Top 10 Sports Scandals, Controversies, and Oddities of 2003

by Tobias Peterson

7 January 2004


What’s most notable about the top stories in the world of sports for 2003 is how much they have in common with the controversies of years past. Racism, homophobia, and sexism all bubbled to the surface this year, just as they have done and will lamentably continue to do in the future. Players were reviled for being brash egomaniacs, whispers of illegal drug use were brought before the courts (and not just of public opinion), and a highly popular, highly successful athlete found himself the subject of a highly visible criminal case.

It’s as if these stories have all been written before. Instead of Jimmy °the Greek” Snyder’s racial epithets, this year we had Rush Limbaugh’s. Instead of George Brett’s illegal pine tar covered bat, it was Sammy Sosa’s turn to bend the rules. And, instead of the white Bronco, Kato, and the glove that wouldn’t fit, this year gave us Kobe, Kobe, and more Kobe.

1. The case against Kobe
Call it O.J. Redux. Or The Trial of the Century, Part II. Whatever label you attach to the impending rape trial of Kobe Bryant, the media frenzy attending the proceedings can only be likened to O.J. Simpson’s historic murder acquittal. Both cases feature popular athletes whose squeaky images played well for a variety of corporate advertisers, as well at their respective sports. And both, regardless of outcomes, thrust race, celebrity, and the privileges of stardom into national debate. Kobe’s case hasn’t even come to trial, yet the subplots have already emerged, such as Vanessa Bryant’s $4 million ring, a murder-for-hire plot to eliminate Bryant’s accuser, and tabloid publications of the accuser’s photos. The world waits with bated breath for the next installment.

2. Designer steroid use comes into fashion
Tetrahydrogestrinone (THG), a previously undetectable steroid, has surfaced (thanks to an anonymous tip) in a number of pro athletes. Hearings on the use of the drug have brought in star athletes from a variety of sports. Track star Marion Jones, boxer Shane Mosley, baseball players like Jason Giambi and Barry Bonds, and four members of the Oakland Raiders have all been subpoenaed to testify about the prevalence of the drug, emerging from the courthouse with a universal “no comment.” The court’s findings could have ramifications for sports on a global scale. U.S. Senators Joseph Biden and Orrin Hatch have already proposed the Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 2003. And professional baseball has instituted a testing policy to be implemented next year. If THG turns up in more athletes, other sporting bodies are sure to follow with legislation of their own.

3. Rush Limbaugh talks his way out of a job
Limbaugh was a curious addition to ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown. The conservative radio talk show host, hardly known for his sports savvy, sat side by side with ex-ball players and commentators, voicing opinions about the state of the game on a weekly basis. Limbaugh’s presence went from curious to disastrous, however, when he suggested that Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb was only popular because the League wanted to showcase a black quarterback. Limbaugh resigned his post almost immediately in the wake of the resulting controversy, and his stock fell even further when, later in the year, he entered rehab for prescription pill abuse. McNabb, for his part, went on to lead the Eagles to an 11-win season as of 25 December; they are the odds-on favorite to win their division.

4. Jeremy Shockey and Matt Millen slur their speech
According to New York Giants tight end, Jeremy Shockey, he wouldn’t “stand” for having a gay teammate and Dallas coach Bill Parcels is “a homo.” Detroit Lions president Matt Millen, likewise, called Kansas City’s wide receiver Johnnie Morton a “faggot.” Both Shockey and Millen have apologized for their comments, and there’s some encouragement to be found in the well-founded condemnation and controversy that resulted from these separate incidents. Sadly, though, these slurs point to ongoing intolerance fostered by football’s “macho” ideals. Despite the efforts of gay ex-players like Esera Tuaolo, and activists like Jim Buzinski and Cyd Zeigler, Jr., who maintain the gay-oriented sports website, there clearly remains a long way to go in the struggle to eliminate homophobia in professional athletics.

5. Annika Sorenstam crosses over
Pro golfer Vijay Singh called it “ridiculous,” but Sorenstam, one of the most successful women golfers in the LPGA, made history by playing in the Colonial Invitational—a tournament reserved for the men’s tour. Sorenstam was the first woman in 58 years to play with the men’s, and, although she didn’t make the final cut, she made headlines and more than a few waves with her appearance. Singh, for his comments, found himself the subject of nearly as much scrutiny as Sorenstam, as he eventually withdrew from the tournament all together. Sorenstam came back in December to play against Mark O’Meara, Fred Couples, and Phil Mickelson in a Skins game, taking second place and $225,000. In a sport not known for its liberal inclusion (see the Augusta National Country Club, for example), Sorenstam crossed over previously fixed boundaries, and made a fair share of money in the process.

6. Curses foil the Red Sox and Cubs in their League Championship Series
Superstition and athletics have long enjoyed a close relationship. The Chicago Cubs (who haven’t won a World Series since 1908) and the Boston Red Sox (who last won in 1918), for examples, are considered by many to be cursed—the Cubs by a disgruntled tavern owner who was ejected from Wrigley Field, and the Red Sox for trading Babe Ruth to the Yankees. While most rational people scoff at the idea, 2003 might make them think twice. Both the Cubs and the Red Sox made it to their respective league championships, and both came away losers yet again. The Red Sox pushed their bitter rivals, the Yankees, to a deciding game seven, but were defeated after Manager Grady Little decided to let a fatigued Pedro Martinez finish pitching the game he started. His arm gave out, the Yankees rallied, and Little was fired shortly after the series. The Cubs were even more luckless. The team was leading the Florida Marlins in the sixth game of their series. A routine foul ball, however, that would move the Cubs one out closer to the World Series, was intercepted by a fan. After the play, the Cubs seemed deflated; they went on to lose games six and seven to eventual World Series champions Florida Marlins, lending support to curse theorists everywhere.

7. Joe Horn makes a call
Following in the infamous footsteps of San Francisco’s sharpie-wielding Terrell Owens, New Orleans Saints receiver Joe Horn took the end zone celebration to new heights. After scoring against the New York Giants, Horn (with the help of teammate Michael Lewis), retrieved a cell phone hidden in the padding of a goal post. He placed an animated call to his family, drawing the ire of fans and media members everywhere, who labeled Horn the latest example of the selfish professional athlete who elevates himself over his teammates. Nor did he escape the League’s attention, who fined him $30,000 (Lewis was fined $5,000). The penalty was three times the fine leveled at Jeremy Shockey, who pelted a small boy in the stands with a cup of ice during a playoff game.

8. Sammy Sosa is caught with cork
Beloved Chicago Cubs outfielder Sammy Sosa is known equally for his affable personality—blowing kisses and flashing the peace sign to fans and the media—as he is for his superhuman ability to hit home runs, routinely sending balls soaring more than 500 feet into the air. Sosa’s image was tarnished, however, amid allegations of his use of performance-enhancing drugs (which he vehemently denies). Sammy’s cred was undercut when umpires inspecting a bat he broke found that it was plugged with cork, an illegal means to lighten bats and speed up swings. Sosa claimed he used the bat accidentally, and x-rays of his other bats all checked out. This lack of proof allowed Sosa to emerge relatively unscathed by the incident. He went on to lead the Cubs into the National League Championships, where another bizarre controversy awaited him.

9. Baylor University’s basketball nightmare
News of Patrick Dennehy’s disappearance was merely the beginning. When the Baylor forward’s body was found in a rock quarry near Waco, and his murder pinned on teammate Carlton Dotson, the story reached grim and incredible proportions. In the ensuing investigation, the team’s coaching staff, headed by Dave Bliss, was discovered to be involved in making payments to Dennehy, as well as covering up players’ drug violations. Bliss resigned in disgrace, as did Baylor athletic director Tom Stanton. Collegiate basketball has often been a source of payment violations involving players and coaches who choose to look the other way in order to stay competitive. Dennehy’s murder, however, was a shocking and sordid new addition to this increasingly familiar tale.

10. David Beckham goes to Spain
In the world of professional football, and in the world at large, there aren’t many players more popular than David Beckham. His good looks and celebrity marriage to Victoria “Posh Spice” Adams grant him a specific sort of royalty in England. So, jaws dropped across the country when his team, Manchester United, sold Beckham to Real Madrid for a staggering 35 million euros (more than $41 million U.S.). The poster boy for English football was shipped off to Spain, a sign of the increasing internationalism of football in particular and professional athletics in general.

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