The 25 Most Controversial Moments in Sports
It is inevitable in sports that human error will become a factor. Passes will be dropped, errors will be made, and open shots will be missed.
But perhaps nothing is quite as infuriating for fans as when calls are blown, or circumstances occur that are so unusual nobody is quite sure how the moment will be resolved.
And thus, controversy ensues, aided by the fact that players, coaches and fans of the team think every call should go their way. Any given game could be littered with controversial moments, one side or the other feeling cheated.
But no nothing evokes as much criticism or passion as the following 25 moments on this slideshow. These games or plays continue to be debated and talked about to this day, the memories still fresh for those who found themselves on the losing end of the controversy.
These are the 25 Most Controversial Moments in Sports.
(Note: I stayed away from moments that were later discovered to be influenced by off-the-field shenanigans. So you won't find anything related to judges being payed off or anything of that nature on this list, such as Roy Jones, Jr. being robbed of gold, or the 2002 Winter Games figure skating scandal.)
25. Two Disallowed Goals for the US Team in the 2010 World Cup
Trailing Slovenia 2-0, the US began a furious rally in the second half, eventually tying the game. In fact, they would have won the game were it not for the phantom call seen here.
Then, needing a victory over Algeria to advance, the US had another goal disallowed on a phantom offside call.
But then, still tied 0-0 into stoppage time, Landon Donovan delivered perhaps the greatest moment in US soccer history.
24. The Bush Push
This 2005 matchup between USC (ranked No. 1 at the time) and Notre Dame (No. 9) was one of the best college football games of the decade.
Trailing three with only seven seconds remaining, the ball on the one-yard-line, USC feigned that they would spike the ball, and Leinart attempted the sneak.
Though initially stuffed, a late burst aided by a Reggie Bush shove got Matt Leinart into the endzone.
That push was technically illegal, though a rarely called infraction. Nonetheless, Notre Dame fans had reason to lament.
23. A Legendary Comeback Tainted by a Blown Call
Trailing 38-14 in a 2002 Wild Card game against the Giants, the 49ers staged a legendary comeback, scoring 25 straight points to take a 39-38 lead late in the game.
But the Giants got themselves in field goal range when controversy ensued.
To the NFL's credit, they immediately said that the call was blown.
But I'd guess that was little consolation for the Giants.
22. Coin Toss Turmoil
(Video of the moment can be found here)
There is nothing as basic as a coin flip.
Just don't tell referee Phill Luckett that.
During a 1998 Thanksgiving day game between the Steelers and Lions, Jerome Bettis was heard on the broadcast to call "tails" during the coin flip before overtime.
Luckett said he had called "heads," however, and the Lions not only won the toss, but kicked the game-winning field goal on the next drive.
Luckett would later say that Bettis had in fact called "heads-tails," and he went with the first thing he heard.
21. Mike Renfro Catch
Thank goodness we have instant replay today.
20. Lakers vs. Kings, Game 6
(If you like dramatic, one-sided videos, this is a good one. That said—the Lakers got away with murder in Game 6.)
Was the Tim Donaghy scandal at the heart of the poor officiating in Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals between the Lakers and Kings?
A federal prosecutor said no, so we include this game on the list, but there was no question that the officiating in this game severely favored the Lakers.
19. The Music City Miracle
Trailing 16-15 to the Buffalo Bills with only 16 seconds remaining in a 2000 AFC Wild Card game, the Titans needed a miracle.
Boy, did they get one, in the form of one of the most famous plays in NFL history.
I firmly believe Phil Luckett made the right call when the play was reviewed, finding the evidence inconclusive to reverse the call.
But what if it had been called a lateral on the field? Would the evidence have been inconclusive as well?
I think the call was correct across the board. That said, it is so close one way or the other, it is undoubtedly controversial and worthy of debate.
18. “Pass Interference” Does in the Hurricanes
(I’d suggest ignoring the commentary on this video, I only chose it because the video quality was the highest I could find)
With Ohio State trailing Miami 24-17 in the first overtime of the 2003 BCS National Championship Game, the Buckeyes found themselves facing a fourth-and-three.
Quarterback Craig Krenzel threw a fade to wide receiver Chris Gamble, but the ball fell incomplete and Miami thought they had won the championship.
Referee Terry Porter didn’t agree, calling a controversial pass interference call against Glen Sharpe.
I’ve heard arguments both ways, none I am satisfied by. No matter when the "pass interference" occurred, the call was at best nitpicking, and at worst a horrible call.
17. Davey Lopes and the 1977 NLCS
(The moment itself can be found at the 5:24 mark)
In Philadelphia, it is remembered as Black Friday.
In Game 3 of the 1977 NLCS between the Phillies and the Dodgers, Davey Lopes stepped up to the plate with two outs in the ninth, trailing 5-4 with the tying run on third.
Lopes grounded toward third, the ball hopped off of Mike Schmidt, and shortstop Larry Bowa fielded the ball and threw to first. Umpire Bruce Froemming called Lopes safe at the bag.
The game now tied, Lopes would eventually score the winning run. The Dodgers took a 2-1 lead in the series, and would win the series the next day.
16. Jorge Orta Is Called Safe
(Video of the moment can be found here)
In Game 6 of the 1985 World Series, the Royals came up to bat in the bottom of the ninth trailing the Cardinals 1-0 in the game, and 3-2 in the series.
And then controversy hit. Jorge Orta sent a bouncer to first baseman Jack Clark, who tossed to pitcher Worrell. Replay would show that Orta was in fact out, but umpire Don Denkinger called him safe despite protests from the Cardinals.
The Royals would score two runs in the inning, winning the game, and they would destroy the Carindals in Game 7, 11-0.
15. Brett Hull in the Crease
Brett Hull’s series-clinching goal in triple overtime of Game 6 during the 1999 Stanley Cup Finals was in fact the correct call, as the video explains.
But you can’t blame Buffalo and their fans for complaining. It was the type of call that had been contentious during the time period; it was often called incorrectly, and the NHL would go on to change it the following year.
14. Steve Bartman
Frankly, Steve Bartman gets a bad rap for his “interference” in Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS.
Was it dumb to reach for this ball?
Yeah, kind of.
Is it human nature to reach for a fly ball that comes your way?
Was this fan interference?
By the rules, probably not, seeing as balls in foul territory are fair game for fans, and this appeared to be in foul territory.
Was Bartman unfairly made the goat?
Absolutely. In my opinion, Cubs fans took their angst out on Bartman so they didn’t have to acknowledge the fact that the Cubs choked this game away, along with Game 7. This wasn’t a play that would have ended either the game or even the inning, after all.
Nonetheless, the moment lives on in infamy, and is perhaps one of the most controversial moments in fandom history.
13. The Tuck Rule
(Footage of the moment itself begins at the 3:30 mark)
I literally turned off my television after what I thought was a fumble that ended this 2001 AFC Divisional game.
How wrong I was.
To me, it remains controversial because while the rule is interpreted correctly, the intent of Tom Brady to tuck the ball was so obvious here. Simply put, it’s not a very good rule. It is stated as follows:
NFL Rule 3, Section 22, Article 2, Note 2: "When a Team A player is holding the ball to pass it forward, any intentional forward movement of his hand starts a forward pass, even if the player loses possession of the ball as he is attempting to tuck it back toward his body. Also, if the player has tucked the ball into his body and then loses possession, it is a fumble."
Oakland went from a sure victory to a 16-13 loss due to the clutch kicking of Adam Vinatieri.
12. Hand of God
Six minutes into the second half of the quarterfinal match between Argentina and England during the 1986 World Cup, Argentina’s Maradona scored one of the sport’s most notorious goals.
Both Maradona and the English goalkeeper, Peter Shilton, attempted to play a lifted ball near the goal. Maradona got there first—well, his fist did at least—and the ball went into the goal. Referee Ali Bin Nasser did not see the handball, and allowed the goal.
Four minutes later, of course, Maradona would goal simply referred to as "The Goal of the Century."
11. Hand of Frog
Disaster in the form of a handball struck Ireland in their 2010 FIFA World Cup Play-Off against France.
Thierry Henry’s handball and subsequent pass to William Gallas resulted in France taking the lead in aggregate goals, eventually earning a bid to the World Cup.
Despite protestations and requests to FIFA that the game be replayed, the result stuck and Ireland was kept out of the World Cup.
10. Jeffrey Maier
(Video from the moment can be found here)
One more reason I hate the Yankees.
Trailing the Orioles 4-3 in the bottom of the eighth inning during game one of the 1996 ALCS, Derek Jeter lifted a deep fly ball to right. Tony Tarasco appeared to be under the ball, pressed against the fence and prepared to make the catch, when the glove of 12-year-old Maier reached into the field of play and caught the ball.
Though it should have been called fan interference and ruled an out, right field umpire Rich Garcia instead called it a home run, tying the game. The Yankees would eventually win both the game—in an 11th inning walk-off home run by Bernie Williams—and eventually the series, four games to one.
9. The Underarm Incident
Truthfully, I don’t know much about cricket, but the background is this:
In a 1981 World Series Cup match, New Zealand needed to score six to tie the match with Australia. To prevent this, Australia’s Trevor Chappell was instructed by his brother and team captain Greg Chappell to deliver the ball underarm, rolling it on the ground and thus making it impossible for New Zealand’s Brian McKechnie to hit a six.
Though technically legal in Australian rules at the time, it was considered incredibly unsportsmanlike, and public outcry over the incident was great.
After the incident, the International Cricket Council outlawed underarm bowling in limited overs cricket.
8. The Immaculate Reception
The best part of this video, which quite nicely sums up the moment, has got to be this quote from George Atkinson:
"Can you imagine? The 'Immaculate Reception.' Who gave it that name? The 'Immaculate Deception' is what it is."
7. Poor Armando Galarraga
In a June 2, 2010 game between the Tigers and Indians, Galarraga was one out away from throwing a perfect game. Jason Donald, the last hope for the Indians, hit a ground ball to Miguel Cabrera, who threw over to Galarraga covering first.
But first base umpire Jim Joyce called Donald safe.
Though it was a close call, it was clearly the wrong call, and Galarraga lost his bid for a perfect game.
To his credit, Joyce would later tearfully apologize to the gracious Galarraga, who had handled the situation with nothing but class.
Oh, and this video of the event is quite clever and funny, enjoy.
6. The Fifth Down
This brief report from CNN nicely sums up the events from the finish of the 1990 college football game between Colorado and Missouri.
Quite possibly the least excusable officiating mistake I’ve ever seen.
5. Lance Larson Is Robbed of the Gold
In the 1960 Rome Olympics, Lance Larson of the US and John Devitt touched the wall almost simultaneously in the 100 meter freestyle event. Though the six judges were split on the finish, all three watches had Larson finishing with a faster time (55.1, 55.1, 55.0 vs. 55.2 for Devitt on all three), as did the back-up electric timer.
The decision was made to give the race to Devitt, however, by the president of the International Swimming Federation, Hans Runstrümer.
Despite an appeal by the United States team, Devitt remained the winner.
4. The 1966 World Cup Final Between England and West Germany
Perhaps the most controversial goal in World Cup Final history, Geoff Hurst’s shot on the West German goal 11 minutes into the first extra session—seen at the 5:50 mark in the video—hit the top cross bar, bounced down (arguably) inside of the goal, and bounced back out of the goal again.
Referee Gottfried Dienst did not have a clear view and asked his linesman, Tofik Bakhramov, who verified it was a goal.
To be clear, the entire ball would have had to clear the goal line for it to have been a goal.
To this day, it is controversial whether the goal should have counted.
England won the game, 4-2.
3. Ali vs. Liston, the Rematch
After stunning Sonny Liston as a brash 22-year-old, Muhammad Ali and Liston schedule a rematch, the ending of which is one of the most controversial moments in the history of boxing.
In what many have dubbed a “phantom punch,” as many in the crowd never saw it, Liston fell to the canvas in the first round, and Ali stood over him in the iconic photograph pictured here. Though Liston would remain down for nearly 20 seconds, Ali had refused to go to his corner, and thus, the fight should not have ended as a knockout.
Speculation after the fight suggests that Liston may have purposefully taken a fall, either betting on himself due to money owed the Mafia, or losing out of fear of the Ali-backing Black Muslims. Nonetheless, the controversy surrounding the incorrect knockout call is enough for this crazy match to make the list.
2. Babe Ruth’s Called Shot
Did the Babe actually point to centerfield, indicating he would hit a home run on the next pitch before actually unleashing a monstrous home run to center?
While it is indisputable that Ruth made some sort of pointing motion, it is unclear if Ruth was indicating he would hit a home run.
Only one reporter, Joe Williams of the New York World-Telegram, would write that Ruth had called his shot after the game.
But the media soon picked up on the story, and media-savvy Ruth—who had initially maintained he was only pointing to the Cubs in the dugout, who had been heckling him—embraced the story and claimed he had in fact been calling his shot.
1. 1972 Olympics Basketball Gold Medal Game
To review, with the US team trailing the Soviet Union, 49-48, Doug Collins was fouled hard and awarded two foul shots. Collins drained the first, and during the second, the controversy began.
As Collins began his shooting motion, the scorer’s table horn sounded. Play wasn’t stopped, Collins made the shot, and the US took a 50-49 lead.
The Soviets, however, insisted that that they had called a timeout before Collins' second shot, and assistant coach Sergei Bashkin stormed on the court. Timeouts in Olympic rules at the time dictated that timeouts could not be called after the second free throw, and the Soviets should have been given a technical foul after Bashkin ran on the court.
The game, meanwhile, had been stopped given the disurbance after the Soviets had inbounded the ball.
The referees conferred, did not grant the timeout (though called no technical on the Soviets) and ordered the play be run again, with three seconds on the clock.
But only one second was actually put on the clock and the game ended prematurely, amid celebrations from the US players. The proper three seconds was then put on the clock, leading to a full-court pass and one of the most devastating layups in the history of American sports.
If you have 15 minutes, watch the video, it is a truly fascinating story that goes well beyond the simple recap I’ve posted here.