17 Worst Money Scandals in Sports
James A Finley/AP / Shutterstock.com
The soccer world is still reeling from the 2015 FIFA bribery scandal that cast a dark shadow over the planet’s most popular sport. But neither that controversy nor the legendary Pete Rose scandal was the first money scandal in sports, and — as long as cash changes hands in athletics — neither will be the last scandal that makes headlines.
Last updated: July 13, 2020
Pictured: Marty Prather, a St. Louis Cardinals baseball fan shows his support for Cincinnati Reds manager Pete Rose prior to the start of the Cardinals Reds baseball game in St. Louis.
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images
The Chicago Black Sox
To this day, any member of the MLB who gambles on games that they can directly influence has committed baseball’s cardinal sin. The reason for that can be traced to 1919 and the ordeal of the Chicago Black Sox. From “Shoeless Joe” and “Say it Ain’t so, Joe” to “Field of Dreams” and “Eight Men Out,” songs, books and movies have been written about the most infamous scandal in baseball history.
The 1919 World Series ended with the heavily favored Chicago White Sox losing to the Cincinnati Reds five games to three in a rare best of nine World Series. Speculation of an inside fix spread almost immediately as word got around that several key players from the notoriously underpaid White Sox squad were given cash to throw the series. Evidence soon emerged to show that players had met with gangsters led by crime boss Arnold Rothstein and accepted bribes to underperform. Charges were brought, but all of the accused players were found not guilty. Despite that outcome, eight players — forever known as the Black Sox — were banned from baseball for life either for being in on the fix or knowing about it and remaining silent.
Pictured: Group shot of the 1919 White Sox baseball team
Mark Terrill/AP / Shutterstock.com
Ohio State Football Tattoo Scandal
Current college athletes can gain a lot from their schools’ sports programs, but they aren’t supposed to benefit from sports memorabilia.
That didn’t stop members of the Ohio State football team in 2010. Five players, including star starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor, were suspended for the first five games of the 2011 season after it was found they traded championship rings, jerseys and awards in order to get tattoos.
Rather than stick around for a shortened senior season, Pryor declared himself eligible for the NFL’s 2011 supplemental draft. The Oakland Raiders selected Pryor in the third round.
The Buckeyes coach at the time, Jim Tressel, resigned on May 30, 2011, in the wake of the scandal. It was previously revealed he knew about the tattoo scandal before it came to light and had been suspended for two games in the 2011 season. He was also fined $250,000 for keeping it under wraps. Ohio State also received a one-year bowl ban for the scandal.
George Frey/EPA / Shutterstock.com
2002 Salt Lake City Olympics Scandal
At the turn of the millennium, official representatives for Salt Lake City were snared in a bribery scandal that nearly caused the demise of the 2002 Winter Olympics. The Olympics is a cash cow and global competition to host the games is fierce. After being spurned by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) four times in the past, the Salt Lake Organizing Committee (SLOC) decided to cut some corners. The scandal went public in 1998 when the city beat out competitor cities in Switzerland, Sweden and Canada.
It soon came out that SLOC showered top IOC officials and their families with millions of dollars in “gifts,” including scholarships, NBA tickets, plastic surgery and other medical treatment, housing and salaries for the children of IOC members, and good, old-fashioned cash. The Justice Department filed charges, but the accused were acquitted — they hadn’t done anything illegal. Top officials in both organizations, however, were expelled and the scandal forced major changes in how host cities are selected.
Pictured: Tom Welch, former president of the Salt Lake Olympic Committee, walks into Federal Court in downtown Salt Lake City for the first day of his trial in the Olympic bribery scandal.
Mark Humphrey/AP / Shutterstock.com
New Orleans Saints Bountygate
Between 2009-11, dozens of New Orleans Saints players intentionally tried to injure opposing players for profit. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams organized a network of players and coaches who pooled money to create dedicated funds used to pay players as mercenaries. Between 22-27 Saints players pursued bounties that ranged from $100 for pinning a kicker inside the 20 to $10,000 for knocking a player out of a playoff game.
It was later revealed that key players like quarterbacks Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Hasselbeck and Cam Newton had an especially large bullseye on their backs. Eventually, insiders tipped off the NFL, the story broke, the Saints were fined $500,000, Williams was suspended indefinitely and many others received lesser fines and suspensions.
Famously Fired: 16 Celebrities Who Lost Big After Huge Scandals
Pictured: Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre (4) being hit by New Orleans Saints linebacker Scott Fujita (55) and Anthony Hargrove.
AP / Shutterstock.com
Point Shaving in the 1950s
In 1951, 32 players from seven schools were implicated in a point-shaving scandal that involved gamblers with ties to organized crime. The players involved in the scandal manipulated point spread to help the gamblers win their bets.
Seven of the players were on the City College of New York team that won both the NCAA championship and the NIT title in the 1949-50 season. Other schools that had players involved included Long Island University, Bradley, NYU, Kentucky, Manhattan College and Toledo.
Most of the players involved either received suspended sentences, were acquitted of their charges or had them dropped altogether. The bribes they received ranged from $50 a week to lump sums of up to $3,000.
In the wake of the scandal, CCNY dropped its athletic teams down to the Division III level. Kentucky basketball was suspended for the 1952-53 season. And LIU shut down its entire athletic program from 1951-57.
Jmcstrav / Wikimedia Commons
SMU Football Receives 'Death Penalty'
In 1985, the NCAA discovered that Southern Methodist University and its boosters had been paying football players to play there, and the school was subsequently put on probation for three years. When it was revealed that SMU continued paying players in 1986, the NCAA levied its toughest sanctions, known as the “death penalty,” on Feb. 25, 1987.
Under the ruling, SMU was forced to sit out the 1987 football season and would not be allowed to play home games in 1988. Without home games, the school decided not to field a team at all in 1988.
Over the next 20 years, SMU had only one winning season. Adjusted for inflation, CNBC estimated that SMU lost “at least $25 million” based on falling fan support during that time.
This remains the only time the NCAA has handed out the death penalty to a football program. It has been used four times for other sports programs, though: University of Southwestern Louisiana basketball (1973-75), University of Kentucky basketball (1952-53), Morehouse College Soccer (2004-05) and MacMurray College Tennis (2005-07).
John Swart/AP / Shutterstock.com
Pete Rose Gambling Scandal
The great Pete Rose played Major League Baseball for 24 years from 1963-86, starting at 22 years old and retiring at the age of 45. During that time spent mostly with the Reds and Phillies, he was named MVP, Rookie of the Year and World Series MVP for one of his three World Series victories. He went to 17 All-Star games and won three Batting Titles, two Gold Gloves and a Silver Slugger. Oh, and he racked up 4,256 career hits, more than Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, Stan Musial or anyone else who has ever played the game — yet he’s not in the Hall of Fame. No matter his stature, he had committed what has been baseball’s most unforgivable act since 1919.
In March 1989, Rose was the manager of the Cincinnati Reds when MLB commissioner Peter Ueberroth announced an investigation into serious allegations of Rose betting on baseball. Rose initially said that while he gambled at the track, he never placed an illegal bet and never committed the cardinal sin of gambling on an MLB game. A flood of witnesses emerged and Rose’s story unraveled. He was banned from baseball — and the Hall of Fame — for life, served five months in prison and paid a $50,000 fine. Rose insists to this day that he never bet against his own team and no evidence to the contrary has ever been presented.
Pictured: Cincinnati Reds manager Pete Rose talks with reporters in the Reds’ dugout before the start of a game in Plant City, Florida.
Chris Carlson/AP / Shutterstock.com
USC Sanctioned Over Reggie Bush, O.J. Mayo
Running back Reggie Bush led USC to the 2005 and 2006 championship games. Four years later, the NCAA came down hard on the Trojans for improper gifts and benefits paid by agents to Bush and former USC basketball player O.J. Mayo.
The NCAA ruled USC had to vacate 14 wins from the 2004 and 2005 football seasons in which Bush played, including the 2005 Orange Bowl in which the Trojans won the national championship. The school was banned from the postseason for two years and had to surrender 30 scholarships over a three-year span.
USC issued self-imposed sanctions for the basketball program, including vacated wins from games Mayo played in the 2007-08 season and a one-year postseason ban, which the NCAA accepted as all the punishment needed.
The scandals rocked the USC athletic department, leading to a complete overhaul of the top spots at the school. Bush announced in September 2010 that he would return the Heisman Trophy he won in 2005.
Money Mishaps: Pro Athletes Who Have Lost Millions of Dollars
Dave Tenenbaum/AP / Shutterstock.com
Boston College Point Shaving
When it comes to gambling, everybody is always trying to find an edge. Being able to affect the outcome of a game is usually a surefire way to gain that edge over an opponent.
In the 1978-79 season, mob-affiliated gamblers — some of whom were the basis for the 1990 Martin Scorcese film “Goodfellas” — paid three members of the Boston College men’s basketball team to have them purposely affect how the Eagles would perform against the point spread in several games.
After becoming a government informant, Henry Hill told prosecutors BC forward Rick Kuhn, shooting guard Ernie Cobb and point guard Jim Sweeney accepted money to purposely keep games closer than they may have otherwise been.
Cobb admitted to accepting $1,000 but wasn’t prosecuted. Sweeney fessed up to taking $500 under duress and escaped prosecution. Kuhn acknowledged his role in the scandal and was the only one convicted. In the end, the mobsters made money in at least four games but lost money in three.
Mitchell Layton / Getty Images
Philadelphia Eagles Bounty Bowl
The rivalry between the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys is one of the most ferocious in the NFL and all of sports in general — and the hard feelings came to a boil on Thanksgiving Day, 1989. During one of the most-watched games of the year, Eagles linebacker Jessie Small leveled Cowboys kicker Luis Zendejas with a hit that today would be considered egregiously illegal.
Zendejas, who had recently been released by the Eagles in a way that left bad blood on both sides, staggered off the field. It later came out that Eagles head coach Buddy Ryan had offered a $200 bounty to anyone who took the kicker out. Worried about the escalating situation, an Eagles staff member called Zendejas beforehand to warn him of the bounty.
Pictured: Head coach Buddy Ryan of the Philadelphia Eagles in 1989
Anonymous/AP / Shutterstock.com
Michigan Basketball 'Fab Five' Scandal
The Michigan basketball program had one of the most celebrated recruiting classes of all time in 1991, a group that became known as the “Fab Five.” However, the group’s legacy was tarnished by a scandal involving payments from a Michigan booster.
Ed Martin, a former autoworker who was eventually charged with running an illegal gambling business and laundering money, admitted to lending $616,000 to four Michigan players in the 1980s and ’90s. One of them was one of the most celebrated members of the Fab Five, Chris Webber.
The Fab Five led Michigan to the Final Four in 1992 and 1993. But in response to Webber’s involvement in the Martin scandal, Michigan self-imposed a punishment in November 2002, vacating the entire 1992 season, Webber’s sophomore year. The NCAA added more sanctions in May 2003, including having Webber disassociate from the program for 10 years.
Webber, who went on to NBA fame and fortune, pleaded guilty in July 2003 to a charge of criminal contempt in order to avoid jail time. He admitted to lying before a grand jury and to receiving $38,200 from Martin. Martin previously testified that he gave Webber $280,000, a claim denied by Webber and his attorney.
Vincent Thian/AP / Shutterstock.com
Formula One Race-Fixing Controversy
Although Formula One Racing is second to NASCAR in the United States, the circuit boasts scores of American fans — and the sheer magnitude of the 2008 race-fixing controversy earns the scandal a place on this list. That year, on the 14th lap of the Singapore Grand Prix, Renault F1 driver Nelson Piquet Jr. deliberately crashed into the wall to cause a safety car stoppage knowing that his teammate, Fernando Alonso, had just exited the pit ahead of the pack. Alonso, having started in the 15th position, won the race.
Although he initially said the crash was the result of a simple mistake, Piquet later alleged that his team had told him to crash on purpose, an allegation that triggered a massive race-fixing investigation. The Renault F1 team was officially charged, much of the team was disbanded, and eventually, it was disqualified from Formula One. It remains the darkest chapter in Formula One history.
Wfh/AP / Shutterstock.com
Tulane Point Shaving
In April 1985, three Tulane basketball players (including the team’s star John “Hot Rod” Williams), three students at the university and two others were indicted in a point-shaving scheme.
The players were accused of shaving points in two games in February 1985, with a third game mentioned in the indictment. The indictment said $13,500 was involved in a win over Memphis State and $3,500 in a win over Southern Mississippi.
The day the indictments came out, Tulane announced it was dropping its basketball program. Aside from the point-shaving, it was revealed the school’s basketball coaching staff was making illegal payments to players.
Williams, who went on to have a nine-year NBA career, was tried twice for the point-shaving scandal. After his first case ended in a mistrial, he was acquitted in the second one.
Three years after the scandals broke, the Tulane basketball program was reinstated.
Big Losses: PR Nightmares That Cost Celebrities Big Bucks
Mpierce91104 / Wikimedia Commons
Miami Booster Scandal
The University of Miami athletic department has been no stranger to money-related sports scandals.
In 1994, a Miami Herald investigation revealed Hurricanes football players were paid bounties for big plays in football games, with awards set by former 2 Live Crew rapper Luther Campbell. In 1995, the NCAA found Miami guilty of multiple rules violations that included excessive financial awards, Pell Grant fraud, pay-for-play payouts and failure to follow its own drug-testing policy.
In 2002, Miami booster Nevin Shapiro upped the ante in a big way. Between 2002 and 2011, Shapiro, who was sent to prison for running a $930 million Ponzi scheme, said he gave improper gifts and benefits to 73 Hurricanes football players, as well as athletes on the basketball team and other sports. Shapiro, who spelled out his actions through jailhouse interviews with Yahoo Sports, allegedly dispensed money, prostitutes, cars and vacations (among many other gifts) to the players. Shapiro said at least seven coaches and university officials knew of his gifts.
Miami self-imposed sanctions in November 2012, which included a postseason football ban. The NCAA followed that up with more sanctions in October 2013, saying that Miami was to lose nine football scholarships and three basketball scholarships over three years. It also issued a five-game suspension for former basketball coach Frank Haith, who had moved from Miami to Missouri by then, and three years’ probation for Miami and other penalties.
Pictured: Nevin Shapiro, far right, with Miami football players
Gene J Puskar/AP / Shutterstock.com
Rick Tocchet was one of the best players in hockey during his 22-year NHL career. By 2006, he was the assistant coach to Wayne Gretzky for the Phoenix Coyotes, but then Tocchet’s career came crumbling down. That year, authorities unveiled a sweeping investigation dubbed “Operation Slapshot,” which had uncovered a gambling ring led by Rick Tocchet and a corrupt New Jersey state trooper.
The details were lurid — the ring was directly tied to organized crime and Gretzky’s own wife was accused of placing bets. She was never charged, but Tocchet, the trooper and several others were. Tocchet received probation and the trooper received significant prison time. There’s no evidence that any bets involved hockey games.
Pictured: Hockey coach Rick Tocchet
lev radin / Shutterstock.com
NBA Ref Tim Donaghy
Longtime NBA referee Tim Donaghy was the central figure in the biggest money scandal in NBA history. A former classmate of Donaghy’s named Jimmy Battista conspired with the official to rig games to stay within the point spread, with Donaghy earning up to $2,000 in illicit funds for each game that he directly influenced with intentionally bad calls.
In 2007, an informant squealed to the FBI that underworld figures had an NBA ref in their pockets. Donaghy resigned in 2007 — it later came out that he’d been gambling on NBA games since 2003. He pled guilty to federal charges and served time in prison. It was the biggest scandal in professional sports since the 1919 Black Sox incident.
The 2015 FIFA Scandal
International soccer suffered its most shameful and widespread scandal in 2015 when U.S. federal prosecutors charged FIFA, the world’s largest soccer governing body, with flagrant and widespread corruption. The Justice Department indicted more than a dozen people across the globe for participating in a generations-long scheme dating back to the early 1990s. The fraud involved sports marketing companies bribing top FIFA officials to the tune of more than $150 million combined.
In some cases, bribes secured lucrative television contracts. In other cases, officials took bribes in exchange for voting for participating cities to host major tournaments. It remains the most significant scandal in the modern history of worldwide football.
More From GOBankingRates
- 30 Easy Home Improvement Projects You Should Tackle This Summer
- Here’s How Much Cash You Need Stashed If an Emergency Happens
- 31 Hidden Ways You’re Bleeding Money Every Month
- 21 Smartest Ways To Invest Your Money Right Now
Andrew Lisa contributed to the reporting for this article.
Pictured: Sepp Blatter, former president of FIFA, at 65th FIFA Congress in Zurich