You gotta love the versatility of sports. When things go the way we want, it’s exhilarating, incredible, inspiring, and heartwarming. When things don’t go the way we want, it’s boring, depressing, disenchanting, and heartbreaking. In either case, sports fans tend to lose their minds a little bit.
In victory, people jump up and down, hug strangers, and sometimes head outside with likeminded individuals to flip cars—in other words, stuff they normally wouldn’t do. In defeat, people start looking for explanations to mitigate their suffering, sometimes losing sight of common sense and concocting grand conspiracy theories.
Now, generally, I’m not a huge fan of conspiracy theories in politics. I prefer to keep my theoretical skepticism confined to the world of sports. There’s a lot less at stake, so I can afford to be a little delusional. And let’s face it, being delusional from time to time can be easier than facing the truth (i.e., that your team’s just not that good).
So let’s take a look at some of the greatest conspiracy theories in the world of sports. None of them are quite as “out there” as some of the 9/11 conspiracy theories, but some are still pretty far-fetched. Especially the one we lead off with…
Everyone knows about Cal Ripken, Jr's "Iron Man Streak." On September 6, 1995, he played in his 2,131st consecutive game, breaking Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130. It was one of the most memorable moments in baseball history. And as long as that streak was going, the Baltimore Orioles made a lot of money on ticket sales. You know, because everyone wanted to see one of those consecutive games. Ever after the record was broken, team owner Peter Angelos had an economic interest in keeping the streak alive.
So when a power outage in August of 1997 forced the cancellation of a game between the Orioles and Mariners in Baltimore, the hamster wheels starting turning in the heads of a bunch of paranoid baseball fans. And here's what they came up with:
Kevin Costner, a friend of Cal's, was supposedly staying at the Ripken home at the time. Cal left for the ballpark that August afternoon, realized he forgot something, went back to the house, and discovered—yep—Costner shagging his wife. Distraught, he called the team and said he wouldn't be able to play that night. Not wanting the streak to end, Peter Angelos came up with a way to get the game cancelled: screw with the stadium lighting. They called it a power outage, but really it was rigged. Or so goes the theory.
Why would Kevin Costner, a rich movie star, stay at a friend's house rather than a 4-star hotel where he'd be more comfortable? The guy loves baseball! What about the fact that people saw Cal Ripken at the stadium, in uniform, ready to play? Obviously the newspaper reporters were also involved in the cover up! And what about the fans at the stadium who saw Ripken on the field during warmups? It wasn't him. It was a look-alike! (There's always a look-alike.)
9. Field of Broken Dreams?
When Michael Jordan suddenly retired after winning a third consecutive championship with the Bulls in 1993, he said the recent murder of his father had caused him to lose the desire to compete, and that he'd achieved everything he possibly could on a basketball court. But of course, everyone knows that Michael Jordan's raison d'etre is sticking it to people who didn't believe in him (have you seen his Hall of Fame induction speech?), so he could never have felt like he had nothing left to accomplish. He could win again, and then again, and then again, and then again, until he was coronated Emporer of the Galaxy for life. (And that probably still would not have satisfied his ego.)
So people weren't buying his story. Then they remembered how there was some controversy surrounding the fact that he was seen gambling at an Atlantic City casino the night before a playoff game against the Knicks in '93. And they remembered how Jordan admitted to suffering $57,000 in gambling losses.
Thus the conspiracy theory: the NBA was going to suspend Michael Jordan for gambling, so he retired rather than suffer the indignity.
And you know what? I would actually believe this one, if not for the fact that the NBA would never have suspended Michael Jordan. Ever. (They never have cared about integrity, and they never will.) But all the other stuff adds up: Jordan certainly would have lost millions upon millions of dollars in endorsements if his image took that kind of hit. And I'll be darned if he didn't find his "will to compete" just two years later and win another three championships.
8. Gambling Man?
Wayne Gretzky is the face of hockey, and in Canada he's royalty. Like, real royalty. There's actually a law there that says every man must offer his betrothed to the Great One before marrying her. It's true, you can look it up.*
So it was a pretty big deal when one of his employees was implicated in a sports gambling ring back in 2006. At the time, Wayne was GM of the Phoenix Coyotes and former NHLer Rick Tocchet was an assistant coach. Police in New Jersey found that Tocchet was involved in a Jersey-based gambling operation. Then there were reports that Gretzky may have been involved.
What happened next was shocking: not the Great One, but his wife, Janet Jones, apparently place sports bets through Rick Tocchet.
Hmm, that's weird. It's almost like she took the fall for him. (Or that's what conspiracy-minded sports fans started to wonder.) There were never any charges laid against Janet, however, because while the gambling ring was illegal, placing bets was not.
*This is not true.
7. Gambling Man, Part Deux?
Everyone knows that Dale Earnhardt, Sr. died tragically in a wreck on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Thankfully, there's no conspiracy theory about that. There is, however, a conspiracy theory about Dale Jr.'s made-for-TV victory at the Pepsi 400 the following Summer. You see, some people apparently think that it was just a little too perfect that Dale Earnhardt Jr. just happened to win a race held on the track where his legendary father had died just months earlier. And there certainly had been allegations of fixed races in NASCAR before.
Still, it's not like it was Junior's first ever NASCAR win or anything. He'd been doing pretty well that season. And besides, even if it was a conspiracy, could you blame them (whoever "them" is)? It was pretty cool to see him do donuts in the infield.
6. 2001 Pepsi 400
There have a lot of "greatest game ever playeds" in modern sports, but without a doubt the greatest greatest game ever played* was the 1958 NFL Championship Game between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants.
Down three points with 2 minutes to go, Johnny Unitas conducted a 73-yard drive down the field to the Giants' 13-yard line, setting up a 20-yard field goal that sent the game into sudden-death overtime—the first ever in the playoffs. In overtime, after the Giants went three and out, Unitas once again marched the Colts downfield, where Alan Ameche ran the ball into the endzone from 1 yard out. Boom, game over.
Where's the conspiracy? Well, there are two different ones, actually.
First, in overtime, when the Colts were on the Giants' 8-yard line, the game was delayed when a fan ran out onto the field at Yankee stadium. The theory is that this was actually an employee of NBC, which was televising the game. Apparently the national feed of the game had gone off the air do to a minor technical glitch, and producers ordered an employee to go delay the game until they got it fixed. Which is pretty plausible.
The other conspiracy theory is even better, and has to do with game strategy. Since this was sudden death, all the Colts needed to do once they got into the red zone was kick a field goal. So why didn't they? Why did they run a bunch more plays and insist on scoring a touchdown? Some say the team's owner, Carroll Rosenbloom, had placed a sizable bet that his team would win the game by a touchdown. Thus, he called the plays at the end to make sure he beat the spread.
Of course, you could chalk the questionable play calling up to inexperience in playing sudden death games or the fact that the kicker was just 4 for 10 on the season, but what fun would that be?
*I'm being facetious. I have no opinion on the matter.
5. The Greatest Game Ever Played
The 2002 NBA Western Conference Finals between the Lakers and the Kings was one of the closest, most exciting series in recent history. Unfortunately, game 6, which the Lakers won to force a 7th game, was marred by horrendous officiating. Even the announcers were commenting on how bad it was—and they're usually "company men." So fans at the time were a little suspicious that the league was pulling for the Lakers.
In 2008, when dirty ref Tim Donughy was caught fixing games, he filed court documents claiming that he knew for a fact that Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals was fixed. He said one of the refs from that game told him that the league wanted a 7th game in the series, so they made sure to give the Lakers a lot of opportunities at the free throw line.
Obviously, the refs and NBA commissioner David Stern deny it. But who are you going to believe? A skeezy, lying, cheating, gambling, douchebag NBA referee, or David Stern? It's kind of a toss-up.
4. The NBA fixes games?
This conspiracy theory is all about whether you believe your eyes—and what, exactly, your eyes are telling you in the first place.
When Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston met for their famous rematch ("Ali/Liston II") in 1965, the hype was huge. There was controversy at the time as to who was the real heavyweight champion of the world, and this bout would settle it.
But of course, it didn't, thanks to "the phantom punch."
Liston went down midway through the first round, stayed down for 20 seconds while confusion reigned, then was ruled to have been KO'd. The thing is, on television, it wasn't clear that the right from Ali that knocked Liston down was all that powerful. In fact, it's possible that there wasn't even contact. And then there's the fact that, instead of retreating to his corner like a boxer is supposed to do when he knocks an opponent down, Ali stood over Liston and yelled "Get up and fight, sucker!"—which produced one of the most iconic photographs in sports history.
Conspiracy theorists hold that Liston took a dive, but here are two different schools of thought as to why. One camp believes Liston owed money to the mob, and so he placed a bet against himself and took a dive. Another camp believes Liston was afraid of retribution from the Nation of Islam if he beat Ali.
Either way, whether or not you believe the conspiracy theory depends on what you think you see in the video. Does Liston get hit hard, or not?
3. The Phantom Punch
Bobby Thompson's home run in 1951 to win the pennant for the New York Giants is one of the most famous home runs in the history of baseball. So obviously, there's a conspiracy theory about it. And it's pretty simple, really: it was a home game for the Giants. So they decided to gain an edge by putting a player in the center field club house at the Polo Grounds with binoculars who would steal signs from the Dodgers and relay them back to the batter. Thus, it's held that Thompson knew what pitch was coming when he cracked the famous home run.
There's no way of knowing if this is true, of course, but if it is it's kind of a big deal.
2. Shot heard round the world
Of course the NBA and commissioner David Stern are involved in the #1 sports conspiracy theory of all time. How could they not be?
Going into the lottery to determine which team would pick first in the 1985 NBA Draft, everyone knew that the league really wanted the team in their biggest market—the Knicks—to get the first pick. That's because the Knicks were abysmal at the time, and there was some center named Patrick Ewing coming out of Georgetown who was guaranteed to lead whatever team he played for to a championship. (LOL.)
So when the Knicks actually won the lottery and got the first pick, people immediately started looking for clues as to how the thing was fixed.
Hey, you see the way the guy putting the envelopes in the spinning ball thing threw that one envelope against the side? That bent the corner, so David Stern knew which one to pick!
Hey, you see the way David Stern took a deep breath before reaching in and picking the envelope? He was really nervous about picking the right one!
Now, I'm not a fan of David Stern. Maybe you picked up on that. But this theory is a little far-fetched. For one, how is tossing the envelope against the side of the container supposed to help it stand out? All the envelopes were tossed around in that thing, and they all could have been dinged up. And besides, even if one of the envelopes did have a distinctive bent corner, how, in the few seconds he had to look at the them, could David Stern have spotted the bent corner so easily? Try it at home and see how fast you can spot it.
But hey, you know what? It's the outlandishness of this conspiracy theory that makes it so wonderful. So I hope it lives on forever.