Everyone loves a good conspiracy theory, especially in sports — and politics and entertainment and mysteriously lost Malaysian Airlines flights. When Michael Jordan unexpectedly retires? Conspiracy. When Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins a race after his daddy died? Conspiracy. When Louisville and Michigan State both get a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament? Double-dog conspiracy. But none of those tongue-in-cheek cheats made this list. These are the top five conspiracy theories in sports history:
1. 1919 World Series — Chicago Black Sox Scandal
“Say it ain’t so, Joe.”
Eight members of the Chicago White Sox — “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, Eddie Cicotte, Claude “Lefty” Williams, Buck Weaver, Arnold “Chick” Gandil, Fred McMullin, Charles “Swede” Risberg and Oscar “Happy” Felsch — were banned from baseball for conspiring with gamblers and gangsters (notably New York’s Arnold Rothstein) to throw the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds.
The plan worked, as the heavily favored White Sox — one of the era’s highest profile teams and arguably one of the most talented squads of all time — fell to the Reds, 5-to-3, in the best-of-nine series.
Strangely, “Shoeless Joe” hit the 1919 World Series’ only home run and led all batters with a .375 average (12-for-32), six RBIs and five runs scores. But Jackson’s implication in the scandal ended his career at only 32 years old, with a .356 career average and three top-5 finishes in AL MVP voting.
As a result of what would become known as the “Black Sox Scandal,” Kenesaw Mountain Landis was named the first “Commissioner of Baseball” in 1920.
2. Super Bowl III — New York Jets upset Baltimore Colts
“We’re going to win Sunday. I guarantee it.”
Joe Namath backed up his famous guarantee with the New York Jets upsetting the Baltimore Colts, 16–7, in Super Bowl III. But since “Broadway Joe” trotted off the field pointing No. 1 to the sky, there have been more than a few rumblings that the Colts took a dive against the Jets.
The legitimacy of the NFL-AFL merger of 1970 was greatly aided by the AFL’s win in Super Bowl III on Jan. 12, 1969. The fact that the game was won by New York — a massive media market with a coverboy quarterback — was icing on the cake. In hindsight, it could be argued that the Jets’ win over the Colts was a triumph worth not just millions but billions of dollars for the league.
“That Super Bowl game, which we lost by nine points, was the critical year (for the AFL),” Colts defensive end Bubba Smith famously told Playboy. “The game just seemed odd to me. Everything was out of place. I tried to rationalize that our coach, Don Shula, got out-coached, but that wasn’t the case. I don’t know if any of my teammates were in on the fix.”
Baltimore had a 13–1 record in 1968 and dominated the Cleveland Browns, 34–0, in the NFL title game. Meanwhile, New York went 11–3 and barely escaped with a 27–23 win over the Oakland Raiders in the AFL title game — thanks in large part to a fluke play late in the fourth quarter, when the Jets recovered a lateral fumble that the Raiders thought was an incomplete pass.
The Colts committed five costly turnovers, including three interceptions by quarterback Earl Morrall. One interception was particularly suspicious. With Colts receiver Jimmy Orr wide open near the end zone, Morrall checked down to running back Jerry Hill only to throw an errant pass intercepted by Jets safety Jim Hudson.
“I’m just a linesman but I looked up and saw Jimmy (Orr) wide open,” said Colts center Bill Curry, currently the head coach at Georgia State.
Baltimore coach Don Sula — who would later coach Morrall with the Miami Dolphins — may have the most damning non-quote of all. Smith wrote in his autobiography, “Kill, Bubba, Kill,” that he believed the fix was in at Super Bowl III. Shula’s response was the classic husband-caught-cheating reply.
“I think it’s too ridiculous for me to comment on,” said Shula.
3. Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston — “Phantom Punch”
“Get up and fight, sucker!”
Muhammad Ali stood over Sonny Liston shouting at him to get up, while ringside photographer Neil Leifer captured the iconic moment in what many have called the greatest sports photograph in history.
Ali-Liston II was originally scheduled for Nov. 16, 1964 at the Boston Garden. But the fight was postponed after a pre-fight injury suffered by Ali. Rumors of organized crime connections to the fight promotion caused the city of Boston to reject the fight. Then, amid continued fixed fight talk, the city of Cleveland followed suit and also denied the fight.
Finally, on May 25, 1965, the heavyweight championship bout took place at St. Dominic’s Hall in Lewiston, Maine, and was refereed by former heavyweight champ Jersey Joe Walcott. The fight did not last long, however. Liston went down in the first round — as rumors swirled that Liston owed money to the mafia and/or had been threatened by the Nation of Islam.
Worst of all, Ali was reportedly overheard asking his corner crew a crucial question about the so-called “phantom punch.”
“Did I hit him?”
4. 1985 NBA Draft Lottery — Patrick Ewing to the New York Knicks
In 1985, Georgetown center Patrick Ewing was a “can’t miss” NBA prospect. Ewing lived up to his advanced billing, as an 11-time NBA All-Star and member of the Basketball Hall of Fame. He never won an NBA championship, primarily due to the greatness of Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon. But Ewing was the centerpiece of 13 playoff teams for the New York Knicks — a team that acquired the 7-footer via the first-ever NBA Draft Lottery.
After watching the footage, several oddities stand out. When putting the seven envelopes into the drum, the fourth envelope is noticeably thrown against the side of the clear sphere — bending one corner of the envelope — while the other six are simply dropped into the bottom of the drum. Then, Commissioner David Stern lets out a stressful deep breath before diving his hand into the drum, passing over several envelopes and drawing what turned out to be the New York Knicks — Stern’s self-proclaimed favorite team. Along with the bent-corner theory, many have speculated that the Knicks’ envelope had been frozen prior to the drawing.
Since the Ewing scandal, the NBA Draft Lottery has cleaned up its act. The ping-pong ball lottery takes place in a room with no cameras, then the “results” are announced by opening the envelopes on television. Stern is nowhere near the event. Who has been involved? The trustworthy employees of Ernst & Young, whose honest oversight experience also includes the fraudulent accounting practices of Lehman Brothers.
It’s all on the up and up. The Bulls received the right to draft Chicago native Derrick Rose, despite only a 1.7 percent chance of “winning” the Lottery. The Orlando Magic won back-to-back No. 1 picks, including Shaquille O’Neal. The New Jersey Nets won the No. 1 pick in Rod Thorn’s first draft running the Nets, after 15 years of Thorn being Stern’s right-hand man in the league office. The Cleveland Cavaliers got the top pick the year the best player in state history (LeBron James) was available and the year after King James left town. The most recent Lottery was won by the New Orleans Hornets — a team owned by the NBA during the 2011-12 season, before being sold to Tom Benson.
If the real lottery were run the way Stern runs the NBA Draft Lottery, no one would buy a ticket. And the right to draft Ewing, Shaq, LeBron, etc., is worth more than the PowerBall.
5. 2002 NBA Western Conference Finals, Game 6 — Sacramento Kings at L.A. Lakers
Tim Donaghy was an NBA referee from 1994 to 2007, officiating in 772 regular season games and 20 playoff contests. But rumors of fixing games caused Donaghy to resign in July 2007. Concrete evidence presented by the FBI resulted in Donaghy pleading guilty to federal charges and being sentenced to 15 months in federal prison.
After being released, Donaghy began telling tales of NBA officiating, gambling and controlling the outcome of games. His legal team even filed loosely veiled allegations against the NBA in U.S. District Court.
Although he does not name team or referee names, it is clear that Donaghy’s attorney is referring to Game 6 of the 2002 NBA Western Conference Finals between the Sacramento Kings and Los Angeles Lakers.
“Referees A, F and G were officiating a playoff series between Teams 5 and 6 in May of 2002. It was the sixth game of a seven-game series, and a Team 5 victory that night would have ended the series.
“However, Tim learned from Referee A that Referees A and F wanted to extend the series to seven games. Tim knew Referees A and F to be ‘company men,’ always acting in the interest of the NBA, and that night, it was in the NBA’s interest to add another game to the series. Referees A and F heavily favored Team 6.
“Personal fouls (resulting in obviously injured players) were ignored even when they occurred in full view of the Referees. Conversely, the Referees called made-up fouls on Team 5 in order to give additional free throw opportunities for Team 6. Their foul-calling also led to the ejection of two Team 5 players.
“The referees’ favoring of Team 6 led to that team’s victory that night, and Team 6 came back from behind to win that series.”
The referees that May 31, 2002 night were Dick Bavetta, Bob Delaney and Steve Javie. The Kings led the Lakers, 3–2, in the best-of-seven series. A Kings win would send Sacramento to the NBA Finals, where it would face the New Jersey Nets. A Lakers win would force a Game 7 and keep alive the dynasty dreams of the two-time defending champions.
Kings centers Vlade Divac and Scot Pollard both fouled out of the game. Pollard picked up two fouls in 14 seconds, fouling out with 11:34 remaining in the fourth quarter; Divac fouled out with 2:56 remaining. Kings forward Chris Webber picked up three fouls in the fourth quarter, his fifth foul coming with 3:07 to play.
The Lakers led the Kings in free throw attempts, 40-to-25. In the fourth quarter, L.A. went 21-of-27 from the free throw line, while Sacramento was 7-of-9 in the final period. And in a symbolic display of unfairness, Kings guard Mike Bibby was called for a foul after being elbowed in the nose by Kobe Bryant.
After the game, Ralph Nader called for investigation. But Lakers fans smiled all the way to a 106–102 Game 6 win, a 112–106 Game 7 victory and a four-game sweep of the overmatched Nets in the NBA Finals, en route to a star-studded three-peat led by Shaq, Kobe and Phil Jackson.
“I’m not going to say there was a conspiracy,” said Pollard. “I just think something wasn’t right. It was unfair. We didn’t have a chance to win that game.”