There are few things that cause as much intrigue or debate than a good conspiracy theory. These usually involve allegations of government cover-ups and shady backroom operations, but the world of sport is not free from these theories either. Sports may seem innocent and transparent, but the amount of money and power that is involved inevitably means that there are some dark secrets that are floating around. Some of these theories seem a little far-fetched and are probably concocted by those sat at home in tin foil hats, whilst one or two are not beyond the realm of possibility.
12. Rigged by Riggs – The Battle of the Sexes
In 1973, Billy Riggs played against Margaret Court and Billie Jean King, and these were called “The Battle of the Sexes.” Riggs was in his 50s, but was a former number one tennis champion and held six major titles in his career. In a televised match, Riggs defeated Court, the best female player at the time, 6-2, 6-1. A few months later Riggs played Billie Jean King, with the winner set to earn $100,000. King would win in straight sets; with most claiming that it was a case of age versus youth (King was 26 years younger). Some were also skeptical because Riggs did not struggle against Court, and there were also rumors of his gambling debts. This led skeptics to believe he threw the match to settle these debts with the mob. Many also accuse these skeptics of being sexist and not wanting to admit he was beaten fair and square.
11. The Prolonged Streak
If there is one thing which sports franchises and fans love, it is a good record or streak. Former shortstop and third baseman Cal Ripken, Jr. (known as “The Iron Man”) is famous for holding the record for most consecutive MLB games played (2,632), a record previously held by Lou Gehrig which many thought was unbreakable. Two years after breaking this record it looked like Ripken’s incredible streak was about to come to an end. This was after he found Kevin Costner in bed with his wife, and got into a physical fight with him which was going to cause him to miss the game against the Mariners. Coincidentally, an electrical failure saw the game that evening postponed, which kept his streak alive another day. Conspiracy theorists believe that the Orioles intentionally pulled the plug to postpone the game, as his streak was good for the franchise.
10. Blackout Bowl
Super Bowl XLVII saw the Baltimore Ravens hand the San Francisco 49ers their first ever Super Bowl defeat, after a narrow 34-31 victory. The story runs much deeper than this, however, with an incident just after half-time leading many to speculate about foul play by the NFL. At the end of the second period, the Ravens were running away with the game and had a mighty lead of 28-6. A power outage occurred at the start of the third which interrupted play for 34 minutes, allowing the 49ers to regroup and disrupting the flow for the Ravens. The 49ers scored 17 unanswered points once the power returned, enough for a dramatic conclusion but eventual Ravens win. Some believe that the plug was pulled to keep the game more interesting, and this includes Ray Lewis, who said “You’re a zillion dollar company and your lights go out? No. No way.”
9. The Frozen Envelope
The 1985 NBA Draft saw the New York Knicks obtain Patrick Ewing, a once-in-a-lifetime player, with the first pick. The Knicks were in desperate need of a big man like Ewing, and it was believed that he could change their fortunes and help them to succeed. Many believe that it was not just the Knicks that wanted to see Ewing arrive in The Big Apple. The Knicks are a marquee franchise in the NBA, and it is thought that the NBA and Commissioner David Stern (a New York native) were desperate for them to succeed. It is believed that they had the Knicks’ card frozen, so that this card could be felt by touch and selected for the first pick. The Knicks would not win an NBA title with Ewing, but he became an iconic figure at MSG and certainly brought in a lot of money.
8. All Blacks Food Poisoning
The New Zealand rugby team were heavy favorites to lift the 1995 World Cup, but they first had to defeat the home nation, South Africa, in the final. Mysteriously, many members of the All Blacks came down with food poisoning, which had a significant impact on the match (some players could be seen vomiting on the sidelines) and it would be South Africa who emerged victorious. Many claimed that it was intentional food poisoning, with the coach blaming a waitress called “Suzie” for poisoning their water. Whilst it is unclear whether or not their food poisoning was intentional, and there is no solid evidence, this theory is given legs by the fact that there were other suspicious incidents that occurred throughout the tournament. This includes car alarms being set off outside their hotel in the early hours of the morning, and listening devices being found in hotel rooms.
7. Gretzky’s Influenced Trade to L.A
The greatest hockey player of all time, some theorists find his move from the Oilers to the L.A. Kings slightly suspicious. While playing for the Edmonton Oilers he established dozens of scoring records and led them to four Stanley Cup championships. News broke that he was going to be traded just hours after the 1988 Stanley Cup, and although Gretzky did not want to leave at first, he eventually left for L.A. in what is now famously called “The Trade.” Conspiracy theorists speculate that the deal was pushed by the NHL, who wanted to popularize the sport in North America, and therefore wanted The Great One in Los Angeles. This worked, particularly in California, and in the next five years there were four new North American franchises. The NHL benefited the most from the trade, and it changed the sport of hockey forever.
6. The Shot Heard ‘Round the World
Bobby Thompson’s game-winning home run to win the 1951 NL Pennant is one of the most iconic moments in sports history, but it is tainted by certain allegations of sign stealing by the New York Giants. The Giants have been accused of using a telescope behind center field which was used to steal signs, and they would then relay this information to the batter so he knew what pitches were coming. They were accused of doing this throughout the season, including at this key moment in baseball history. Thompson denies having been told what Branca’s pitch was, but other members of the 1951 Giants admitted to spying on teams throughout the 1951 season. This admission makes it seem entirely possible that Thompson was fed information about the pitch, but equally he still had to hit it and Branca has even stated that “knowing the pitch doesn’t always help.”
5. Phelps Lost in Beijing
The 2008 Beijing Olympics are famed for Michael Phelps’s astonishing dominance, where he won eight gold medals (the most first-place finishes at any single Olympic Games). Some believe that it should have been seven gold medals, however, and that the 100-meter butterfly was actually won by Serbian Milorad Cavic. It has been suggested that Cavic had a faulty touch pad which did not stop immediately, and this allowed Phelps to win by just one hundredth of a second. Cavic protested and video analysis was used, and this was used to confirm Phelps’s victory, although images were not made public. Omega, the timekeeper and sponsorship partner of Phelps, also refused to release underwater photos of the finish which fuelled suspicion. The gold tied Mark Spitz’s gold medal record, but Spitz claimed in 2015 that he had seen an email from Omega that confirmed Phelps had lost the race.
4. The 2002 Western Conference Finals
In the 2002 Western Conference Finals, the Sacramento Kings faced the two-time defending champs, the L.A. Lakers. Sacramento, a small market team, finished the season with a league best 61-21 record and many had them as favorites. The Lakers, one of the elite and most popular teams, were aiming for a historic 3-peat which would generate enormous TV ratings in the Finals. The series was close, with Sacramento taking a 3-2 lead going into game six. The game was tied going into the fourth quarter, and even L.A. fans will have to admit that this was not a fair quarter of basketball. The Kings were called for non-existent fouls and every call went the Lakers’ way, seeing them shoot a staggering 27 free-throws in the quarter and consequently winning the game. L.A. won the series (and Finals), but it is widely believed that Stern ordered the officials to fix the game.
3. “Spygate” Cover-up
The New England Patriots always seem to be shrouded in controversy, and this is a conspiracy within a controversy that arouses plenty of suspicion. In 2007, the Patriots were caught videotaping their opponents’ signals and practices, and an investigation was launched. As part of the probe, the Patriots were ordered to handover the tapes to the league. Strangely, all of this evidence was destroyed shortly after by Commissioner Roger Goodell. He stated that this was “the right thing to do,” but many believe that the tapes showed extensive cheating by the Patriots, a marquee franchise and one of the most successful NFL teams. A report stated that one tape was of a St. Louis Rams’ walkthrough practice prior to Super Bowl XXXVI (which the Patriots won), but this was later retracted. In 2010, the Broncos were fined for videotaping under Coach Josh McDaniels, who was assistant to Belichick from 2001-2008.
2. Jordan’s Secret Suspension
In 1993, Michael Jordan stunned the sporting world by announcing that he was retiring from the game of basketball, and instead pursuing a career in baseball. Jordan was at the peak of his career and establishing himself as the greatest of all time, so it seemed bizarre for him to walk away (although many are quick to point out that this was shortly after the murder of his father and he also felt unchallenged). Many conspiracy theorists believe that Jordan did not (temporarily) retire, and instead he was suspended for the year by David Stern. Jordan’s wild gambling was well-documented by this point and was investigated by the NBA months earlier, revealing six-figure gambling and betting on NBA matches. The theory suggests that Stern had to take action, but he did not want to tarnish the reputation of the NBA’s biggest ticket and therefore allowed him to “retire.”
1. Ali vs. Liston II – “The Phantom Punch”
The initial Clay/Ali versus Liston match was not without controversy, but it was their 1965 rematch that still has conspiracy theorists speculating and is the most controversial moment in boxing history (which is saying something). Halfway through the first round, Ali caught Liston with a right jab that knocked Liston to the canvas. Ali stood over Liston and shouted at him to get up, and this delayed the referee’s count. Liston finally got to his feet and continued to fight, but the fight was stopped after the official timekeeper signaled that he had counted Liston out (after much confusion). Not many in attendance saw the punch connect, and it would become known as “The Phantom Punch.” It is believed that Liston took a dive due to huge debts to the mafia. Footage shows a slight connection was made, but whether or not it was a knockout punch remains inconclusive and hotly debated.