Five Sports Conspiracy Theories

Benjamin HoganAnalyst IAugust 18, 2008

While browsing through Barnes and Noble yesterday, I picked up an $8.00 copy of “Reclaiming History”, Vincent Pugilosi’s ridiculously long book (over 1,600 pages) which attempts to refute conspiracy theories about the assassination of John F. Kennedy.


So last night, while thumbing through that book and keeping an eye on the Olympics, I thought of a way to combine the fascinating worlds of sports and conspiracy theorization into one fun-filled article.


Below are some sports conspiracy theories I’ve heard from fellow fans over the past year or so, and my responses to them.


Some are downright ridiculous. Others might make you think a little bit.


Again, just to clarify, these aren’t my personal conspiracy theories. I don’t really believe in conspiracies.


And, this isn’t a “best of” list. If you know of any other interesting theories, then feel free to share them below.


Finally, this is not a journalistic article. Much of the evidence theorists use to defend these conspiracies are based on hearsay, rumor, or even downright lies. I’m just compiling people’s speculations into one article.


Anyway, let’s get on with it…



1) The USSR took a dive in their 1980 Olympic Hockey Medal game (a.k.a. the “Miracle on Ice”) against the U.S.


The Theory: U.S.-Soviet tensions were running high in 1980, and rumors began to circulate that President Jimmy Carter was seriously considering an American boycott of the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow.


Concerned that a lack of U.S. participation would lower interest in the Moscow games, the USSR hockey team was told to throw their medal round game against the U.S., hoping that America’s thrill from the victory would lessen their hatred of the USSR and stop the boycott.


What the Theorists Say: The USSR was the world’s greatest hockey team. They proved their worth by winning the Challenge Cup in 1979 where they defeated a Canadian All-Star team— not a bunch of inexperienced college kids.


While the U.S. just squeaked by with a 4-3 victory in the Olympics, the young American team didn’t show that level of talent against the Russians just days earlier. The U.S. was routed 10-3 by the world-dominating USSR team in an exhibition match at Madison Square Garden, just two weeks before their Olympic showdown.


Some very questionable coaching decisions during the “Miracle on Ice” game also cast doubt on the Russian team’s authenticity. After the first period, USSR head coach Victor Tikhonov removed the world’s greatest goaltender, Vladislav Tretiak, from the game—a completely unexpected decision which shocked both teams.


Also, the Russians violated fundamental hockey strategy by not pulling their goaltender in the final minutes. Down one goal with only a few minutes to play, the USSR chose to leave goaltender Tretiak in the game instead of substituting him for another attacker, which would have given the Russians a much greater chance to tie the game.


My Verdict: Very, very unlikely. If there’s two things we knew about the Russians in 1980, it’s that they loved hockey, and they loved to embarrass the U.S.

This was the Cold War, folks.


I find it highly implausible that the USSR would sacrifice a gold medal and their reign of world dominance just to add another nation to their Olympic games. 


While the Russian coach’s moves were quite suspect and pretty moronic as well, a lot of coaches have the habit of over-strategizing in big games. Tikhonov probably pulled Tretiak as punishment for giving up a soft goal with seconds left in the first.


And, Tikhonov was probably worried about goal differential when he chose not to pull the goalie at the end. Remember, in 1980 the medal round was not an elimination tournament— it was a four team round-robin playoff. Pulling the goaltender was more likely to give the U.S. a free goal, which could have hurt the USSR in case of a tiebreaker.


But, the biggest piece of evidence against this theory is actually watching the game! Anyone who watched the entire match knows the USSR certainly wasn’t playing to lose. U.S. goaltender Jim Craig had to make an awful lot of ridiculously amazing saves to keep the miracle alive.


2) Bobby Riggs threw his 1973 Battle of the Sexes tennis match against Billie Jean King.


The Theory: Bobby Riggs, a noted hustler and prosperous gambler, placed a sizable sum on Billie Jean King to win the 1973 Battle of the Sexes tennis tournament. He threw the match, and in the process, collected a nice chunk of change.


What the Theorists Say: In the first Battle match played in early 1973, Riggs handily defeated Margaret Court in straight sets: 6-2, 6-1. Then, just months later, he somehow suffered an embarrassing defeat to Billie Jean King.


Bobby Riggs made no effort to hide the fact that he was playing to lose against King.

He literally made no effort to return some of King’s shots to the baseline. When King volleyed up at the net, Riggs gave a halfhearted jog and just watched the ball bounce away.

Riggs made an uncharacteristic amount of errors, allowing King to win by just laying back instead of playing her usual aggressive game.


My Verdict: Although it’s very possible that Riggs threw the match, there is plenty of counter evidence.


First of all, Riggs was a wrinkly 55 years old. He was out of shape and lacked energy. That explains his unwillingness to charge across the court.


Also, in a match of this sort, where Riggs was representing the entire male population, money couldn’t have been only thing that mattered. He must have known that losing the match would make him the laughing stock of the nation.

One of Riggs’ friends stated as much, saying that Riggs was “depressed for six months” after losing the match.


I would put this theory at a coin toss. I could see this happening if Riggs was desperate for money and placed the bet on Billie Jean, not realizing that losing the match would mean a legacy of humiliation. Because after he placed the bet, it would be too late to come to his senses.


That harsh reality check would certainly cause six months of depression.


But it’s just too close to call.


3) The Patriots’ miracle championship season of 2001 was hand-crafted by the NFL


The Theory: After September 11th, the NFL saw an opportunity to cash

in on American patriotism by pushing a Cinderella team named the “Patriots” to the Super Bowl. Along the way, the NFL fixed games and turned a blind eye to team violations to ensure that the Patriots would be champions.


What the Theorists Say: The Patriots reaped the benefits of extremely loose officiating throughout their regular season run, allowing them to magically improve from a 5-11 record in 2000, to an 11-5 record in 2001. That success earned the Pats a second-place conference finish and a bye from the wild-card playoffs.


In their divisional playoff game, the Patriots were behind late in the fourth quarter when Tom Brady fumbled, presumably sealing the game for the Oakland Raiders. However, the referees continued their streak of generosity by using the extinct “tuck rule” to overturn the fumble and allow the Patriots to win the game in overtime.


The NFL knew that games would be close and that field goals could be the difference. So, the NFL replaced their traditional K-balls with special helium-filled footballs for Adam Vinatieri. This allows him to make a 50+ yard field goal in blinding snow, and easily smash a 48-yard game winner in the Super Bowl.


And, as one final insult, Vinatieri kicks the ball through the uprights with only seconds remaining in Super Bowl XXXVIII to put the Patriots up 20-17. But, instead of stopping the clock at two seconds (the amount of time left when the ball went through the posts), the NFL decides to let the clock run out. The St. Louis Rams’ notoriously explosive offense never get their rightful chance to return the final kickoff.


While the Patriots’ defense was the key to their championship, the NFL instead gives the MVP award to overrated pretty boy QB Tom Brady, establishing his future status as an NFL marketing token.


My Verdict: To say that the Patriots won solely because of help from the NFL is a far catch. This theory is mostly a bunch of lies from bitter Patriot-haters.

The NFL wouldn't risk harming the integrity of their highly lucrative game by using helium footballs and bribing players just to ensure that a team with a desirable nickname would win the Super Bowl.

However, favorable officiating is always a realistic possibility.


First off, the helium-filled football idea is completely ludicrous. Adam Vinatieri is the greatest placekicker of all time and has consistently made clutch kicks throughout his many years in the NFL (and anyway, an episode of the show Mythbusters showed that helium-filled footballs don’t travel any farther than air-filled ones).


While the “tuck rule” was quite suspicious, Adam Vinatieri still had to make an almost impossible kick to send the game into overtime, and then another one to win the game. The Raiders had plenty of opportunities to prevent that from happening. The Raiders' loss can’t be blamed solely on the officials.


I did notice many Patriot-friendly calls in Super Bowl XXXVIII. But, none that could have seriously changed the complexion of the game, especially in the Patriots’ final breathtaking drive.


It was ridiculous to let the clock run out after Vinatieri's kick, though. I believe the NFL has since established a rule that only five seconds can run off on a field goal attempt.


Did Spygate help? Maybe. We can't say for sure.

But, all things considered, the Patriots needed to pull off a lot more than some friendly officials could have given them.


How about the AFC Championship game against Pittsburgh, when Drew Bledsoe was called in to save the season for the Pats? I don’t see how any officiating gifts could have helped that situation (only if we find out down the road that Kordell Stewart was paid off to throw some of the worst passes in NFL history).


The Pats earned their stripes in 2001-02, regardless of the fortunate bounces that went their way.



4) Tiger Woods is sitting out the 2008 season to avoid being tested positive for steroids.


The Theory: Tiger has been taking steroids to bulk up over the past few years, and is faking his ACL injury to avoid being tested positive by the PGA.


What the Theorists Say:  Tiger has gotten bigger in recent years, hard for a golfer to do, so he must be taking steroids. What a coincidence that Tiger would hide away just when the PGA Tour begins randomly testing golfers for performance enhancing drugs!


In an effort to avoid being suspended and put his illustrious career in doubt, Tiger is faking an ACL injury. He sold the world on this fake injury with forced grimaces and groans at the highly-watched U.S. Open. He is now resting this 2008 season to allow the steroids to pass through his body.


Besides, why else wouldn’t he have shown up on the public radar since the U.S. Open? Wouldn’t he want to do some kind of charity work or even some TV announcing to keep busy? And, why didn’t he show up at the AT&T National, the PGA tournament that he hosts just outside Washington, DC?


My Verdict: Give me a break. This has got to be the most ridiculous idea I’ve ever heard.


Tiger wasn’t declared the fittest guy in America by Men’s Fitness magazine by accident. He is one of the most dedicated fitness gurus alive, pounding out a steady workout regimen.


Believe it or not folks, golf is a sport.


If you’re just Joe Six Pack who hacks the ball around on weekends, you’d never know it. But, anyone who plays the game at a high level will tell you the havoc that swinging a club hundreds of thousands of times has on your joints and muscles.


Tiger has carefully calculated his swing to get the maximum use of every muscle in his body. Due to his unorthodox swing style, styled to gain power in a quick burst, his ACL definitely suffers a great amount of strain.


And Tiger hasn’t shown up on TV because he wants some rest! It’s tough to be in the spotlight 24/7. Tiger is probably enjoying some much needed downtime.


This rumor was probably started by testosterone-packed bloggers who hate golf and like to create controversy.


5) The NBA rigged the 1985 Draft Lottery to ensure that Patrick Ewing landed in New York City


The Theory: With the NBA’s popularity sulking in the Big Apple, the league sees an opportunity to revive the New York Knicks by guaranteeing them the NCAA’s brightest star—Patrick Ewing of Georgetown.


So, the NBA fixes the draft lottery to ensure that David Stern will choose the envelope with the Knicks’ logo first.


What the Theorists Say:   Below is the Zapruder film of the 1985 Draft Lottery:


Notice how at 5:30, David Stern pulls out the first envelope, which just happens to have a bent corner? That of course is the Knicks’ envelope, and how ironic that it got chosen first!


Watch Stern’s hand. It goes in the hopper, and toward the bent envelope. In, and toward the bent envelope. In, and toward the bent envelope.


The envelope could have easily been creased by an NBA official before the drawing as a signal for Stern to select that team first.


Others say that the Knicks’ envelope was placed in a freezer before the drawing, making it easy for Stern to locate the desired card (which would feel cold to the touch) without looking.


My Verdict: While the frozen envelope theory is somewhat plausible, the bent corner theory is ridiculous. Any envelope could have gotten bent when the assistant began to violently spin that hopper. And, I seriously doubt that NBA officials would make a distinct crease when they knew that CBS television cameras would be zooming in as tight as possible on the hopper.


More likely than not, the Knicks got lucky.




Yes, some age-old sports conspiracies really did turn out to be true. NBA officials did help to fix games. MLB did turn a blind eye to steroid use. Bobby Thompson was tipped off by a sign stealer when he hit the Shot Heard ‘Round the World.


But, most sports conspiracy theories are started by bored bloggers who want to gain attention for themselves, or grumpy fans who want another excuse for why their team lost.

So, if someone tells you that Michael Phelps is really a cyborg created by the Bush administration to raise the world's opinion of America, remember not to believe everything you hear.


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