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5 sports conspiracy theories that make you wonder

12:21 PM, Nov 22, 2013   |    comments
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Fifty years after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, a recent Gallup poll showed that just under 61% of Americans still believe that there was more than one person involved in his killing. As much as Oliver Stone's 1991 film JFK tried to prove a case for a massive conspiracy and cover up, there a likelihood that the farther we get away from the historical tragedy, the less we'll end up figuring out.

While none of them have anywhere near this type of public captivation, there are still plenty of famous conspiracy theories floating around the sports world. Here's our list of the five biggest ones still out there.

1) The NBA rigged the 1985 draft lottery with a "frozen envelope" to give the New York Knicks the top overall pick.

Did NBA commissioner David Stern orchestrate it so that the Knicks would be in the position to draft Patrick Ewing, thus rejuvenating basketball in the league's biggest market? Plenty of skeptics have suggested a frozen or bent envelope with the Knicks card inside it was inserted into the big plastic cylinder prior to the 1985 lottery draw. It's hard to see any evidence of malfeasance in the video, but that hasn't stopped the questions.

Stern has scoffed at the theory repeatedly over the years, most recently last summer on Jim Rome's nationally syndicated radio show.

2) The blood on Curt Schilling's famous sock in Game 2 of the 2004 World Series was faked.

The Red Sox ace, who was recovering from an ankle injury in the famous series against the Cardinals, was given even more kudos for his gutty performance thanks to the bloody evidence on his sock late in the game. Orioles broadcaster Gary Thorne reported in 2007 that Schilling's teammate Doug Mirabelli admitted it was either paint or ketchup, but Mirabelli quickly backtracked on that claim. Schilling vehemently denied the report, offering a $1 million charity wager if someone could prove the blood was fake.

Schilling's financial woes resulted in the sock being sold for $92,613 at auction in February, so it's possible that the new owner could put this theory to bed once and for all.

3) Michael Jordan's retirement from the NBA prior to the 1993-94 season was actually a gambling suspension.

After reports of some of Michael Jordan's gambling debts began to surface, speculation began that the Chicago Bulls star's abrupt retirement from the NBA in September 1993 was actually an undisclosed suspension from the league for betting. With Jordan the league's most marketable player, the theory went that it would benefit the league to keep it quiet, have Jordan go do something else for a year (hence, his minor league baseball experiment) and come back the following season.

Film director Ron Shelton, who made a documentary about Jordan's year in the minors as part of ESPN's 30 for 30 series, told the Chicago Tribune in 2010 that he found nothing to support that thesis.

"I probably, like most people in America, thought he left the NBA for a year because of gambling," Shelton told the paper. "After researching the project, I was utterly convinced that was nonsense. And probably like most people, I thought he was a catastrophically bad baseball player. And after researching it, I got a different view about that, as well."

"Everybody that I talked to said they spent hundreds of hours looking for smoking guns and there is not even a leak; it's just circumstantial. It's just a theory."

David Stern laughed off the premise with Bill Simmons in 2006, claiming the rumor was that Stern had met with Jordan at his home to issue the suspension.

"In my living room!" he adds, shaking his head. "My wife still wants to know where she was that day."

4) Sonny Liston threw the heavyweight title rematch against Muhammad Ali in 1965.

Liston was only hit by two punches in the one round bout against Ali, who beat him in six rounds a little over a year earlier. The knockout punch, a quick right jab, has often been called a "phantom punch" due to its quick delivery. Liston appears to start getting up off the canvas and flops back down, where he waits out referee Jersey Joe Walcott's count.

In the 2009 book "The 30 Greatest Sports Conspiracy Theories of All Time," author Elliott Kalb writes that "one popular theory is that Liston owed a ton of money to organized crime figures, so he bet against himself and didn't want to risk landing a lucky punch."

Whle Liston's dealings with shady underworld figures has long been conjectured (and seen as a possible link to his mysterious death in 1970), the boxer never admitted taking a dive, although Kalb's book states that his widow believed the rematch was fixed.

A slow motion video of the "phantom punch" certainly shows Ali connecting with Liston, although it's hard to tell whether the impact of such a short right would have packed enough force to knock out the former heavyweight champ. We'll never know now.

5) Bobby Riggs threw the "Battle of the Sexes" to settle a mob debt.

For The Win's Chris Chase dove into this in August, after an ESPN feature presented a case that the senior men's player may have let Billie Jean King win their 1973 exhibition based on conversations a Florida golf pro heard at the time among reported members of several mafia families.

Chase lays down a six-point rebuttal to the theory in his post, with his most pressing skepticism coming from King herself, who tweeted the following statement after the ESPN story ran.

"This story is just ridiculous. I was on the court with Bobby and I know he was not tanking the match. I could see in his eyes and body language he wanted to win. People need to accept he had a bad day at the office - just as Margaret Court did when she played Bobby. It was 40 years ago and I won the match and I am 100% sure Bobby wanted to win as badly as I did. Those who bet against me lost money but the result is the same today as it was 40 years ago."

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