A betting man once told his bookie, “Fans are the lowest form of life.” Fans are also assumed to be innocents, cheering on their favorite athletes’ will to win. But sometimes an athlete will go to extremes—gambling, doping, cheating—and the ensuing birth of scandal can bring the death of innocence. When athletes court controversy, players and fans alike sometimes risk losing everything for a win.
Baseball betting flourished in the U.S. after the Civil War, with gentlemen placing gentle wagers at genteel games. But soon all traces of gentility disappeared. The National League was founded in 1876 in an attempt to shift the focus from which gambler could fix the most games—sometimes by throwing stones at an outfielder to distract him—to which team could score the most runs. In 1919, the year of the Black Sox game-fixing scandal, baseball was among the country’s most popular entertainments. Fans watched with wide-eyed idealism—“Say it ain’t so, Joe,” a sportswriter’s fictional phrase, was supposedly a child’s reaction to disgraced Sox star Joe Jackson—while New York gangster Arnold Rothstein watched with predation. He was allegedly behind an arrangement to pay eight Chicago White Sox to lose the World Series to their opponents from Cincinnati; Rothstein hoped to make a killing by betting on the underdog Reds.
Gambling seemed to disappear from baseball until Pete Rose, a superstar as a player, admitted (eventually) to wagering on games, though never against his team, while managing the Cincinnati Reds from 1984 to 1989. Rose and, previously, the eight “Black” Sox were banned from professional baseball for life.
Gangsters have often lurked around sports arenas, bribing or intimidating players for an assured result. In 1919 the Chicago White Sox were among the best in baseball. “Shoeless” Joe Jackson still holds the third-highest batting average (.356), and Eddie Cicotte, master of a mirage-like knuckleball, led the American League in wins and innings pitched. But while other top players earned nearly $20,000 a year, Jackson pulled in $6,000 and Cicotte only $5,000 from stingy Sox owner Charles Comiskey. It’s easy to see why they might have been tempted to accept bribes to lose the World Series. In 1947 iron-jawed boxing legend Jake La Motta, “the Bronx Bull,” agreed to throw a fight against Billy Fox. Yet he seemed reluctant to lose: Taking Fox’s flurry of blows, the Bull did not fall but simply refused to fight back in earnest. Eventually the match was called. La Motta cheated not for gold but for deferred glory. Mobsters had offered him $100,000 to throw the fight, but La Motta refused. So they promised him a title fight instead. In 1949 La Motta won the world middleweight championship against Marcel Cerdan. He stepped into the ring in a leopard-print robe, his iron chin strong.
“The future ain’t what it used to be,” said malaprop-prone baseball prophet Yogi Berra. Despite a somewhat sordid beginning, baseball became America’s glorified pastime, creating such idols as Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Joe DiMaggio. Even the tainted Black Sox players, portrayed sympathetically in the film Eight Men Out (1988), which vilified Sox owner Charles Comiskey, were later redeemed in Field of Dreams (1989), which showed their ghosts receiving a second chance on an Iowa field. Arnold “Chick” Gandil, the players’ ringleader, later claimed the team actually tried to win despite agreeing to throw the World Series but lost focus because of media scrutiny—the press believed a fix was in—and threats. Today baseball’s privileged status is threatened by scandals involving illegal performance-enhancing substances, including allegations of steroid use against star slugger Barry Bonds and strikeout pitcher Roger Clemens. In 2011 Ryan Braun, the Milwaukee Brewers’ left fielder and the National League MVP, generated controversy after his urine test showed elevated testosterone levels. Braun escaped a 50-game suspension after the finding was overturned because his sample had been handled improperly. “I am the victim of a process that completely broke down,” Braun claimed in his defense.
In a 1960 Senate hearing to investigate organized crime’s involvement in boxing, Jake La Motta testified that he had thrown a 1947 bout with Billy Fox. A 1989 investigation of Cincinnati Reds manager Pete Rose concluded Rose had bet on his team’s baseball games. La Motta fared better than Rose in the court of public opinion, perhaps because he confessed, or because gambling in boxing was not exactly a revelation, or because on Valentine’s Day 1951 he stole fans’ hearts with his all-or-nothing loss to “Sugar” Ray Robinson (“I kept swinging, and Jake kept standing,” said Robinson) or maybe because Martin Scorsese glorified him in the 1980 film Raging Bull. Ultimately nobody seemed to care that La Motta threw a fight, except for the forgotten Fox, who sank into despondency after learning his greatest victory had been a fraud: “I’ve just got no appeal for living,” he said. Rose’s actions tarnished his reputation as the scrappy player who slid face-first through the dirt, arms desperately outstretched to touch base. Now he was simply dirty. For 15 years after Sports Illustrated broke the scandal, Rose denied the allegations, which made him look even worse when he finally admitted they were true.
Before his death from a drug and alcohol mixture in 2011, New York Rangers “enforcer” Derek Boogaard was one of the most feared fighters in the National Hockey League. A gentle giant to his teammates and “the Boogeyman” to his fans, he won respect through his willingness to sacrifice for the team. If an opposing player threw a dangerous hit, everyone cheered Boogaard on, eagerly anticipating his brand of policing. While many fans enjoy such fights—as NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman euphemistically phrased it, they “like the level of physicality”—others wonder whether the fights are worth it. Boogaard follows in a long tradition of enforcers, from the Philadelphia Flyers’ Broad Street Bullies, who fought to a Stanley Cup in 1974, to the Detroit Red Wings’ Bruise Brothers, Bob Probert and Joe Kocur. Autopsies on Boogaard’s 28-year-old brain and Probert’s 45-year-old one revealed chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease linked to repeated impacts to the head. Brain trauma figures prominently in many sports. Dementia pugilistica, a form of CTE, affects NFL players and boxers (including “Sugar” Ray Robinson but not Jake La Motta), and Muhammad Ali’s Parkinson’s syndrome may have been caused by years of punishment in the ring.
Like early baseball games, the 1904 Tour de France was plagued by unruliness. Rivals’ fans attacked riders and sabotaged their bikes. Maurice Garin, the previous year’s winner, may have hopped a train for a stretch. Rumors surfaced that one cyclist was pulled along the course by hooking a wire to a car and holding the other end (attached to a cork) in his mouth. Many racers imbibed wine along the route, and the winner after four others were disqualified, Henri Cornet, claimed his chicken dinner had been spiked with sleeping pills. Tour de France riders in 2010 didn’t indulge much in wine, but the winner, Spaniard Alberto Contador, may not have abstained from illegal stimulants. His urine tested positive for clenbuterol, and, like Cornet, he claimed he ingested the drug while eating meat.
Today’s performance-enhancing drugs are high-tech successors to the past’s more eccentric cheats. Milwaukee Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun, like Contador, came under media fire after testing positive—not for stimulants but for raised levels of testosterone. Fortunately for Braun, his urine sample had been handled improperly and the test results were voided, which raised the specter of tampering, a seeming throwback to baseball’s bad old days.
Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France seven consecutive times (1999–2005) after beating testicular cancer. He was cycling’s biggest name, a hero to anyone on two wheels or training wheels. But in 2012 the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency stripped him of his victories and banned him from racing. Armstrong soon admitted he not only used performance-enhancing drugs, he bullied anyone who threatened to expose him. In an exclusive interview with Oprah Winfrey, Armstrong cited his “ruthless desire to win.”
In hockey, such desire often does more harm to a player’s health than to his integrity. NHL enforcer Derek Boogaard suffered numerous broken bones and concussions while “policing” the rink, and despite developing a dangerous painkiller addiction, Boogaard continued to receive his fill of prescriptions from team doctors. When he ingested a fatal mixture of drugs and alcohol, fans and the league mourned his death as a heroic tragedy—but one that likely won’t eliminate sanctioned in-game fistfights. Armstrong’s doping, however, immediately made him a villain. Does a double standard apply, when both used drugs to achieve victory? More important, is a headstrong drive to win—for ephemeral cheers and moments of glory—worth an athlete’s honor, health or life?