A complete guide to cheating in American sports

Storm in a teacup?
Storm in a teacup?
Image: AP Photo/Charles Krupa
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As you may have heard, the New England Patriots have been accused of deflating footballs in last Sunday’s blowout victory over the Indianapolis Colts, which earned them a trip to the Super Bowl in Arizona on Feb. 1.

An independent investigation by the NFL into “deflategate” found that 11 of the 12 game balls supplied by the Patriots were inflated below the league’s minimum standard, ESPN reported. What impact that might have had on the result of the game (the Patriots won 45 to 7) is currently the subject of a fierce debate. Whether there will be any punishments also remains to be seen.

But at least one thing is clear. If proven true, it would be just the latest chapter in the great American tradition of cheating in sports.

The Chicago “Black Sox” (1919)

This is not cheating in the sense of using underhanded tactics to gain an unfair advantage (in fact, its the exact opposite).  But the shockwaves this scandal sent through the US sporting establishment—and broader society—mean it is impossible to leave out.

Joseph “Shoeless Joe” Jackson is shown in action during his heyday in an undated photo. He was one of the key figures in the infamous “Black Sox” scandal, which rocked baseball.
Joseph “Shoeless Joe” Jackson is shown in action during his heyday in an undated photo. He was one of the key figures in the infamous “Black Sox” scandal, which rocked baseball.
Image: AP Photo

Eight members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox team were accused of accepting money from gamblers to deliberately lose games in that year’s World Series against the Cincinnati Reds (which the White Sox, later dubbed “Black Sox,” lost). “Details of the scandal and the extent to which each man was involved have always been unclear,” notes the Chicago History Museum. “It was, however, front-page news across the country and, despite being acquitted of criminal charges, the players were banned from professional baseball for life.”

The lesson? If you are going to cheat, do it to win, not to lose. 

The New York Giants “sign stealing” (1951)

To baseball fans, the “Shot Heard Around the World” refers to a game-winning home run in the 1951 National League playoff between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers (who in 1958 left for San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively).

Suspicions about the Giants’ conduct in that series had been in the air since the 1960s. But following a lengthy investigation and interviews with surviving participants in 2001, the Wall Street Journal declared (paywall) once and for all that the “Giants were stealing the Dodgers’ signs, the finger signals transmitted from catcher to pitcher that determine the pitch to be thrown.”

The lesson? Do not flinch. Take your cheating with you to the grave.

A fake marathon win (1980)

This ranks among the more bizarre and hilarious scandals we came across. In 1980, the first woman to cross the finish line of the Boston Marathon was a complete unknown named Rosie Ruiz. The Cuban-born New Yorker, competing in only her second marathon, was initially declared the race’s winner.

A few days later, after lengthy video analysis and interviews with officials and other competitors, none of whom had seen Ruiz at earlier checkpoints, the title was revoked. It later emerged that Ruiz had burst out of the crowd about one mile from the finish line and claimed victory. A few months earlier, she had got away with a similar stunt at the New York Marathon, where she finished in 23rd place, after riding part of the race on the Subway.

The lesson? Be more careful than this, especially in today’s wired world. 

Tonya Harding
Tonya Harding
Image: ReutresEnrique Shore

Tonya Harding (1994)

From the amusing to the truly disturbing. In 1994, the figure-skating star Nancy Kerrigan was clubbed in the knee following a practice session for the national championships, in an attack orchestrated by the ex-husband of her competitor, Tonya Harding. A full-blown media frenzy ensued, and four men were ultimately arrested for the attack.

Fully recovered, Kerrigan went on to win a silver medal at the Winter Olympics later that year; after dabbling in pro wresting and boxing, Harding faded into obscurity.

The lesson? Do not physically injure people. Even cheaters should draw the line somewhere.

Performance-enhancing drug abuse (2000s)

Armstrong in better days.
Image: Reuters

In a 2013 TV interview with Oprah Winfrey, after years of denials and amid overwhelming evidence, the star cyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong finally admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs. The scandal has probably cost Armstrong hundreds of millions of dollars in lost earnings.

Armstrong’s fall from grace was spectacular, but he was not alone in his doping. Baseball was rocked to its core by a PED scandal in the early noughties. That dark era’s nadir came in 2011 when Barry Bonds, who holds the record for the most home runs in Major League Baseball, was convicted (paywall) on obstruction of justice charges after denying steroid and growth hormone abuse before a grand jury. (He has not served jail time, and is attempting to get that ruling overthrown).

The lesson? Don’t do drugs. 

Spygate (2007)

A lot of the anger about deflategate stems from the fact that it is not the first time the New England Patriots have been accused of impropriety. In 2007, coach Bill Bellichik was fined $500,000, the Patriots were fined $250,000 and hit with other punishments, after the team was found to have videotaped hand signals being used by the New York Jets from the sidelines during a game that year.

The lesson? Cover your tracks, destroy all evidence. 

Ultimately, we will have to wait a bit longer to know whether deflategate (or ballghazi, as some are calling it) will do lasting damage or prove to be a storm in a teacup. But its far from the worst cheating scandal America has seen in sports.

The lesson? Don’t cheat.