The Dumbest Conspiracy Theories in Sports
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There are only a few segments of life and society more ripe for conspiracy theories than sports. All of the critical elements needed to fuel skepticism and suspicion of the official narrative are present—secretive institutions and power-brokers, vast amounts of money changing hands, heated rivalries and seemingly improbable events.
What makes the sports universe unique is that its history is peppered with conspiracies that turned out to be all too real.
The 'Black Sox Scandal', MLB steroids era and former NBA referee Tim Donaghy's point shaving scheme are just a few examples of sports conspiracies that give fans and reporters a good reason to question the status quo. Unfortunately, this environment—with an assist from the rise the Internet and social media—tends to cloud the mind rather than offer any real clarity.
Despite some of the more extraordinary scandals and schemes that have been rumored, if not proven, the simplest explanation is almost always the closest to the truth; even if it's the unsatisfying answer. And, for every conspiracy that's been proven, there are dozens which are nothing but intriguing or silly legends.
Some of the more infamous conspiracies have stubbornly persisted over the years, even if no evidence has ever surfaced to support them—they live on in the face of reason.
These are the dumbest conspiracy theories in sports.
David Stern Rigged the 1985 NBA Draft Lottery for the Knicks
Let's get this out on the table—if any league is guilty of engaging in the kind of shenanigans that spark nefarious rumors and stoke paranoia amongst its jaded fans...it's the NBA.
However, one of the most infamous NBA conspiracy theories—that commissioner David Stern rigged the 1985 NBA Draft Lottery to ensure the New York Knicks could draft Patrick Ewing—just doesn't stand up in the face of history and what actually transpired.
Don't get me wrong, Stern's reign doesn't give him much benefit of the doubt, but the theory seems to conform to fit reality rather than vice versa.
One version says that Stern had the Knicks' envelope frozen so he could feel it in the tumbler. Another says the corner was bent. The problem is that the "evidence"—the envelope slammed against the side of the tumbler, Stern "dropping" the first two he picks up—doesn't transpire in the way the true believers describe it. Watch the video yourself.
Beyond the lottery itself, the course of the Knicks franchise since that moment seems designed to torture their fans and drive the team into oblivion.
The NHL Orchestrated Gretzky's Trade to the Los Angeles Kings
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The idea that the NHL, desperate to gain a foothold in the US, would compel one of its most storied franchises to trade the biggest star in the sport to the Los Angeles Kings was absurd in 1988...and much more so today.
As an institution, the NHL is a powerful force in hockey, but like the NFL, MLB and NBA, it's beholden to the owners rather than the other way around. If then-commissioner John Zeigler had somehow strong-armed Wayne Gretzky and former Oilers owner Peter Pocklington into shipping the future Hall of Famer to a conference foe (as an NHL marketing strategy), Zeigler certainly would've had the pull to keep his job after the 1992 labor strike.
Look at current NHL commissioner Gary Bettman—work stoppages seem to only make him stronger.
The reality was the Oilers were broke and Pocklington decided he'd rather have cold hard Canadian dollars than the guy who would be known as "The Great One." In fact, Gretzky was the prize of a fire-sale that included Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski.
Michael Phelps Didn't Beat Milorad Cavic in Beijing
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At the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, U.S. mens swimmer Michael Phelps cemented his legacy as one of the greatest Olympians ever when he won eight gold medals, breaking the previous record of seven held by former American swimmer Mark Spitz.
However, Phelps' record-breaking performance was nearly derailed by 100-meter butterfly—a race that came down to a photo-finish with Serbian swimmer Milorad Cavic. Phelps won by just one 10-thousandth of a second; a result so close that Cavic's coach initially filed an appeal before seeing the official photos of the finish.
Thus, Phelps' quest to surpass Spitz was preserved and a conspiracy theory was born.
Omega—the famous high-end watchmaker—provided official timing for the race, which included touch pads on the pool wall which record the swimmer's time. Omega also happens to be one of Phelps' sponsors, giving those who questioned the result all the more reason to be suspicious.
When Omega explained that the touch pads require a minimum amount of force to be triggered and that Cavic may have won if he had pressed it more forcefully, doubters accused race officials of outright treachery—a charge that persists among some fans and a few corners of the media.
Here's the problem: Cavic and his coach accept the result and nothing Omega has said contradicts the outcome. The swimmers understood that the importance of applying enough force to the touchpad.
And, regardless of the fairness of the touchpad, the official photos show Phelps' fingertips touching first...even if it's by the slimmest of margins.
The NFL Has a Vendetta Against the Pittsburgh Steelers
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Since the AFL/NFL merger in 1970, the Pittsburgh Steelers have won six championships, finished over .500 in all but eight seasons and won 33 playoff games. The only conclusion the Steelers Nation can draw from this: the NFL is out to get us.
This is painful for me, because I was born in Pittsburgh and love the Black 'n Gold. However, as much as my heart wants me to embrace this kind of thinking, my brain pulls me out of the fog.
Once Chuck Noll transformed the Steelers into the most dominant franchise of the '70's, Steelers fans have developed a hypersensitivity to the ups and downs of the game that make more reasonable devotees eternally grateful that the Rooney's don't share the same emotional volatility. We love or hate our players and coaches on a day-to-day basis, but reserve a dark, freaky cynicism for the NFL and it's referees.
This syndrome was born from the Los Angeles Raiders' protest of the "Immaculate Reception," inflamed by accusations of steroid use directed at the Steel Curtain defense and transmitted into the blood-stream of the players after the New England Patriots 'Spygate' scandal.
Throw in various questionable calls by officials, including the overturn-by-challenge of Troy Polamalu's interception in the 2006 AFC divisional catchup against the Indianapolis Colts, and a tapestry of paranoia is woven.
The idea is that the NFL has a vendetta against the Steelers based on some nefarious motive to keep the franchise down.
Former Steelers linebacker Joey Porter got the party started when he declared that the Patriots cheated their way to victory in the 2005 AFC Championship, but the current crop—specifically Ryan Clark and James Harrison—have gotten into specifics.
Harrison has on several occasions accused commissioner Rodger Goodell of targeting the Steelers with both the new rules regarding illegal hits as well as punishments meted out to offenders...like Harrison.
Clark has echoed the same sentiment and also claimed that the power problems that disrupted the 2011 game against the San Francisco 49ers—which the Steelers lost—were an act of sabotage designed at putting Pittsburgh at a disadvantage.
As much as I want to gravitate to this perspective, I can't get past the disconnect with reality. Teams get screwed all the time; by the officials, scheduling, mother nature and the players themselves.
Based on this vendetta concept, if any franchise should feel targeted, it should be the New Orleans Saints. Bountygate arguably turned a contender impotent almost purely at the will of Goodell.
How about the Green Bay Packers and any other team that was undermined by the replacement referees at the start of the '12 season?
The Pittsburgh Steelers are one of the most successful franchises in NFL history and if the league is trying to knock them down a peg, the strategy hasn't worked very well.
Muhammad Ali, Sonny Liston and the 'Phantom Punch'
Muhammad Ali's rematch with Sonny Liston in 1965 remains one of the most controversial events in boxing history if not sports history.
In their first title bout, the fight ended when Liston refused to come out of his corner at the start of the 7th round, claiming that he had a shoulder injury. The younger, better conditioned Ali had handled Liston's punches and physically pummeled the champion.
The second fight ended in the first round by KO, after a "Phantom Punch" from Ali sent Liston to the mat. The resulting chaos was spurred on by the shocking and sudden turn of events and miscount by the referee.
In the fight's aftermath, many suspected that Liston had thrown the fight because of how easily he went down. Liston's troubled life away from the ring and connections to nefarious elements, including the mob, fueled speculation that he was forced to take a dive.
However, now we know Ali connected on the punch. Was it devastating? No, but Ali went on to establish himself as the greatest boxer in history, while Liston's reputation was doing more work than the man himself. At the time, people didn't understand how good Ali was.
There is no evidence that Liston benefited at all by the outcome—financially or otherwise. He didn't dive, he gave up.
Cal Ripken, Jr.-Kevin Costner Love Triangle Almost Derails "The Streak"
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Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr. owns one of those records that is often cited as "unbreakable." His streak of 2,632 consecutive games played earned him the nickname "The Iron Man," underscoring his almost superhuman ability to stay healthy season after season.
To get there, Ripken also needed a measure of good fortune—and when a feat seems only possible because of the stars perfectly aligning in someone's favor, it's easy to question whether something other than fate intervened. Such was the case in August 1997, when a power outage canceled a home game between the Baltimore Orioles and Seattle Mariners.
Mankind is awesome at taking a completely innocuous event and tying it to a larger, crazier scenario that reveals malfeasance at work. So, the power-outage transformed into a rumor that the Orioles had purposefully knocked out the power to keep Ripken's streak going.
And, the alternative explanation makes perfect sense: Ripken caught his close friend, actor Kevin Costner in bed with his wife, leaving him distraught and unable to play the game that evening. So, the Orioles did Ripken a solid and engineered a streak preservation plan.
By all accounts, Ripken was at the stadium when the power went out, among other holes in this theory.
Defending Champion UNLV Tanked Against Duke in the 1991 Final Four
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When the UNLV Runnin' Rebels met the Duke Blue Devils in the 1991 NCAA Final Four, the team was a college basketball juggernaut on a 45-game winning streak.
UNLV had crushed the Blue Devils the year before, 103-72, in the NCAA Championship and was looking to become the first team to do it back-to-back since UCLA in '72-73. It didn't happen, as Duke pulled off a thrilling upset, beating UNLV 79-77.
A program already facing allegations of misconduct by the NCAA, UNLV's failure after such extended dominance led to whispers about potential point-shaving in an effort to throw the game.
UNLV was widely perceived by the media and public as a maverick program running afoul of the rules in order to recruit elite talent and win games. The NCAA hounded head coach Jerry Tarkanian—who was found to have committed NCAA violations with his prior team—and visited the program continually as part of an ongoing investigation.
Then, there were the photos of three Runnin' Rebels' players from the 1990 team lounging in a hot tub with convicted game-fixer Richie Perry—none of this looks good for UNLV.
But, as bad as circumstantial evidence looks, the point-shaving allegation is preposterous in terms of the timing, the impact, and the talent disparity which was obscured by UNLV's impressive run:
- No one from that UNLV team has ever admitted to fixing the game and remain incredulous about the accusations.
- The NCAA investigation found 28 violations in the recruitment of a single player, none major, and nothing that can be linked to gambling or point-shaving.
- Most importantly compare the top three players from both teams:
Larry Johnson Grant Hill
Stacey Augmon Christian Laettner
Greg Anthony Bobby Hurley
Duke was a team on the ascent and looking back it shouldn't be so unfathomable that they beat a UNLV team, in a close game, that killed them a year before. It's why they play the games.
'K-Ball' Switch Ends Dallas Cowboys Playoff Hopes in '07
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Anyone who knows anything about football knows that Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo's career (so far) has been defined by a botched play that happened more than six years ago. In a game against the Seahawks in the 2006 playoffs, a 19 yard kick was the only thing standing between the Cowboys and victory.
It was a chip shot field goal that veteran kicker Martin Gramatica would make 100 times out of 100, assuming the snap was't bobbled. But we all know that the snap was bobbled and it was Tony Romo who bobbled it. Despite the rain, Cowboys long snapper L.P. Ladouceur has said that everything on the play went right, but has repeatedly insisted the ball had been switched out prior to the play.
Ladouceur said the shiny new ball was made even slicker by the weather conditions, which would give the home team Seahawks a decided advantage. At the time the crushing loss was just that—a crushing loss. But every year the Romo-led Cowboys come up short in the playoffs, or fail to make them at all, the botched hold seems to grow in significance.
And the conspiracy theory about the ball switcheroo have not helped change that at all. They go through dozens of balls in every NFL game, so the appearance of a shiny new ball, at any point in the game, fails to meet the burden of proof for a conspiracy.
Maybe they'd have a leg to stand on here if the ball was switched out with a corncob. But…probably not even then.
Lebron James Left Cleveland Because Delonte West Hooked Up with His Mother
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One month before superstar LeBron James announced he would be taking his talents to South Beach, a rumor explaining his decision, and the Cavaliers collapse in the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals, began to circulate. The rumor was that LeBron's teammate, Delonte West, and his mom, Gloria James, were engaging in an icky sexual affair.
The story was vehemently denied by all parties supposedly involved, but Hall of Fame player Calvin Murphy wasn't convinced. During an interview with a Houston radio station, Murphy insisted that his "sources" knew the allegations to be "absolutely true." Aside from the fact that no actual proof has ever surfaced to give credence to the rumor, there are a number of problems with this "theory."
First of all, LeBron was a one man band during his seven seasons in Cleveland and never won a championship. So why does the Cavaliers choking in the playoffs require any explanation at all?
Then there was his decision to sign with the Heat as a free agent. Since when does someone need any explanation at all for leaving Cleveland for Miami? After all, It is Cleveland—and it's not even his hometown. LeBron is from Akron, Ohio. That's a different city.
Then we have Calvin Murphy, the only one to "confirm" the story as truth. He fathered 14 children with nine different women. And in 2004 Murphy was accused of sexually molesting five of his daughters. Now does that sound like a reliable source?
Jimmy Hoffa Was Buried Under New York Giants Stadium
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There was so much mystery surrounding the 1975 disappearance of Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa that almost nothing seemed out of the question.
So when Donald Frankos, also known as "Tony the Greek," recounted a sordid tale that began with Hoffa being abducted and cut to pieces by the mafia and ended with him being buried in the end zone of Giants Stadium, people were quick to believe.
Frankos told his story in an interview with Playboy magazine, which was published in late 1989. At the time Hoffa had been missing almost 15 years—but, according to Frankos, he was hiding in plain sight all these years!
Honestly, could Martin Scorcese himself have scripted a better Hollywood ending? Well, perhaps he could have, considering the story itself was pure fiction.
The FBI had thoroughly investigated the possibility some years earlier and had long considered it a "dead issue" by the time Playboy published the interview. But despite being debunked, the rumor lived on for decades.
It wasn't until Giants Stadium was torn down in 2010, and a thorough search for Hoffa's remains turned up nothing, that most people finally let it die. Although, surely there's a small percentage of reality impaired people who will never be convinced.
Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction…but usually it's not.
Curt Schilling's "Bloody Sock" Was Faked
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Former Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling's legendary performance in the 2004 ALCS and World Series is considered one of the most gusty individual efforts in MLB history.
Despite a damaged tendon in his ankle, Schilling continued to pitch and help the Red Sox win their first World Series Championship since 1918. In order for him to play, the team doctor had to use sutures to hold the tendon together.
As he pitched, blood began to soak through the sock, creating one of the most iconic images in the baseball canon: Schilling's bloody sock. In fact, the sock is on display in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Not long after the champagne was corked, some people began to wonder if Schilling had faked the blood stain to further aggrandize his role in the World Series. He didn't fake his injury, but would you really put it past someone who's known as a blowhard and diva?
The idea got legs in 2007 when Orioles play-by-play announcer Gary Thorne said, on air, that he was told by Red Sox catcher Doug Mirabelli that Schilling had indeed used paint. Schilling vigorously denied the accusation—betting $1 million for someone to prove it—Mirabelli denied ever saying it and Thorne walked his statement back.
It's blood. It's time to move on and focus on all the other (well established) awful/hypocritical stuff Schilling says and does.
World Conspires Against China at the 2012 Olympics in London
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China may have finished second in total medals at the 2012 Olympics in London, more than 20 ahead of third place finisher Great Britain, but much like McKayla Maroney, they were not impressed. At home, their state-run media stoked fires of conspiracy by running front page stories about the alleged bias.
Because after a few Chinese athletes came up just short in their events, the only logical explanation is that a global conspiracy, stemming from hysterical paranoia about China's emerging power in the world, had been hatched in an effort to keep them down.
Chinese media outlets cited a number of their own failures in London to bolster their claims at home, insisting they had been "robbed" on a number of occasions.
What's funny about these laughable allegations is that China finished second in total medals at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing too. Sure they had more gold medals, and more medals overall in 2008, but they hadn't hadn't exactly fallen behind in 2012.
Even funnier is the fact that China is the only country with a recent history of conspiring in the Olympics. After their impressive showing in women's gymnastics at the Beijing games, reports began to surface that at least one of their star athletes was much younger than her listed age.
The Chinese denied the findings, but perhaps their denials would hold more weight if they hadn't been stripped of medals for doing the same thing at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. In 2010 Dong Fangxiao was found to have been too young to compete in Sydney and was stripped of her bronze medal a full decade after winning it.
So maybe there's a global conspiracy aimed at keeping China from winning bicycle races and badminton tournaments. Or maybe they're just not as good at cheating as they used to be. Sorry, China. It's not us…it's you.
Michael Jordan's '93 Retirement Was Really a Secret NBA Suspension
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As absolutely absurd as it is, the conspiracy theory that NBA commissioner David Stern was the driving force behind Michael Jordan's mysterious first retirement still lives on today.
Legend has it that Stern launched an investigation into M.J.'s (now) well-known gambling habits and turned up something unseemly enough to force Jordan, coming off of his first three-peat with the Bulls, out of the league. At least for awhile, which would explain his ill-advised venture into baseball.
The supposed logic was that Jordan's so-called retirement, however long it lasted, would be enough to let Stern's public inquiry into his shenanigans die, without ever having to reveal the findings. But could anything M.J. did have been enough to negate the billions in revenue he generated for the league?
The answer you're looking for is no. There is no level of involvement in gambling, or even drugs, that would negate the ridiculous amount of money his existence in the NBA created.
The only reason this conspiracy theory ever had legs is because there was a time when the public had had absolutely no idea who Michael Jordan really was. Yes, to date he is the greatest player to ever play the game. But, we now know that he's got poor judgement, an inflated sense of self, and nobody in his life to tell him no.
The gambling. The drinking. The baseball. The Wizards. The Bobcats. Kwame Brown. Adam Morrison. And how about his divorce from wife Juanita, the single most expensive divorce in sports history. Are any of those things David Stern's fault?
Again, the answer you're looking for is no.
The FIFA World Cup Is a Twisted Web of Lies and Malfeasance
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Sometimes it's difficult for those of us in the United States to fully grasp what a big deal soccer is outside our borders. Even calling it a "big deal" understates the passion for the game. Getting married is a big deal. Buying a car is a big deal. Getting locked out of your house is a big deal. But can any of those events be the catalyst that creates countless international conspiracy theories?
More often than not these days, it seems that every single soccer match of consequence is determined, at least in part, by sinister outside forces. Brazilian referee Carlos Eugenio Simon was branded a "crook, a scoundrel and a shameless bastard" after a string of perceived errors led many to the conclusion that he "must be in someone's pocket."
Aside from the angry claims of losers, there was never any evidence to suggest the allegations were true, but that didn't stop English tabloids from reprinting the claims after he was named the referee for England's opening game against the U.S. in the 2010 World Cup. Obviously he was the reason the heavily favored English tied with the lowly Americans.
So what about when your country draws an unfortunately difficult group to kick off the World Cup? Obviously, the completely random, strictly supervised lottery is fixed.
You lost to a team sponsored by Nike? Obviously Nike must have orchestrated an elaborate plot to F you over. It's not like a team wearing Nike uniforms has ever won a championship before.
Your star player suffered a seizure which should have prevented him from playing, but he played anyway, and didn't live up to your expectations? Obviously he and the team accepted lucrative bribes and threw the game. That makes so much more sense that he played out a sense of national obligation, despite being in no shape to do so.
The laundry list of stories concocted to explain away soccer losses is an ever-growing exercise is crazy. The truth is simple: At the end of the day, only one team ever wins the whole thing. That leaves an awful lot of angry losers along the way. And apparently, fabricating nonsensical stories is much easier than admitting the truth: You lost.
Super Bowl III Was Fixed by the NFL
Image via Walter Iooss Jr./SI
Super Bowl III was not just great theater—Joe Namath guaranteeing victory, the veteran gunslinger Johnny Unitas coming off the bench—it was a great game. The 18-point underdog New York Jets fought their way to a 16-7 victory over the vaunted Baltimore Colts in the first official "Super Bowl."
The next year in 1970, the AFL and NFL officially merged and laid the groundwork for the all-encompassing sports juggernaut we know today.
As ridiculous as it sounds, a contingent of true believers think the game was fixed by the NFL to justify the merger and generate renewed interest in pro football. Their reasoning? The Jets were an 18-point underdog, yet managed to win anyway. The proof? Questionable decision-making by Colts head coach Don Shula and poor quarterback play.
Huh? When has that ever happened in football?
The late Bubba Smith, a star Colts defensive lineman who played in the game, passed away in 2011 convinced the game was fixed. That in itself shows how improbable this theory is—there would be no way to get men who live and die what happens on the field to collude in a manufactured loss, just to improve the NFL's image.
Plus, can you really see a guy with a crew cut (Unitas, with a haircut you could set your watch to) not giving 100 percent at anything? Let alone a championship game. No. No you cannot.