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The Fix is (Probably Not) In

by Mike Rothschild

November 19, 2012

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Donate Despite an almost total lack of evidence, a string of conspiracy theories runs through the world of sports. Some involve teams losing on purpose, others have crooked referees influencing games by intentionally making bad decisions, and a few go all the way up to the highest levels, with team ownership and league management colluding to influence drafts and rig championships. Since most of us consider sports to be, at most, a diversion from the drudgery of daily life, there’s very little in-depth debunking of them. But there’s something to be learned from a cursory look into the world of sports conspiracies, where they come from and why the vast majority are completely untrue.

Sports conspiracy theories arise out of the same place that all conspiracy theories come from: the need to make order out of disorder, and find meaning in the random. Just as it’s human nature for the caveman to assume that the rustling in the bushes is a panther ready to eat him, or to declare that the moon landings were too complicated and politically motivated to be real, so is it the sports fan’s nature to think that his team got jobbed out of a win. But as with the panther or the moon landing, the theory has nothing to back it up but gut feeling and coincidence. The fan’s team lost not because of a gambler’s payoff or an evil, mustache-twirling commissioner, but because the other team was better.

Historically, the most common sports conspiracy, and the one that’s been proven true the most, is gamblers directly influencing the result by paying one team to lose, and betting on the winner. In this case, the conspiracy theorists aren’t nuts, because it actually has happened. Baseball in particular was almost destroyed by a string of gambling scandals in the early days of the game, culminating with the infamous Black Sox Scandal of 1919, where underpaid and disgruntled players from the Chicago White Sox were bought off by the mob to lose the World Series on purpose. It was a crushing blow that almost ended professional baseball as we know it, leading to draconian guidelines on the conduct of players’ involvement with gambling. The swift expulsion of anyone even suspected of colluding with gamblers put an end to baseball’s betting issue, and other than the Pete Rose controversy of the late 80’s, the game has been free of gambling scandals.

Simply handing a sack of cash to a ball player to get him to tank a game just doesn’t happen anymore, and it didn’t happen much to begin with. When a gambling scandal does hit a major sport, like the recent revelation that NBA referee Tim Donaghy was betting on games he was officiating, it’s shocking not because it’s so common, but because it’s so rare. The people who run sports leagues know their finances and their jobs depend on integrity, and that if games were being fixed in large numbers, that integrity would go out the window. Likewise, players today make far too much money to risk their careers by taking bribes to throw games or betting on their own sport. And the era of the mob-controlled gambling syndicate is long gone, replaced by information-driven “smart bettors” who employ complex algorithms and strategies to find the best spreads and odds. Simply put, the money isn’t there, and when the money's not there, neither is the conspiracy.

While virtually every major underdog victory has some kind of conspiracy theory attached to it, they can all be deflated by some simple research and logic. Super Bowl III has long been thought to have been fixed, in order to legitimize the merger between the two rival football leagues in the US, the NFL and AFL. But it’s far more likely that the Jets beat the massively-favored Colts not because of a payoff or scheme, but because the Jets were confident and prepared, while the Colts were arrogant and unprepared. Mike Tyson didn’t lose to Buster Douglas (a 42-1 underdog) in their fight in Tokyo in 1991 because of the boxing establishment fixing the fight, or because Tyson was paid to take a dive, he lost because Douglas was simply better that night, for any number of reasons. A few hardy souls even questioned the legitimacy of the 1980 US Hockey Team victory over the Soviet Union, the famous “Miracle on Ice,” theorizing that the Soviets tanked the game to entice the US not to boycott the upcoming Summer Olympics in Moscow. Even a layman’s watch of the game will reveal how foolish this is.

Beyond tanking favorites and gambling bribes, conspiracy theories abound in sports, especially in the strange and high-powered world of the NBA. Most are bought into only by the true believers. A few have gone mainstream, including the notion that the NBA wanted the 2002 playoff series between the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings to go seven games, and ordered its referees to throw Game Six to the Kings (backed up by convicted felon Tim Donaghy), or the ludicrous “frozen envelope” theory of the 1985 NBA Draft Lottery. But they don’t stand up to human error and random chance. Without proof of someone ordering someone else to lose, or a credible witness making a sworn statement, they have to remain just that, allegations.

American sports leagues have worked hard to purge the influence of gamblers, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist elsewhere. Major soccer leagues around the world have consistently been rocked by allegations of games being thrown by players paid off by massive gambling organizations. As recently as 2006, Italian champions Juventus, one of the richest teams in sports, were demoted to a lower league and forced to give up two titles as a result of a massive gambling scandal. Crucial league games, international club matches, and World Cup contests have all been investigated for fixes, bribes and even stadium sabotage to influence outcomes. Rumors even abound of fake matches being staged simply for gambling purposes. It's wild, almost uncontrolled chaos, and nothing like sports in the US. So if you’re thinking about putting a bet down on a second-division Finnish football match, proceed with caution.

But one conspiracy theory continues to stand tall above all the rest, and it has nothing to do with rigged games: the rumor of Michael Jordan’s “suspension” from the NBA. In 1993, there were few people on the planet better at anything than Michael Jordan was at basketball. He’d just come off winning his third championship in a row with the Chicago Bulls and was recognized the world over as the best basketball player of his generation. A few months after winning that third title, and just before the start of the new season, Jordan held a hasty press conference, announced that he had lost his desire to play basketball and was retiring, effective immediately. It was even more of a shock when he soon announced he was going to try out with the Chicago White Sox, spending a year in the minor leagues living out his childhood dream of being a baseball player. This was too much. It was like John Lennon leaving the Beatles to write Kabuki plays. It made no sense.

And when things don’t make sense, enter the conspiracy theory. Jordan was well-known as a voracious gambler, betting massive sums on golf and blackjack. His stock answer to the question of “how much do you want to bet” was “however much makes you nervous.” It didn’t take long for people to start theorizing that Jordan didn’t “retire” but instead was suspended by NBA Commissioner David Stern as punishment for racking up massive debts and embarrassing the league. Fans picked through stories, rumors and tape of Jordan’s press conference looking for proof. The “suspension” theory picked up even more steam when Jordan flamed out of baseball, un-retired after just a year and a half and led the Bulls to three more championships.

To this day, despite zero evidence to support it, the “Michael Jordan was suspended for gambling” theory is hugely popular, with a cursory Google search bringing up over two million hits. But it falls apart under questioning. Michael Jordan was the NBA’s top moneymaker, and Stern’s league stood to lose millions from Jordan not playing again. While Jordan’s gambling was common knowledge, he wasn’t violating league rules and was never alleged to have bet on his own games. Other players have committed much worse transgressions (attacking fans, drunk driving, etc.) and never were suspended for anything close to the time Jordan was out of basketball. Jordan was also exhausted and reeling from the recent murder of his father, so he probably wasn’t in a clear-headed frame of mind to make major life changes. Beyond all of these perfectly valid reasons, there’s an even simpler idea at work: Jordan is a human being, capable of making mistakes and prone to rash decisions, like the rest of us. It’s easier to believe that the NBA suspended him than that he walked away off his own accord, but just because it’s easier to believe doesn’t make it true - just like a massive underdog winning or a referee making a horrible decision at the worst possible time.

Sports in America are decided by skill, desire, and sometimes, random luck. Not gamblers, crooked refs and shills. So watch your favorite teams free of fear that mobsters, league managing string-pullers and nefarious television executives are controlling the outcomes of games for maximum profit. And be extremely skeptical of anyone declaring that the fix is in. Unless they're suggesting a bet on European soccer. Then run screaming.

by Mike Rothschild

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