The 5 Biggest Betting Scandals in Pro Sports History

By | February 20, 2021

Throughout history, one of the biggest concerns surrounding legalized sports gambling is that it would cause bettors to look for ways to manipulate the outcomes of games. The stories in this article prove that was taking place long before you could put in a parlay from the palm of your hand.

Some of these scandals may be familiar, some may be new, but they’re all a reminder that occasionally, greed beats competitive integrity.

In this article, I’ll lay out five of the biggest gambling scandals that have taken place throughout the history of professional sports.

1 – Black Sox

I’m sorry if this one goes without saying, but on any list of the biggest gambling scandals in professional sports, it must be mentioned.

I’ll keep it brief because most readers are probably familiar with the story already. But if for some reason it’s passed you by, here’s what you need to know to get up to speed.

All the way back in 1919, the AL winning Chicago White Sox were up against the NL’s Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. The Sox went into the Fall Classic (no word on if it was called that in those days) as a heavy favorite—until they weren’t.

If you understand betting markets, you recognize that when a heavy favorite becomes a less-heavy favorite that typically means money is coming in on the other side. In this case, huge amounts of money were put on the Reds, despite being a clear underdog on the field.

This was the first thing that tipped off investigators that there might be a fix in on the series. Ultimately, these suspicions proved to be true.

In the end, the Reds won the series 5-3 (the World Series was “best of 9” in those days). While not all of the White Sox players were in on the fix, a grand jury would eventually indict eight of the players and five gamblers accused of setting up the scheme.

Though the players never faced criminal charges, all eight of the players, including Joe Jackson, were ultimately banned from the game of baseball.

2 – Charlie Hustle

Pete Rose, known affectionately in the baseball world as Charlie Hustle, had a fall from grace that is rivaled by few.

Throughout his 24 seasons as a Major League player, he was among the most revered players in the game due to his hard-nosed attitude on the field. Unfortunately, this same competitive drive was also seen in his gambling habits.

Major League Baseball conducted an investigation into the rumors surrounding Rose’s gambling in 1989. It was revealed that he had been betting on the sport as manager of the Reds, a major violation of league policy. This was only of the beginning of a story that will endure for the remainder of Rose’s life.

The debate surrounding Pete Rose’s scandal is complex. First, many argue that although he bet on the game while he was actively involved in the league, he never bet against his own team. While this can’t be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, his competitive spirit was obvious. And to suggest he would ever lose on purpose seems to ignore this.

Ultimately, just like the Black Sox conspirators, Pete Rose was banned from the game and remains in exile today despite many appeals for reinstatement. As crazy as it is, the decision to uphold his banishment means that the career leader in home runs (Barry Bonds) and the career leader in hits (Pete Rose) are both absent from the Baseball Hall of Fame.

3 – Tim Donaghy

When an official gets caught in a gambling scandal, the consequences are felt throughout the league. Fans who don’t believe there’s a competitive balance tend to look elsewhere for their sports entertainment. That’s why this next scandal caused massive reform in the NBA and reminded everyone that sometimes the refs actually are “in on it.”

Tim Donaghy had been an NBA official for more than 14 seasons. For more than 800 games, his reputation was no different than any other ref in the league at the time. That would all change immediately in the summer of 2007.

After being suspended from the league following a guilty plea when facing federal charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, he was sentenced to more than a year in prison and fined to the tune of half a million dollars.

Here’s How It All Started:

Two of Donaghy’s acquaintances that he knew from his time in Philadelphia had decided to bet on games Donaghy officiated. The trio set up a simple enough operation. Donaghy would supply them with information on games he was officiating, and he would get paid if the outcome went in their favor.

Though it was never proven that he altered his calls based on the wagers that were placed, it’s widely-believed that upon review, the evidence is convincing that it did impact his decisions with the whistle.

Perhaps the worst part of this particular scandal was the seed of distrust which was sown by Donaghy in the wake of his punishment. He alleged that NBA referees league-wide were manipulated by the league itself to prefer certain game outcomes in order to maximize interest and TV ratings. David Stern was faced with the unenviable task of dispelling these allegations, but the damage had already been done.

With that being said, new regulations were put in place to prevent this sort of thing from happening ever again. As for Donaghy’s current state? He’s partnered with several online sportsbooks and even started a podcast on the subject. Some folks just don’t have any shame.

4 – Futbol Fix

If it seems like all the scandalous gambling behavior is native only to the US leagues, here’s one that proves greed knows no national boundaries.

The European football scandal, which took place in 2009, reverberated throughout the continent and led to widespread speculation into the integrity of the outcomes on the pitch. Here’s how it went down.

According to intelligence provided by the Bochum, Germany prosecutor’s office in late 2009, more than 200 matches had been influenced by gambling since the start of the year. They alleged that two brothers from Croatia—Ante and Milan Sapina—were responsible for bribing players, coaches, and officials in matches that took place in Europe and Asia.

Much Like the NBA Scandal, Officials Were in on the Scheme

UEFA suspended a Ukrainian referee in connection with the operation. This time, he was linked to a member of the “betting mafia” and was accused of accepting bribes, which was confirmed via wiretaps. A number of raids were executed shortly after the initial revelation in November of 2009. Arrests were made in a number of different countries, with 15 coming from Germany. In addition, millions of dollars in cash and property were seized by the authorities.

As far as jail time, most participants got off relatively light considering the magnitude of a scandal that spanned two continents. Ante Sapina, one of the brothers initially proved to be involved, received five years. More than a dozen others received sentences ranging from a few months to three years.

5 – The Golden Boy

I’m including this one for the sake of levity. Whereas the other scandals listed here ended in jail time, lifetime bans, or other legal sanctions, this one is a bit less serious.

Paul Hornung (known affectionately as the Golden Boy) and Ales Karras were NFL stars during the early ‘60s. Hornung was the League MVP for the Packers in 1961, and Karras was a star defensive lineman for the Lions.

Aside from their interest in playing football, the two enjoyed betting on it as well. In those days, the salaries weren’t exactly millions of dollars so it’s hard to blame them for looking for a little supplemental income.

The two were accused of betting on other NFL games, but it was revealed that they never bet against their own teams. Also, the bets were never more than a few hundred dollars (although a few hundred dollars were nothing to scoff at back then).

Karas and Hornung were suspended by league commissioner Pete Rozelle for an entire season. Rozelle recognized the league’s popularity was rapidly growing, and he wanted to make sure this growth wasn’t stunted by allegations of gambling influence. Fair enough.

One humorous anecdote that came years later involved Karras: In 1964, a referee asked him to pick heads or tails for the pre-game coin toss. His response?

“Sorry, sir, I’m not permitted to gamble.”

Conclusion

If all these scandals have left you feeling cynical about the competitive integrity of professional sports, remember that these took place over the course of 100 years.

If you think this industry is wrought with corruption, I’ll leave you with one piece of advice: Stay away from articles about scandals in the business or investment world.

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