussed rigging the championship games. Gandil recruited pitchers Eddie Cicotte and Lefty Williams, shortstop Swede Risberg, outfielder Happy Felsch, legendary outfielder “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, and others. When the Sox played poorly in the series against the Cincinnati Reds, raising suspicions, the players tried calling off the fix since they hadn’t gotten paid, but it was too late. The Reds won the tainted series. A year later, evidence surfaced that gamblers had fixed a regular season game, which in turn exposed the World Series scandal. Though acquitted in court, eight “Black Sox” were banned from baseball for life.

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Cricket activities that were not cricket

In 2013, three players for the Rajasthan Royals, a professional cricket team in the Indian Premier League (IPL), were accused of spot-fixing – the illegal manipulation of certain aspects of the game (for instance the nature of a pitch) that may not influence its ultimate outcome but that gamblers bet on. In an unrelated but simultaneous case, a top official with another team, the Chennai Super Kings, was arrested along with a well-known Indian actor and a diamond merchant, for alleged illegal betting on matches. The scandals resulted in the suspension and subsequent bans of several players and officials from cricket.

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Salt Lake City bribes its way to the Winter Olympics

The scandal surrounding Salt Lake City’s selection as the host for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games erupted due to allegations of bribery and corruption within the International Olympic Committee (IOC). It was revealed that Salt Lake City organizers had offered lavish gifts, scholarships, and financial incentives to IOC members and their families to secure their votes. This unethical behavior led to the expulsion of several IOC members and tarnished the reputation of the Olympic bidding process. Ultimately, Salt Lake City retained its hosting rights, but the scandal prompted significant reforms within the IOC to prevent such misconduct in future Olympic host city selections.

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World Cup venues for sale

The Federation internationale de football association, or FIFA, the governing body of international soccer, faced accusations of bribery and unethical conduct during the bidding process in two consecutive World Cup championships. The decision to award Russia the 2018 World Cup was marred by allegations of vote-buying and collusion among FIFA officials. Qatar’s successful bid for the 2022 World Cup sparked even greater controversy due to concerns over extreme heat (even though the event was held in late November and early December), labor rights violations, and the country’s human rights record. The scandals prompted investigations and led to changes in FIFA’s leadership and bidding processes. The FBI initiated a probe that led to the indictment and conviction of several high-ranking FIFA officials and executives on charges of corruption, bribery, and other offenses.

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Sins of the New Orleans Saints

In 2010, an anonymous tip sparked an NFL investigation into what became known as “Bountygate” – a “bounty” system run by the New Orleans Saints coaching staff that paid players for injuring opponents. The whistleblower was revealed as fired defensive assistant Mike Cerullo. In 2012, evidence showed defensive coordinator Gregg Williams masterminded the plot, and head coach Sean Payton knew of it and tried covering it up. The NFL handed down harsh penalties: Williams was suspended indefinitely (though he was allowed to return in 2013), Payton was suspended for all of 2012, the Saints were fined $500,000 and forfeited 2012-2013 draft picks. Several players also received suspensions, including linebacker Jonathan Vilma for the entire 2012 season.

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Influencing players for money

Seven years after the University of Southern California was sanctioned by the NCAA for rules violations in its football, men’s basketball, and women’s tennis programs, USC’s basketball program came under legal scrutiny again. In 2017, the FBI unveiled a widespread college basketball bribery scheme, revealing that USC assistant coach Tony Bland and several co-conspirators had accepted bribes to influence players to sign with certain financial advisors and sports management companies when they turned pro. Bland was subsequently arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit bribery. He pleaded guilty to one count and received a sentence of two years probation. He was subsequently fired by the university, and the school’s basketball program was itself given two years of probation and fined $5,000 in addition to 1% of its budget. The investigation into Bland was part of a much larger FBI probe into bribery and other irregularities in the NCAA Division I basketball world that targeted more than 20 teams across the nation.

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Boston College shaves points

In 1978 and ’79, the Boston College Eagles basketball team became enmeshed in a point-shaving scandal. Key players were found to have intentionally manipulated game scores to ensure that, even if they won, it wasn’t by the point spread gamblers had bet on. Mobster brothers from Pittsburgh conceived of the scheme, which later involved members of a Mafia crime family from New York (including Henry Hill, who was played by Ray Liotta in the 1990 Martin Scorsese classic “Goodfellas”). Over 50 athletes and gangsters were eventually arrested. BC senior forward Rick Kuhn received a 10-year prison sentence, later reduced to 28 months, while three of the criminal perpetrators received jail sentences of varying lengths.

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Michigan players get paid off

The University of Michigan men’s basketball team were NCAA tournament champions in 1989 and runners-up in 1992 and ’93. However, their reputation was tarnished after investigators uncovered an unusual relationship dating back to the ’80s between several of the players and a booster named Ed Martin. It was learned that Martin had loaned a total of $616,000 to four team members, including Chris Webber – who, as a freshman in 1991, had been one of the so-called “Fab Five,” considered one of college basketball’s greatest recruiting classes ever. Martin pleaded guilty to money laundering charges but died before imprisonment. Michigan coach Steve Fisher was fired, and the university vacated the team’s 1992-1993 season as well as the entire period from the 1995-1996 through the 1998-1999 season. The sum of $450,000, received for postseason play, was returned to the NCAA. Webber was indicted for perjury but avoided prison through a plea deal. He paid fines and did community service.

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Stephen Lee fixes snooker matches

The English snooker star Stephen Lee, a former top five player, had his first run-in with the law when he was arrested in 2010 on suspicion of influencing betting patterns in the 2009 UK Championship. No charges were pressed but he was subsequently accused of fixing several matches, and eventually found guilty of seven charges of match-fixing. As a result, Lee was banned from participating in snooker for 12 years, beginning from Oct. 12, 2012. After he stopped playing snooker professionally, he had further problems, including a conviction for fraud over the sale of a snooker cue and a charge of teaching snooker in Hong Kong without a license.

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