At no point in history have conspiracy theories ever been more popular, or more accessible. Everyone from the President of the United States to TMZ espouses them. Whether you subscribe to the theory of chemtrails, or that Tupac and Biggie live in peaceful harmony on a remote island, there’s a theory for every taste.
Sports betting conspiracies are as old as sport itself, and from the 20th century onwards there’s been many notable theories, ranging from mob enforced fixes to biased referees all the way to mid-match assassination threats. For this article, we dispense with Ockham’s razor and explore five sports conspiracy theories that are so wild they just might just have some legs.
1. “The Black Sox” Conspiracy of 1919
Despite taking place a century ago, the “Black Sox” baseball scandal is one of the most famous in professional sports history. It’s been referenced in everything from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby to The Godfather II. The tale was immortalized in Eight Men Out, which is one of our favorite movies about sports betting.
The scandal occurred during the 1919 World Series, when 8 members of the Chicago White Sox were accused of intentionally throwing the series against the Cincinnati Reds. For doing so, they were compensated by mobster Arnold Rothstein’s sports betting syndicate.
The alleged conspiracy emerged from Charles Comiskey’s (owner of the White Sox) penny-pinching antics. Despite the White Sox having won the pennant in 1917 – and consistently being one of the best teams in baseball – Comiskey had a long history of grossly underpaying those in his employ. In fact, it’s been rumored that the name “Black Sox” came from Comiskey’s reluctance to pay for the laundering of player’s white jerseys, leaving them stained with the accumulation of sweat, dirt, and grime.
Understandably frustrated, eight players purportedly agreed to fix the World Series for the mob. While this motivation has never been determined conclusively, it’s widely accepted that the majority of these eight players fixed the series not solely for money, but to get back at Comiskey, too.
By September of the following year, the buzz around the White Sox was loud enough that a grand jury was summoned to investigate the series. Eight players from the White Sox were indicted, including Eddie Cicotte, the pitcher and best player on the White Sox. Though he rescinded his initial confession, he and his 7 compatriots were ultimately found not guilty. Despite an innocent verdict in the eyes of the law, Cicotte and his conspirators received a lifetime ban from professional baseball.
So, was the series really fixed? We’ll never know for sure.
2. Tim Donaghy’s Career, 1994-2007
Tim Donaghy, the disgraced NBA referee, is perhaps the most notorious figure in modern sports betting conspiracy history. He always finds a way to get back into the news, whether with his wild personal life or vitriolic statements against the NBA.
In 2007, the New York Post picked up a story, claiming that the FBI was investigating a crooked NBA referee, later revealed to be Donaghy. The NBA acted quickly to quash the negative press, and Donaghy was immediately fired. He would plead guilty to federal fraud later that year, admitting to purposefully affecting point spreads and game outcomes to help not only himself but other sports bettors as well.
Donaghy used coded language to tip off handicappers about the physical condition of certain players, as well as player-referee relations. He also admitted to using his ability to call fouls, influencing the end result of games. Reported to have a severe gambling problem, many believe Donaghy fixed games to pay off his own gambling debts.
How Was Tim Donaghy Caught?
In an interview with ESPN, expert sports betting “sharp” R.J. Bell found some remarkable data on Donaghy. Bell discovered that – out of 10 consecutive games reffed by Donaghy in 2007 – there were point spreads that shifted 1.5 points or more before tip-off. This is a clear indication of massive wagers being stake on one side the event. Even more suspicious was that the side of the big money wagers won during each of these 10 games.
Bell maintains that, if Donaghy hadn’t been publicly outed by the FBI, it would have been incredibly hard to catch him. It’s clear that NBA sports betting conspiracies might not be limited to the nefarious actions of just one rogue ref.
Do Refs Still Throw NBA Throw Games?
There are many different theories on the pervasiveness of crooked refs in the NBA, and how much control they have over the specific outcomes of games.
Handicapper Brandon Lang (the handicapper upon which Two for Money is based on) has gone on record stating how easy it is for a sports referee to fix an NBA game, and has said that many crooked officials are still working in the NBA.
Lang states that one official can have a direct influence on the outcome of a game up to 75% of the times. For example, an NBA referee can call enough fouls on both teams, which allows enough free throws to drive up a game’s score.
That Tim Donaghy was engaged in a conspiracy to affect the results of NBA game to tip results in favor of sports bettors is beyond doubt. After all, he wouldn’t have pleaded guilty unless the evidence against him was absolutely overwhelming. What isn’t conclusive, is the extent of the conspiracy, and if other referees in the NBA were engaged in either the same or similar betting enterprises.
3. Ali vs. Liston, Round II
The May 25th, 1965 boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston (former heavyweight champion of the world) is one of the most legendary controversies, in that it is impossible to decipher its exact motivation.
Having captured the heavyweight title from Liston in 1964, Ali got back into the ring with him at St. Dominic’s Hall in Lewiston, Maine. Since then, boxing fans have debated the so-called “phantom punch” that Ali delivered to Liston in the second round.
The “phantom punch” refers to the blow that sent Liston to the canvas just under two minutes into the first round. To many, the punch was relatively innocuous. To others, it was an ideally-placed counter punch that would knock out even the most hardened opponent.
Regardless, Liston stayed down for 10 seconds, and Ali won the decision on a technical knockout. Many in the arena didn’t see the punch, and many reported hearing Ali yell, “Get up and fight, sucker!” in the immediate aftermath. It led many to believe that Liston purposefully threw the match.
Why Would Liston Have Thrown the Match?
The most common theory is that the mob pressured Liston to go down as part of an extensive sports betting coup. Others believe that Liston was heavily in debt to the mafia, taking a dive to cover his debts. There are also rumors that members of the Nation of Islam (which Ali was deeply involved in) visited Liston while he was training, threatening him with murder if he beat Ali.
A slight, more incredible variation states that the National of Islam had kidnapped Liston’s wife and son, telling him to throw the match if he ever wanted to see his family alive again. One of the most outlandish conspiracies involves Liston believing that Malcolm X supporters were going to try to assassinate Ali in the ring, and Liston didn’t want to be caught in the crossfire.
Was Liston simply ill-prepared for the fight? He had a reputation for smoking and drinking heavily, which took an increased toll on him in the following years. Maybe he just didn’t want to fall prey to Ali’s superior prowess in the ring.
One thing is for sure – we will never know what really felled Liston in 1965.
4. Battle of the Sexes
The “Battles of the Sexes” was a 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King (the second-ranked female tennis player in the world), and retired Wimbledon champion, Bobby Riggs. The match was designed to test out whether a top female competitor could hold court with a male counterpart, and the winner was set to receive a cool $100,000 prize.
Earlier in 1973, Riggs had challenged Margaret Court (the number one female tennis player in the world at the time) to a game of tennis, and had wiped the floor with her with 6-1 and 6-2 victories in less than an hour.
The Shocking Upset of King vs. Riggs
When Riggs went up against King, however, he lost 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, instantly leading to widespread suspicion in the tennis community. Many suggested that he had intentionally thrown the match.
Hal Shaw, a golf instructor in Tampa, stoked the flames when he claimed to have overheard Frank Ragano (noted mob attorney) discussing match-fixing plans with Santo Trafficante Jr. and Carlos Marcello. Shaw claims to have heard the mobsters explaining how they would erase Riggs’ massive gambling debt if he threw the match and secured lucrative bets for their crime syndicate.
What really happened is impossible to say. Riggs maintains innocence, but speculation remains. If he really was up to his ears in debt to the mob, the motive is clear.
One thing that’s clear, however, is that Billie Jean King doesn’t buy the fact that her match with Riggs was a sports betting conspiracy. She was quick to dismiss any talk of a conspiracy, stating “A lot of people, men, particularly, don’t like it if a woman wins. They make up stories. They start just thinking about it more and more. It’s hard on them. It’s very hard on their egos.”
The “Battle of the Sexes” has since been turned into a blockbuster Hollywood film of the same name. Conspiracy or not, it marks a very significant event in the history of gender relations.
5. Operation Slapshot
The NHL has undergone a lot of different sports betting scandals since the 1980s (everyone remembers Jaromir Jagr and Thomas Vanek admitting to extensive sports betting), but there has only been one thing even resembling a sports betting conspiracy in the league’s history.
Dubbed “Operation Slapshot” by the FBI, the assistant coach of the Phoenix Coyotes, Rick Tocchet, was convicted of running an illegal sports betting operation. Implicated in “Operation Slapshot” were many other people involved in the NHL, from players to coaches to managers.
Rick Tocchet pleaded guilty to promoting illicit sports betting, as well as criminal conspiracy. He was given two years probation for his involvement in the betting ring. It is alleged that Tocchet himself took in over $1.7 million on 1,000 sports wagers in only one 40-day period!.
Given the amount of money wagered in so few bets, it is little wonder that so many famous NHL athletes were implicated in the ring and subject to FBI investigation. Vancouver Canucks coach Travis Green, American superstar (and current NBC commentator) Jeremy Roenick, and Wayne Gretzky’s wife, Janet Gretzky.
Ultimately, no one was found of any wrongdoing under the eyes of the law except for Tocchet and the state trooper who founded the ring with him, James Harney. In a bizarre twist of events, at the time of writing, Tocchet is now the head coach of the Coyotes.
Here’s where the conspiratorial aspect comes into play: There were a lot of NHL players, coaches, and managers involved in the betting ring, even though there were only a few names mentioned publicly. Tocchet maintains that the bets were all on football and basketball, and he was not involved in any bets on hockey. Is this true? Much like every other entry on this list, we will never know definitively.
How Realistic Are These Theories Anyways?
Fixing the results of sporting events is actually quite plausible. If Volkswagen is willing to manipulate its emissions output, HSBC is willing to launder money for Mexican Drug Cartels, and Wells Fargo creates fake accounts to generate fraudulent profits, is it really that outlandish that sporting events have been manipulated, too?
How many more sports betting conspiracies will be uncovered? All it takes is a few corrupt referees or athletes to influence the result of a sporting event. How many events have been fixed that we’re unaware of? We’ll certainly never know, but this doubtless adds to the irresistible mystique of both the world of sports and sports betting.