The 8 Biggest Controversies In Sports History

This article was first published on May 19th 2015

The NFL world has been rocked by the news of Tom Brady’s four-game ban, plus other sanctions imposed on the Patriots, for the DeflateGate controversy surrounding their AFC Championship victory over the Indianapolis Colts. The news isn’t the first time the Patriots have been in trouble, and the deflated footballs story is just the last (and least) of a long line of controversies to hit the National Football League this year alone.

The year opened up with the domestic violence cases of Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, before the severity of concussions and the drastic long-term effect playing football can have on retired players came to the forefront. Bill Belichick has had his hands dirty before too, with 2007’s SpyGate, where the Patriots were found guilty in using stadium cameras to work out opposing teams’ defensive calls. Football is subtly and secretly becoming a game of how to con the system off the field, as much as it is a game played on it.

Here, we take a look at some of the other biggest controversies to hit the world of sport in recent times.

The Armstrong Lie

Oprah Interviews Lance Armstrong

Lance Armstrong admits his career of lies on the Oprah Winfrey show. Photo: Getty Images

For years and years, Lance Armstrong was accused of taking various performance enhancing drugs, not least by former teammates of his that saw the offences with their own eyes, but the American cyclist not only vehemently denied all allegations, but went to extreme lengths to target those making the true allegations. Frankie and Betsy Andreu were two of many of Armstrong’s victims, and were some of the loudest voices in exposing the Texan for the liar he truly was.

The battle was long and tough, and largely played out in the news media and public relations agencies. Armstrong hid his lies behind his cancer foundation, and often used his illness and charity as a defence of his character, thus ‘proving’ he couldn’t have taken PEDs. The disgraced cyclist eventually came clean in a telling airing of The Oprah Winfrey Show and was stripped of the seven consecutive Tour de France titles he won between 1999 and 2005.

Alex Gibney’s documentary The Armstrong Lie is a detailed and brilliant crafted account of Armstrong’s career of lies and cheating.

The Ryan Giggs, John Terry, and Wayne Bridge Affairs


The famous handshake snub

Two scandals in one for this segment. Ryan Giggs’s family man image was torn to shreds in 2011/12 when it was revealed that he was probably a bit too much of a family man. The Welshman’s extra-marital affairs were hidden under a super-injunction for a long time before finally entering the public domain. Giggs had an affair with the wife of his brother, Natasha Giggs, and glamour model Imogen Thomas.

A couple of years earlier, the England national squad was rattled to learn of captain John Terry’s affair with the girlfriend of then-teammate Wayne Bridge. The controversy eventually led to the much publicised handshake-snub between the two players ahead of a Premier League meeting between Chelsea and Manchester City at Stamford Bridge, which City won 2-4.

John Terry was to be back in the news for the wrong reasons only a couple of short years later, when he was found to have racially abused QPR’s Anton Ferdinand. Terry was stripped of the England captaincy (for the second time) and eventually retired from international football in September of 2012, following the string of controversies.


In 2006, many of Italy’s top clubs were discovered to have been involved in a conspiracy ring where they chose referees for their games that would be more favourable to their teams. The scandal shattered the already-diminishing image of Italian football, despite Italy’s remarkable World Cup win that summer. Juventus, AC Milan, Lazio, Fiorentina, and Reggina were caught in the scandal, and all were slapped with various points deductions based on the evidence of how illicit they were in the controversy.

The Old Lady were further punished with a relegation to Serie B, and were given fines of millions of euro, as well as having two league titles stripped from them – a punishment those of a Juve persuasion vehemently dispute the legitimacy of.

Baseball’s Steroid Era

Barry Bonds Arraigned In Steroids Perjury Trial

Barry Bonds arraigned in steroids perjury trial. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

An offensive explosion in baseball through the 80s, 90s and trickling into the 21st century saw records shattered almost on a yearly basis. Eventually some truths started to be revealed piece by piece – players couldn’t have gotten that good in that quick a time.

It transpired that there was a huge steroid culture among professional baseball players, and many of the sport’s top names of that era have had their reputations tarnished. In 1998, both Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire were involved in a thrilling chase for Roger Maris’s long-standing record of 61 home runs in a single season. The season culminated with both players breaking the record, with McGwire finishing the year on 70, and Sosa with 66.

After both players were two amongst many that were said to have tested positive for performance enhancing drugs, a new controversy emerged between fans over the legitimacy of the records. Some argue that the record shouldn’t stand, or at least should come with a diminishing asterisk (*) after it, indicating the records weren’t achieved under the same conditions, while others argue that every player was using steroids at the time, and McGwire hit 70 home runs against pitchers that were also using PEDs, a difficulty not faced by Maris (at least of what’s known).

The Hillsborough Disaster 

A Memorial Is Held For The 20th Anniversary Of The Hillsborough Tragedy

Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Everyone knows about what happened at Hillsborough in 1989, and in recent years the previously-covered up details of the horrific and scandalous behaviour of the authorities are emerging into the public domain.

Crowd control organisation at the match was virtually non existent as fans at Liverpool’s FA Cup semi-final with Nottingham Forest were left waiting to get into the ground long enough for a large crowd to gather. An unmanned tunnel was ordered to be opened by Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield causing the troubling scenes inside the ground that led to the death of 96 and injuries to several hundred.

In police reports facts were invented and altered to fit the agenda, and then published as truth by the daily tabloid The Sun, leading to a widely-believed myth that Liverpool fans’ raucous behaviour was the primary reason for the deaths. It’s taken over two decades, but the truth of the awful mismanagement, neglect, and subsequent cover up have finally come to light.

Currently, inquests into the disaster are ongoing and the police involved in the case are being interviewed in bid to hold those responsible to account for the negligence that killed 96 people. The findings of the inquests are expected to be known at some stage later this year.

The Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan Incident 

In January 1994, the world of figure skating was hit with the most controversial incident you’d never expect to find in the world of figure skating. During the US Championships for that year, one of the country’s best skaters, Nancy Kerrigan, was attacked after a practice session, in attempt to break her knee and keep her out of the competition. It transpired that the ex-husband and bodyguard of one of Kerrigan’s biggest rivals for gold, Tonya Harding, had hired Shane Stant to attack Kerrigan to give Harding a better chance at winning the gold.

Harding won the ’94 US Championships, while Kerrigan was forced to withdraw from the tournament with her injuries. However, Harding was later stripped of her title and was banned from participating in future US Championships. Both were selected for the 1994 Winter Olympics, where Harding finished 8th, while fit-again Kerrigan finished 2nd. Three men involved in the attack served jail time for their parts, while Harding herself was given three years probation and a $160,000 fine.

Andres Escobar and Colombia’s 1994 World Cup

At USA ’94, Colombia were one of the surprise favourites to win the tournament, after a surge in domestic Colombian football on the back of drug money being laundered into local football clubs. The national team had grown in stature so much that expectation and pressure on the players became too much for the team to handle.

Pablo Escobar, of no relation to Andres, was one of the most notorious and wealthy criminals in the world, and was head of the drug game in Colombia for many years until American and Colombian authorities killed him in December 1993 and dismantled his cartel. Pablo was one of the main driving forces behind the growing strength of Colombian football and was a particular fan of the national team. When he was removed from the picture however, all hierarchy in the cartel wars was immediately dissolved, resulting in a desperate power grab from the numerous smaller cartels.

Andres Escobar was first choice centre back of the Colombia team that travelled to America for the World Cup, and after a loss in the first game to Romania, the pressure was higher than ever in their second group match with the hosts. Andres scored an own goal as the USA beat the favoured Colombians 2-1, a hugely embarrassing result for the South Americans.

Back home after that summer’s disaster, Andres Escobar decided not to hide from the public and went to a nightclub in Medellín, where aggressors blamed him for the team’s poor results and premature elimination, and shot the footballer six times before driving off in a getaway vehicle, leaving him to bleed to his death. Humberto Castro Muñoz, a cartel bodyguard, confessed to the killing the next day, and served approximately 11 of the 46 (later reduced to 26) years he was sent to prison for.

Richard Keys and Andy Gray’s Sky Banter


Richard Keys, formerly a face of Sky Sports

In 2011, Sky Sports presenters and pundits Richard Keys and Andy Gray found themselves in hot water when recordings of them speaking off-air about a female assistant referee, Sian Massey, were leaked. In the recordings Keys and Gray made derogatory sexist remarks about Massey, and both men lost their jobs after more and more footage was leaked of the pair behaving in sexist manners.

The legacy of the Keys & Gray/Sky fallout has been widely reported and mimicked by many, as Keys defended their behaviour with the now infamous line of, “it was just banter.” 

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