10 Plausible Sports Conspiracy Theories

After intercepting a second quarter pass by New England quarterback Tom Brady, Indianapolis Colts linebacker D'Qwell Jackson runs with the ball that sparked the controversy over the charges that the Patriots were using underinflated footballs. Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Every serious sports fan is a closet conspiracy theorist. When your team loses the championship game on a bad call, some small part of you wonders if the refs weren't paid off. Another small part of you — the angrier, more obnoxious part — might even scrawl unfounded accusations all over the Internet.

Sports conspiracy theories have existed for decades — hockey fanatics in Toronto still gripe about Ottawa players supposedly salting the ice in a Stanley Cup game more than 100 years ago — but the Internet had thrown gas on the conspiracy fire [source: MacGregor].

Take the 2015 Super Bowl as one shining example [source: Curtis]:

  • First, there was "Deflategate," a conspiracy involving the alleged intentional deflation of footballs by the Patriots in their AFC championship game against the Indianapolis Colts.
  • Then there was "Lynchghazi," the alleged decision by Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll to deny star running back Marshawn Lynch the MVP by passing instead of rushing on the (failed) final play of the game.
  • And don't even get us started on the Illuminati imagery in Katy Perry's halftime show. That's just obvious!

Not all sports conspiracy theories are totally nuts, though. Over the decades, some of the most outlandish ones have proven to be absolutely true. We've collected a list of 10 crazy-sounding sports conspiracies that are entirely plausible.

Sonny Liston and the 'Phantom Punch'
A gloating Muhammad Ali stands over Sonny Liston who was KO'd in the first round. Or did Liston take a dive? Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On May 25, 1965, the heavyweight boxing championship of the world was decided in a tiny arena in Lewiston, Maine. The bout was a rematch between the brash young motormouth Muhammad Ali and the former champion Sonny Liston. A year earlier, Ali has shocked the world by stealing the title from Liston, who failed to return from a 7th-round shoulder injury.

In the first round of this second championship fight, Ali displayed his infamous finesse, bouncing light-footed around the ring while the shorter, thicker Liston lunged with jabs and body blows. As Liston leaned in for a left to Ali's face, the champ dodged and landed a glancing right hook to Liston's head, and the big man goes down. But he's getting up, right? No? What!

Ali's half-hearted right hook became instantly known as the "phantom punch" and Liston's collapse was dismissed as a dive. Sadly, the accusations were probably true. Liston had a deeply troubled life — born into extreme poverty, illiterate, in and out of jail for robbery and assault — and he was managed by men with known Mafia ties [source: Puma].

Years later, Liston denied that the mob fixed the fight, but blamed his obvious dive on Ali's association with the Black Muslims.

"That guy [Ali] was crazy," Liston told a Sports Illustrated reporter. "I didn't want anything to do with him. And the Muslims were coming up. Who needed that? So I went down. I wasn't hit."

Michael Jordan's 'Flu Game'
Michael Jordan didn’t play like a man with stomach flu in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA finals. He scored 38 points and helped his team to a narrow victory over the Utah Jazz. JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images

Michael Jordan is one of most heralded athletes in the history of sports, and perhaps his greatest performance came on the night of June 11, 1997, when he battled back from a crippling case of intestinal flu to lead his Chicago Bulls to victory in Game 5 of the NBA championship series against the Utah Jazz. At least that's the story we've always heard.

Jordan's personal trainer, Tim Grover, told ESPN's TruHoops TV in 2013, that Jordan wasn't suffering from the flu that night, but a deliberate case of food poisoning.

The Bulls were staying at a hotel in small-town Park City, Utah, where everybody would have known their location. It was late at night and Jordan got hungry, so they ordered a pizza. "Five guys came to deliver this pizza," Grover said [source: Abbott].

Jordan's trainer was immediately suspicious, but the basketball legend couldn't resist a few slices. In the middle of the night, Grover got a frantic phone call to come to Jordan's room. The champ was curled up in the fetal position, shaking with fever, sicker than he had ever been in his life [source: Weinberg].

The team doctors told Jordan he would have to miss the next night's game against the Jazz, but the relentless competitor stumbled into the gym just hours before tip-off. Visibly weak, Jordan mustered the strength to score 38 points in the Bull's 90-87 victory.

Whether an intestinal flu or intentional food poisoning, Jordan simply couldn't be stopped. The Bulls went to win the NBA championship in Game 6.

The 'Shot Heard 'Round the World' Was a Cheat
Bobby Thomson (center top) is mobbed by happy teammates after he hit the 'shot heard 'round the world' home run which won the game and the National League pennant for the New York Giants over the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951. Bruce Bennett Studio/Getty Images

It's the most famous homerun in baseball history. In the 9th inning of the final playoff game between the 1951 New York Giants and their archrival Brooklyn Dodgers, Giants outfielder Bobby Thomson cracked a three-run homer, clinching the championship title in front of a national TV audience.

"The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!" screamed radio announcer Russ Hodges as Thomson rounded the bases into a throng of ecstatic teammates.

But was Thomson's historic blast — dubbed the "shot heard 'round the world" — the result of epic athletic skill or something far less heroic? According to several noted sports journalists, the 1951 Giants were experts in the art of sign-stealing, intercepting the opposing catcher's signs — fastball, curve ball, slider — and tipping off the batter [source: Goldstein].

In Joshua Prager's book "The Echoing Green," the Wall Street Journal sports reporter confirmed that Giants' coach Herman Franks would use a telescope to steal the signs from a centerfield clubhouse, then relay the info via a buzzer system to the bullpen, where another player would give a signal to the hitter [source: Miller].

The practice of sign-stealing — widespread throughout the major leagues, then and now — is not officially illegal, but it's underhanded at best. Thomson admitted that the Giants routinely stole signs, but denies being tipped off to the fastball that became the "shot heard round the world" [source: Goldstein].

Michael Phelps' 'Golden Touch'
Milorad Cavic of Serbia (L) and Michael Phelps of the United States reach for the wall in the men's 100m Butterfly Final at the Beijing Olympics. Who really won? Nick Laham/Getty Images

Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps' record-breaking performance in the 2008 Beijing Games — eight gold medals, the most first-place finishes in any Olympic sport, ever — was the sports storyline of the year.

Adding to the excitement was the story of his seventh gold of the games. Phelps' mounted an impossible comeback, surging from several lengths behind in the 100-meter butterfly to touch the wall exactly 0.01 of a second before Serbia's Milorad Cavic.

Or did he?

Watching the video replay frame by frame, it looks like Cavic has the clear lead within inches of reaching the wall. But then Phelps manages one final half-lunge as Cavic glides to what he believes is guaranteed gold. Did Phelps' outsized hands really reach the wall first?

Conspiracy theorists argue that too much history was riding on Phelps' victory to allow an upset, and that since Phelps was a spokesperson for Omega, the official timekeeper of the event, something was fishy with the clock [source: Klein]. Another theory says that Phelps' strong push to the wall caused a wave of water to hit the touch pad, causing it to think contact had been made. Omega said that was impossible [source: Fanning]. Suspiciously, no official photos were released by Olympic officials of the supposedly "photo" finish.

Serbian Olympic officials briefly protested, but Cavic, for his part, was a gracious silver medalist, blogging "there's nothing wrong with losing to the greatest swimmer there has ever been" [source: Mackey].

Bobby Riggs Deliberately Lost the 'Battle of the Sexes'
Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs announce that they will play each other for a winning check of $100,000, at a press conference in 1973. © Bettmann/CORBIS

On Sept. 20, 1973, more than 50 million Americans tuned in to watch a tennis match. It wasn't the finals of Wimbledon or the U.S. Open. It was a contest between one of the greatest female tennis players of her time, 29-year-old Billie Jean King, and a 55-year-old blowhard and former tennis great named Bobby Riggs [source: Van Natta, Jr.].

Dubbed the "Battle of the Sexes," the circus-like tennis match was shamelessly promoted by Riggs as definitive proof that men were better at sports than women, at any age and at any level of play.

The King match was actually the second "Battle of the Sexes." Four months earlier, Riggs had roundly defeated the No. 1 female tennis player in world, Margaret Court [source: Roberts]. But unlike Court, who underestimated the political consequences of the match, King vowed to crush Riggs and his small-minded chauvinism once and for all.

And that's exactly what she did, thoroughly demoralizing Riggs in three straight sets. Riggs, who had played so strategically during his match with Court, lobbed shot after shot directly into King's red zone. It was almost as if he had given up.

Or was that his plan all along?

According to a revelatory 2013 article by ESPN's "Outside the Lines," Riggs masterminded the Battle of the Sexes — and intentionally threw it — to free himself from gambling debts. Indebted to the mob for $100,000, Riggs promised a Vegas-quality spectacle that would earn his Mafia creditors millions by betting against him [source: Van Natta, Jr.]. Although he was a serious gambler, Riggs denied throwing the match.

Curt Schilling's 'Bloody Sock'
A blood stain shows on the sock of Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling as he pitches against the St. Louis Cardinals in the first inning of Game 2 of the World Series at Fenway Park in Boston, 2004. Detractors said the stain was really ketchup. © RAY STUBBLEBINE/Reuters/Corbis

The championship journey of the 2004 Boston Red Sox is one of the greatest stories in the history of American sport. Dogged by the "Curse of the Bambino," the Red Sox entered the 2004 postseason without a World Series title in 86 years. Down by three games to the hated New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series (ALCS), the Red Sox mounted a miraculous comeback.

Against incredible odds, the Red Sox would go on to win the pennant and then the 100th World Series, lifting the curse forever. And the enduring symbol of Boston's hard-nosed grit and heart was, yes, a bloody sock.

Curt Schilling, Boston's ace starter, suffered an ankle injury that required last-minute surgery before his appearance in Game 6 of the ALCS. As Schilling pitched his way to five strikeouts and only one run in seven innings, the TV cameras returned again and again to his right sock, stained near the ankle with an amoeba of blood.

Schilling went on to bloody a second sock in Game 2 of the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, prompting accusations of showmanship. Schilling was hardly a media darling, and commentators and columnists openly speculated that Schilling had doctored the sock with ketchup or paint to inflate his own heroics [source: Wilbur].

Whether true blood or Heinz, the bloody sock is part of baseball legend. The second sock recently sold at auction for more than $92,000 [source: Ly]. You want fries with that?

NBA Teams 'Tank' for Better Draft Picks
An unintended consequence of the lottery system is the widespread tactic of 'tanking,' or losing games on purpose in order to finish the season with the worst record in the league. This improves the team's odds of landing a top prospect next year. Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Every June, the owners and coaches of the National Basketball Association (NBA) gather to draft the best college players. To make the draft fair — and to improve the overall quality of the teams — the NBA instituted a lottery system in which the lowest ranked teams received better odds of landing a top prospect. In fact, the club with the very worst record in the NBA has a 25 percent chance of nabbing the No. 1 draft pick [source: Petchesky].

The unintended consequence of the lottery system is the widespread tactic of "tanking," or losing games on purpose in order to finish the season with the worst record in the league. Tanking is less of a conspiracy theory and more of a fully accepted fact of NBA life. No one is surprised when a lousy team starts benching its best players with questionable "groin injuries" once it's mathematically impossible for them to make the playoffs [source: Kang].

NBA commissioner Adam Silver flatly denies that tanking exists, arguing that no NBA coach or player is "going out there to lose" [source: Shelburne]. Nice try, Silver. Even the fans of NBA teams get in on the act, actively rooting against their squad — it's called "fantanking" — and wearing "Please Lose!" shirts to games [source: NBAtanking.com].

Wayne Gretzky and 'The Trade'
A visibly distraught Wayne Gretzky sits at the press conference where his trade from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings is announced in 1988. Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images

Aug. 9, 1988 is a day that will live in infamy... in Canada, at least. Known across the frozen north as "The Trade," that was the fateful day that Canadian hockey legend Wayne Gretzky was traded away from the Edmonton Oilers — a team he had led to four Stanley Cup victories in five seasons — to the Los Angeles Kings [source: Fitz-Gerald].

In a press conference announcing the trade, Gretzky looked visibly distraught about the trade. The conspiracy theories flowed like a river of Labatt Blue, but the leading contender was that the NHL forced the trade to breathe life back into U.S. hockey [source: Wenger and Cook]. Either that, or Gretzky's wife — actress Janet Jones of "Police Academy 5: Assignment: Miami Beach" — wanted to try her hand at Hollywood [source: Fitz-Gerald].

The more likely scenario is that the Oilers management knew they were going to lose Gretzky to free agency very soon, so they chose to cash in while they still could. In exchange for Gretzky and two other players, the Kings ponied up two players, three first-round draft picks, and $15 million paid directly to Peter Pocklington, the Oilers' owner [sources: Fitz-Gerald, Piercy].

Gretzky did, indeed, breathe life and energy into the L.A. Kings, but he would only take them to one Stanley Cup final in 1993, where the Americans lost to Montreal [source: Piercy].

MLB Owners Collude to Lower Salaries
The owner of the Kansas City Royals, Ewing Kauffman, and his wife Muriel waved to the fans prior to the start of a World Series game in 1985. Later that year, ballplayers began suspecting team owners of collusion to keep salaries down. Focus on Sport/Getty Images

It's easy for fans to forget, but professional sports is a business, plain and simple. The owners of these teams invest millions in acquiring and developing talent, not only to win a championship title, but to draw more fans to the stadium, sell more merchandise and win more lucrative TV contracts. In short, winning pays!

Nothing cuts into an owner's profits like high player salaries. Players and owners have been butting heads over contract disputes for decades. In 1975, the Major League Baseball Players Association won the right to free agency [source: MLBPA]. When a player's contract runs out, other teams can bid for his talents, with the best players commanding millions of dollars a year.

Sick of paying outlandish salaries to prized free agents, the MLB owners devised a scheme to break the system. After the 1985, 1986 and 1987 seasons, the owners made a secret pact not to sign almost any free agents [source: MLBPA]. If no one started a bidding war, then the salaries wouldn't go up and more players would stay with their original team. For instance, following the 1985 season, only four of 35 free agents got contracts with new teams.

The problem is that it's illegal. The Players Association took the owners to court for collusion and won $280 million in damages [source: MLBPA]. Consider this one "conspiracy proven."

The Super Bowl 'Blackout' was Rigged
Joe Flacco, No. 5 of the Baltimore Ravens, looks on during the power outage in the third quarter of Super Bowl XLVII against the San Francisco 49ers in New Orleans in 2013. Some Ravens players think the blackout happened on purpose. Rob Tringali/SportsChrome/Getty Images

Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans was a tale of two games: before the blackout and after the blackout.

The Baltimore Ravens dominated the San Francisco 49ers in the first half, and extended their lead in the opening minutes of the second half with a 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, making the score 28 to6 [source: Yasinskas].

Then, to the shock of the fans in the stadium and the worldwide TV audience, the lights went out in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. For nearly 35 minutes, stadium officials struggled to regain power. Meanwhile, players shuffled around the field, unsure of when the game would resume.

Some Baltimore players immediately jumped to conclusions. "They're trying to take our momentum," Baltimore safety Ed Reed remembers his teammates grumbling. And that's exactly what happened. When the lights came back on, it felt like a totally new game, with the 49ers rallying for 17 points in only 4 minutes and almost stealing the 2013 Super Bowl away from the stunned Ravens [source: Yasinskas].

An investigation determined that either a malfunctioning switch or an incorrect electrical setting was to blame for the blackout, but that didn't stop the conspiracy theorists [source: Hanna]. Former Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis still insists that it was a ploy by NFL management to halt a potential blowout.

"I'm not gonna accuse nobody of nothing— because I don't know facts," Lewis told NFL films. "But you're a zillion-dollar company, and your lights go out? No. [Laughs] No way."


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Author's Note: 10 Plausible Sports Conspiracies

I'm highly skeptical of conspiracy theories. I have a hard time believing that anyone would risk their career, their reputation or even jail time just to pull off an elaborate scam. But then I read about characters like Bobby Riggs, someone desperate enough to engineer an elaborate publicity stunt, selling himself as a chauvinist pig and a braggart — not to mention a lousy tennis player — in order to free himself from gambling debt. Or the Utah fans who may or may not have poisoned Michael Jordan to prevent him from playing in the finals. Sports tap into some deeply engrained instincts — tribalism, conquest, violence — and when combined with lots and lots of money, I guess anything is possible.

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