Sports Scandals That Went Under the Radar For Years

Friday night lights can make us blind.

It’s hard for us to believe that our sports heroes maybe aren’t that heroic after all. While Hollywood scandals seem to flow through the news like water and political scandals result in quick public apologies and tarnished careers, there is something about sports that often keeps bad news secret for far too long. Pick a professional sports, and odds are you’ll find a cover-up that those on the inside knew about long before the public found out. From concussions to domestic violence to gambling rings, there seems to be more smoking guns in sports than there are reporters to cover them. The recent allegations against Peyton Manning, in which a trainer has accused him of sexual assault and a subsequent smear campaign / cover-up are just the latest in a long line of sports scandals that took far too long to see the light of day. Here are some Sports Scandals That Went Under the Radar for Years.

Peyton Manning Sexual Assault
1996-2016

There have long been rumors of Peyton Manning’s lewd behavior at various points in his football career, particularly while he was at the University of Tennessee. As he returned to the limelight as quarterback of a Super Bowl winning Denver Broncos team, decades old allegations have resurfaced. Numerous reporters, including Shaun King writing for the New York Daily News, have come to the same conclusion: in 1996 Manning reportedly sexually assaulted trainer Jamie Naughright, and then spent years trying to sweep her subsequent allegations under the rug and discredit her. At the time, Manning’s abuse of Naughright was accompanied by persistent mockery that prompted her to leave the university. For years afterward, not only did Manning smear Naughright in his autobiography, but he has allegedly recruited witnesses who weren’t actually present during the incident to discredit her. Since the incident remains in dispute, and Manning has gone to such lengths to cover it up, twenty years later the encounter with Naughright continues to taint Manning’s legacy.

Doping in Cycling
2000s

Floyd Landis’s positive test for performance enhancing drugs following his ride in the 2006 Tour De France was the canary in the coal mine for doping in international cycling. At the time, the cycling community attempted to portray Landis as an outlier, and cast his accusations against Lance Armstrong as sour grapes. Though Armstrong escaped that heat relatively unscathed, it soon became clear that time was running out for the world’s most famous cyclist. Anti-doping advocates had been coming after Armstrong and a number of other leading athletes in the sport that they suspected of doping beginning in the late 90s. As the 2000s wore on, journalists became more public in criticizing doping in cycling, and numerous athletes joined them. When Lance’s longtime teammate Tyler Hamilton released his 2012 book The Secret Race, chronicling doping on US Postal Service Team, the jig was finally up. It took some years, but eventually it came out that PEDs were pervasive in cycling, and even the great Lance Armstrong had long been guilty of doping.

Tiger Woods Adultery
2000s

In November of 2009, America was shocked after a domestic dispute resulted in Tiger Woods crashing his SUV. It was quickly revealed that his then wife Elin Nordegren had come after him with a golf club, following an argument about his infidelity. A few days earlier, his affair with a night club promoter had been made public by the National Enquirer. In the subsequent months, Woods history of extramarital affairs became incredibly public, as Woods was linked to dozens of women, many of whom could provide precise details of long entanglements with Woods. Nordegren and his many sponsors left him soon after and Woods, who was on track to be the greatest golfer of all time, fell off of his game. Various articles written at the time paint a picture very different from the clean professional image Woods projected on a public stage. Accounts from friends, colleagues, and some of the women themselves reveal Tiger to be a boorish, cheap sex addict who made intricate plans to feed his addiction. Not only did he keep a number of mistresses at a time, but many say he treated people in this life with a disregard bordering on contempt. Though Woods seems to have improved his personal life in the intervening years, his golf game never recovered.

Steroids in Baseball
1991-2003

While all of the major sports have had to weather accusations of PED use at one point or another, baseball’s steroid scandals were widespread, public, and incredibly damning to the sport. Though steroids were made illegal in baseball in 1991, it wasn’t until 2003 that the league instituted full-scale mandatory PED tests. The intervening years produced an MLB with statistics that were as inflated as the players’ muscles. While the era produced some of the game’s most beloved players and exciting moments like the race to break the home run record, the era ended in a federal investigation. The players involved in the home run race: Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds. were all ultimately linked to PED use. By 2006, Major League Baseball ordered the Mitchell Commission, which ultimately named 87 players as PED users, including many of baseball’s biggest stars. The sports may never recover from this asterisks laden period in our national pastime.

Concussions in the NFL
1994-Present

Though concussions have long been a debilitating side effect of playing in the NFL, and many former players endure brain damage that can result in mental illness, only recently has the NFL started taking concussion seriously. Despite the release of Concussion and a number of articles, books, and studies on the subject, players cutting corners on the concussion protocol is still a weekly occurrence.

As more scrutiny is being given to the NFL’s history with concussions, it is becoming clear that many league officials have downplayed and even lied about concussions for decades. Former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue was adversarial with concussion science, appointing non-scientists to concussion committees and dismissing concussions as one of a “pack of journalism issues.” This approach continued for years, and included the downplaying of depression related suicides by players and planting articles in medical journals. While the NFL has made strides in recent years, the damaging culture around concussions in football has certainly hurt countless players.

SMU Death Penalty
1987

Payments and gifts to scholarship football players have long been a challenge for college sports to police. University athletics are immensely profitable, and the best players will make millions the instant they leave school. Schools and their officials are rewarded for bringing in millions upon millions in revenue, yet the players are only rewarded with scholarships, which pale in comparison to a professional salary, and are worthless to the best players, who can make millions in the professional market, degree or no.

Unsurprisingly, this situation often leads to corruption. While many schools have been accused of doling out money, gifts, and favors to star recruits, only Southern Methodist University has received the death penalty for their behavior. When it was discovered that not only was SMU giving cash and gifts to players, but that they had established a slush fund for them, the NCAA enacted a harsh punishment: no football for a season. The NCAA found that not only was the football program outright bribing students to commit to their school, but that SMU administration knew about it, and it had been going on for over a decade. SMU played no games the next year, was unable to field a squad in 1988, and didn’t go back to a bowl game for two decades. The funny thing is that SMU wasn’t the only school doing it, they were just the best at it.

Aaron Hernandez History of Violence
2010-2015

Pretty quickly after Aaron Hernandez murdered Odin Lloyd, he was in prison. It only took the police a little over a week to put Hernandez behind bars. Unfortunately, Hernandez had a history of violence that had shown itself for years before he crossed paths with Odin Lloyd. Hernandez was suspected of several other crimes including a 2012 double murder. He has formally been accused of three murders and several woundings, but if you look at a timeline that includes circumstantial evidence you can add several assaults, unsolved shootings, and other reckless behaviors to the list.

Tim Donaghy Game Fixing
1994-2007

For thirteen seasons, Tim Donaghy was a NBA referee, reefing hundreds of games including several playoff series. Donaghy was forced to resign from his post after an FBI investigation found that during his final two seasons there were irregularities in his work that were statistically impossible without an outside influence. In games he called, teams often outperformed their expected scoring, and it just so happened that in those games irregularly large bets had been placed on those teams.

Though Donaghy had struggled with gambling issues, it wasn’t until he was approached by low level organized crime operatives that he got into fixing games. It seems that his story was a classic one: he got in over his head in gambling debt and took drastic measures to try to get himself above water. Though Donaghy only served about a year in prison, his professional career was over, his marriage fell apart, and reports of mafia intimidation of Donaghy persisted for years afterward.

FIFA Corruption
2010-2015

Scandals in American sports pale in comparison to the corruption that has spread through international soccer. It is unlikely that we’ll ever know the full breadth and depth of corruption at the sport’s highest levels. The scandal that brought many of FIFA’s ruling class down was triggered by the curious choice to award Qatar the 2022 World Cup. This odd choice peaked the interest of various law enforcement entities and culminated in charges of wire fraud, racketeering, and money laundering. The FIFA brass in general, and in particular their ring leader, disgraced ex-FIFA head Sepp Blatter, sound more and more like an efficient organized crime syndicate the more you read about them. The corruption at FIFA had grown so casual that it was sloppy and rote by the time the FBI and IRS took the time to investigate that obviously underhanded decisions like accepting the Qatar bid were commonplace. Though some FIFA officials have been dismissed from their posts, it is unlikely that the culture of doing business there has fundamentally changed. It is also unlikely that we will ever really know the depths of corruption at FIFA which likely stretches back over years and many dozens of employees.

O.J. Simpson Domestic Abuse
1989-1994

Domestic violence is a problem in the NFL, and sadly it is far from new one. For those following American Crime Story: The People Vs. O.J. Simpson, one of the most surprising revelations of the series is that O.J. had an ongoing pattern of abuse before allegedly murdering his ex-wife. Prior to his arrest for the murder of Nicole Brown, the police had received over sixty complaints involving domestic violence involving O.J. Simpson. Prior to a 1989 arrest for beating his wife, the police had been to his Brentwood home on at least eight other occasions. An 1989 L.A. Times article describes Brown shouting to police that she thought O.J. was going to kill her, and she had a busted lip and black eye to back up her case. Despite a conviction and recommended month in jail, Simpson served no jail time, and wasn’t even fingerprinted. As a result, five years later when he allegedly murdered Brown, he didn’t have a criminal record. In retrospect, the crime that shocked the nation really shouldn’t have.

Jerry Sandusky Scandal
2010

If you’ve spent any time in Pennsylvania, you know that Penn State football is a religion and former coach Joe Paterno was treated like a god. It turns out that this reverence had a terrible downside. After a graduate assistant reported that he saw Jerry Sandusky raping a boy in a shower, decades of systematic abuse by Sandusky came to light. Not only had Sandusky abused dozens of boys, but he had set up a children’s charity, Second Mile, aimed at supplying vulnerable and underprivileged boys as victims. A number of Penn State officials, including Joe Paterno, were accused of having knowledge of the abuse, which may have started as early as the 1970s. As a result of the scandal and subsequent cover-up, a number of employees were fired and three school officials (not including Paterno) faced criminal charges. The Freeh Reporter, released in 2012 after an exhaustive investigation by former FBI director Louis Freeh, concluded that a number of school officials, including Paterno, knew about Sandusky’s actions and failed to report him to the authorities. The NCAA responded with harsh penalties, though they would almost all be reversed by 2014. By 2015, Paterno’s records, which had been stricken from the books, were reinstated, and the Penn State football scholarship fund was replenished.