Major Sports Scandals

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Here is a look at some of the biggest scandals in sports.

New England Patriots Quarterback Tom Brady

Related Links

In Jan. 2015, the New England Patriots were investigated by the National Football League (NFL) for using under-inflated footballs during the AFC Championship Game, which they won, beating the Indianapolis Colts, 45-7. According to league sources, the NFL did indeed find that 11 of the Patriots' 12 game balls were under-inflated by two pounds per square inch.

An NFL investigator released a report in May 2015 that found "substantial and credible evidence" that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady knew that the team's employees were deflating the footballs. Based on the findings of the report, the NFL suspended Brady for the first four games of the 2015-2016 season. Brady appealed the suspension, but his appeal was denied by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who handed down the suspension. Brady and the NFL players association took the case to federal court. The judge, Richard Berman of the U.S. District Court in Manhattan, heard the case and encouraged Brady and the NFL to settle. The two sides could not come to agreement, and on September 3, 2015, Judge Berman reversed the suspension. His decision did not rule if Brady tampered with the footballs. Instead, the ruling said Goodell did not have the authority to suspend Brady under the contract between the NFL and the players' union. The NFL appealed the decision, and in April 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reinstated Brady's suspension. He will have to sit out the first four games of the 2016–2017 season. The scandal, dubbed "Deflategate" by the media, was just the latest in a long list of sports scandals. In fact, the Patriots were involved in another controversy in 2007, known as "Spygate."

Here are some of the biggest scandals in sports. This list focuses mainly on scandals involving athletes and organizations that cheated in order to affect the outcome of a game or the organization's success, not the personal, off the field scandals that have made headlines over the years by sports figures such as Tiger Woods, O.J. Simpson, Pete Rose, Michael Vick, and Kobe Bryant.

Black Sox

The Chicago White Sox lost the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds in 1919. Later on, eight White Sox players were accused of being paid by gamblers to intentionally lose the World Series.

A Chicago grand jury began its investigation in 1920. Two of the players, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and Eddie Cicotte, confessed to the grand jury on Sept. 28, 1920, that they were involved in the scheme. The following month, the grand jury charged eight players and five gamblers. The charges included nine counts of conspiracy to defraud. The trial began the following year. Before the trial, evidence disappeared, including Jackson and Cicotte’s signed confessions. By then, Jackson and Cicotte had recanted their confessions. The jury found all of the players not guilty. Even though they were acquitted, the eight players were banned from playing baseball for life.

Lance Armstrong

Between 1999 and 2005, Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France a record seven times. Armstrong, a cancer survivor, also founded the Livestrong foundation, providing support to cancer patients.

Throughout his entire career, Armstrong denied drug use until 2013, when he confessed to doping, during a televised interview with Oprah Winfrey. His confession came a year after the United States Anti-Doping Agency released its findings and the Union Cycliste Internationale banned him from cycling for life. Armstrong was stripped of all of his former Tour de France wins. In 2013, Armstrong topped Forbes list of the most hated U.S. athletes.

The Whack Heard Round the World

On Jan. 6, 1994, immediately following a practice session at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit, Shane Stant attacked figure skater Nancy Kerrigan. Stant hit Kerrigan on the right knee with a police baton. Jeff Gillooly, the ex-husband of figure skater Tonya Harding, a rival of Kerrigan’s, and Shawn Eckardt planned the assault. Kerrigan grabbed her knee after the attack and, in a moment broadcast all over the world, cried, “Why, why, why?” Kerrigan was forced to withdraw from the U.S. Championships.

Kerrigan recovered quickly and won the silver medal at the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics. Kerrigan’s attack and Harding’s suspected involvement created a media frenzy unlike any other before that time, with 400 reporters covering the two skater’s practices during the 1994 Olympics. All three men involved served time for their role in Kerrigan's attack. In order to avoid further prosecution and jail time, Harding pleaded guilty to conspiring to hinder the prosecution in March 1994.

Floyd Landis

American cyclist Floyd Landis won the 2006 Tour de France, only to be stripped of the title later on, after he tested positive for performance enhancing drugs. In Jan. 2010, a judge in France issued a warrant for Landis’ arrest over computer hacking allegations, which were related to the 2006 doping scandal.

Landis denied the allegations for years. His legal team presented inconsistencies in the evaluations of his urine samples during the drug testing. Still, Landis’ disqualification was upheld. Finally, on May 20, 2010, Landis confessed to doping. He also named other top cyclists, including Lance Armstrong, as abusers of performance enhancing drugs. After his confession, Landis could not find a new team to ride for and retired.


During the 2007 NFL season, the New England Patriots videotaped signals made by the defensive coaches of the New York Jets. The videotaping happened during a game on Sept. 9, 2007. After an investigation, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell ruled that the taping was in violation of league rules.

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was fined $500,000, the largest fine ever handed down to a NFL coach and the maximum allowed. The team also lost a first-round draft pick for the following season. Due in part to the large fine, the incident received a ton of media attention and was dubbed “spygate.”


Eight years later, the New England Patriots found themselves involved in another “gate” scandal that received major media attention, including a spoofing on Saturday Night Live. Known as “deflategate,” this scandal involved under-inflated footballs used by the team on January 18, 2015, during the AFC Championship Game against the Indianapolis Colts.

According to NFL rules, footballs should be inflated between 12.5 and 13.5 pounds per square inch. League officials inspected the footballs during halftime of the AFC Championship Game. Eleven of the footballs used by the Patriots in the first half were inflated two pounds per square inch below the required level. Backup footballs were used in the second half of game. As of Jan. 27, 2015, the NFL was still investigating the matter. According to ESPN, during the 2014-15 regular season both the Colts and the Baltimore Ravens grew suspicious of the Patriots using under-inflated footballs. During their regular season game against the Patriots on Nov. 16, 2014, the Colts took possession of two footballs thrown by Tom Brady and brought the matter to the NFL.

The New England Patriots stood behind Brady after the NFL's investigation released its report finding that Brady "was at least generally aware" of the footballs being deflated and suspended him for four games in May 2015. Patriots owner Bob Kraft said in a statement, "Tom Brady has our unconditional support. Our belief in him has not wavered." Brady appealed his four-game suspension.

After hearing Brady's appeal, Commissioner Goodell decided to uphold the suspension. In a 20-page statement released in late July 2015, the league wrote that Goodell's decision was largely based on the fact that Brady had an assistant destroy a cellphone he used the week of the game. The cellphone was seen as potential evidence. For the team's role in deflategate, the New England Patriots were fined $1 million and lost two top draft picks.


In what many consider one of the biggest rugby incidents since its mid-1990s professionalization, this scandal involved the use of fake blood capsules, hence the nickname, bloodgate. On April 12, 2009, the Harlequins, an English team, played the Irish team Leinster in a quarterfinal match of the Heineken Cup. During the match, Harlequins wing Tom Williams came off the field, using blood capsules to fake an injury so teammate Nick Evans could re-enter the match. Evans had to leave the field earlier in the match due to injury. Despite “bloodgate,” Leinster won the game, 6-5, and went on to win the Heineken Cup for the first time.

The European Rugby Cup and Rugby Football Union investigated the incident. The investigation revealed that the Harlequins had also used blood capsules to fake injuries in order to make tactical substitutions in four previous matches. Williams was banned for twelve-months, reduced to four months after his appeal. The Harlequins were fined 260,000 pounds. Rugby Director Dean Richards was banned for three years. Physiotherapist Steph Brennan was banned for two years.


In 2010, the NFL began investigating the New Orleans Saints based on allegations from an anonymous player who said that the team had a bounty system. The NFL's investigation found that Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams had indeed created a bounty program involving 22-27 Saints players. From 2009 through 2011, Saints players received “bounties,” or bonuses, for injuring players on the opposing teams. The program was in effect during the year the Saints won the Super Bowl in 2009.

For bountygate, the Saints received some of the most severe punishment ever given in the NFL’s history. Williams was suspended indefinitely, although that would be overturned the following year. Saints Head Coach Sean Payton and linebacker Jonathan Vilma were suspended for the entire 2012 season. The general manager, assistant head coach, and several players were also suspended for multiple games. The organization was fined $500,000, and lost their second-round draft picks for 2012 and 2013.

Salt Lake City Buys Olympics

Salt Lake City attempted and failed four times to host the Winter Olympics prior to winning its bid to host in 2002. However, in 1998, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was accused of taking bribes from the Salt Lake Organizing Committee (SLOC) during the bidding process for those 2002 games. Several IOC members were expelled from the committee.

The U.S. Department of Justice brought charges against SLOC leaders. Later on, all of those leaders were acquitted. The investigation also found that the IOC received bribes during bids for the 1998 Winter Olympics and the 2000 Summer Olympics.

Horse Murders

The horse murders scandal was an ongoing incident from the mid-1970s through the mid-1990s. According to an FBI investigation, between 50-100 horses were killed over a 20-year period so that their owners could collect the insurance money. The horses, all of them expensive and many of them show horses, had been insured against death.

In 1977, wealthy heiress Helen Brach disappeared after she threatened to go to the authorities with information about the horse murders. Law enforcement officials believed she was kidnapped and murdered by the guilty parties. Thirty-five people were convicted of charges, including insurance fraud, obstruction of justice, extortion, racketeering, and animal cruelty. Although the murder of Brach was never completely solved, Richard Bailey was sentenced to life in prison for soliciting her murder. ESPN has called the two decade long horse murders “the biggest scandal in the history of equestrian sports.”


The Southern Methodist University football scandal led to the NCAA punishing them with the “death penalty,” cancelling SMU’s entire 1987 season. Over the next four years, 55 scholarships were lost. Its coaching staff was cut severely and no off-campus recruiting was permitted until August 1988.

The punishment came after an investigation into the program that proved the university had committed several violations of NCAA rules. The worst violation was a slush fund used from the mid-1970s through 1986 to pay players under the table. After the scandal, SMU did not make a bowl game until 2009 and had one winning season in twenty years.

Baylor University Athlete Murders Teammate

An investigation of Baylor University’s men’s basketball program in the early 2000s found that the team had committed numerous NCAA violations. The scandal began with the disappearance of junior forward Patrick Dennehy during the summer of 2003. On June 25, 2003, Dennehy’s car was found in Virginia Beach, Virginia, minus the car’s license plates. The following month, Dennehy’s body was found in a gravel pit near Waco, Texas. Dennehy’s teammate Carlton Dotson pleaded guilty to his murder. Dotson was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

The university and the NCAA investigated the murder as well as allegations of drug use and the coaching staff making improper payments to players. Head coach Dave Bliss resigned. The NCAA issued one of the harshest penalties ever given to a Division I program, including sanctions, a ban from any nonconference games for an entire season, and extended probation for the university. After the incident and punishment, the men’s basketball team did not have a winning season until 2008.

Sources: ESPN, Forbes, National Football League

—Jennie Wood
    Sources +