10 Most Impactful Suspensions in Sports History

By Vincent Frank
Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

The four-game suspension that the NFL handed down to New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for his alleged role in Deflategate really got us thinking.

Could this suspension go down as one of the most impactful in the history of professional sports in North America? While there’s way too much to be decided there, we figured it would be interesting to look at some suspensions around the sports world that had a major impact.

From Muhammad Ali taking a defiant stand against the United States involvement in Vietnam to a billionaire NBA owner losing what he held dear over some racist remarks, here are the 10 most impactful suspensions in the history of North American sports.

1. Chicago Black Sox Scandal (MLB)

Courtesy of Historyrat.com

Courtesy of Historyrat.com

This scandal had everything. Star baseball players. The criminal gang underbelly. Athletes on the take. It was nearly 100 years ago, and it was during a time when baseball was taking over as our national pastime.

Back in 1919, White Sox first baseman  Arnold “Chick” Gandil was persuaded by New York City gangsters to throw the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. Outfielder Shoeless” Joe Jackson was also involved in the scandal, but he disputed said involvement until his death. Gandil, Jackson and six other players were banned from baseball for life for taking payoffs to do their best to lose the series. In the end, Chicago lost the series in eight games (best of nine). This scandal set into motion new rules governing gambling and player conduct throughout the professional sports world.

In reflection of his career in the Majors, Joe Jackson had these pointed towards to share: 

God knows I gave my best in baseball at all times and no man on earth can truthfully judge me otherwise.

Jackson, known as one of the greatest pure hitters of the dead-ball era, hit .356 in 13 seasons with the Philadelphia Athletics, Cleveland Naps and Chicago White Sox.

2. Muhammad Ali (Boxing)

One of the most controversial sports figures of the 20th century, Ali’s suspension did not stem from anything he did in the ring. Previously known as Cassius Clay, The People’s Champion became interested in societal issues at about the same time that he converted to Islam and associated himself with Nation of Islam. An opponent of America’s involvement in Vietnam, Ali eventually refused to serve in the armed forces after being drafted into service. At that time, he was stripped of his heavyweight title and had his boxing license suspended in the state of New York. In the months that followed, every state eventually stripped Ali of his license. During the ensuing time, Ali was convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison.

Ali eventually had his case heard in the United States Supreme Court, who overturned his conviction. While Ali didn’t serve time in prison while his appeal was being heard, he wasn’t able to box for a near four-year span, from ages 25 to 28. When Ali did return to the ring, he won a couple bouts before being called on to spar with Joe Frazier in what was deemed the “Fight of the Century.” Unfortunately for Ali, that fight ended in a loss—the first of his career. However, he was back on the biggest stage boxing had to offer after a near four-year hiatus. Ali would later claim the title again before losing his final two fights. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1984.

3. Pete Rose, Infielder, Cincinnati Reds (MLB)

Speaking of gambling, MLB’s all-time hits leader was placed on the sport’s permanent ineligible list in 1989 after an investigation by John Dowd found that Rose placed bets on 52 Reds game while acting as the team’s manager in 1987. While still maintaining his innocence until coming clean in 2009, Rose remains suspended indefinitely. He has applied for reinstatement multiple times, including a recent application earlier this year. New MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has promised to take a new look at Rose’s situation:

What I can tell you about Pete Rose is he’s applied for reinstatement,” Manfred said. “He has the right to do that. I am going to take a full and fresh look

Rose, a 17-time All-Star, finished his 24-year career with a record 4,256 hits. He was also named to the MLB All-Century Team back in 1999. It’s absolutely stunning that one of the greatest players in baseball history is not in Cooperstown. And depending on your opinion of this situation, Rose brought it on himself.

4. Tonya Harding, Figure Skating

Imagine if Twitter was around during this scandal. It included the beauty queen, questionable criminal elements and figure skating. Something made for Soviet-era Russia. But no, it happened right in our backyard. The story is by now well known, but let’s check out a brief overview for a bit.

In January of 1994, Nancy Kerrigan was struck in the leg by a man with a baton as she prepared for the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. It then became public record that Harding’s husband and bodyguard hired Shane Stant to break Kerrigan’s leg so that she couldn’t compete in the championships for a chance to be selected to the Olympic team that year.

Harding ultimately pleaded guilty to conspiring to hinder prosecution of the attackers and was forced to resign from the United States Figure Skating Association. This came after Harding herself finished eighth in the single program in the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer. Interestingly enough, Kerrigan earned the Silver in the same competition.

For Harding, she never participated in another competition again. To this day, one of the most hated figures in sports history has yet to accept responsibility for her role in the brazen attack.

5. Ray Rice, Running Back, Baltimore Ravens (NFL)

This isn’t a case of recency bias. While Rice himself wasn’t one of the top players in the NFL when he was suspended by the NFL for domestic violence, the league’s response to the initial incident set into motion a public backlash that no sport in North America has seen since the 1994 World Series was cancelled due to a strike.

As you likely already know, Rice was originally suspended just two games for striking his then fiancee Janay Palmer in an elevator in Atlantic City, N.J., back in February of 2014. After the gossip rag TMZ obtained a copy of the video and released it to the public, the NFL suspended Rice immediately. Within less than an hour, the Ravens had released their former star running back. This raised speculation that both the Ravens and the NFL saw the video before it was released.

From a pure societal lens, Rice’s suspension was one of the most important in professional sports history. It put the long ignored issue of domestic violence in this nation on the front burner. If anything good could have possibly came from this situation, it was that.

6. Tom Brady, Quarterback, New England Patriots (NFL)

Deflategate. A term that generations of football fans into the future will know. This story has yet to play out, so it’s hard to draw an ultimate conclusion. Five years from now, it could very well be near the top of this list. Depending on Brady’s appeal, it could also be completely off the list. For now, one of the greatest players in league history is suspended for the first four games of the 2015 NFL season for allegedly cheating. Moving forward, it could set into motion a challenge to Roger Goodell’s unchecked powers as commissioner.

7. Art Schlichter, Quarterback, Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts (NFL)

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This former Ohio State product was the fourth pick in the 1982 NFL draft. Long seen as your prototypical NFL signal caller, Schlichter was actually a favorite of early draft analysts. However, it wasn’t on the field where the young man struggled the most. Instead, Schlichter’s gambling habits quickly spiraled out of control shortly after he was drafted. In fact, the quarterback exhausted his entire signing bonus on gambling by the midway point of his rookie season. During the 1982 NFL strike, Schlichter had lost $20,000 in gambling. By the time the strike ended, that number was at $700,000.

After bookies threatened to go public, Schlichter decided to work as an informant for the FBI and sought help from the NFL, at which point the league suspended him indefinitely. The former No. 4 overall pick was arrested in New York City in 1987 for his involvement in a gambling ring, after which he was exiled from the NFL for good. In September of 2011, Schlichter was sentenced to 10 years in prison for his role in a lottery ticked scam. He played in a total of 13 games from 1982-1985, throwing three touchdowns compared to 11 interceptions.

Outside of this being one of the most tragic stories of addiction in NFL history, Schlichter went down as one of the greatest draft busts ever. The Colts got just three starts and three touchdowns out of their former top pick. Sadly for the team, Jim McMahon and Marcus Allen were two of the players selected in the top 10 with Schlichter that year. It’s crazy to think about, but if this pick had panned out for Baltimore, it wouldn’t have selected John Elway with the first pick of the 1983 draft, at which point the team was forced to trade him to the Denver Broncos. That would have enabled the Los Angeles Rams or Seattle Seahawks to select Elway, which might have changed the history of the NFL.

8. Stanley Wilson, Running Back, Cincinnati Bengals (NFL)

Speaking about the history of the NFL changing forever, Wilson’s story is largely untold. Dealing with a cocaine addiction throughout his adult life, Wilson was suspended for the entire 1985 and 1987 seasons due to the habit. As part of a three-headed running back monster for the Bengals in 1988, Wilson was an extremely important aspect of the team’s offense. Wilson, Ickey Woods and James Brooks combined for nearly 2,900 yards and 32 touchdowns for Sam Wyche’s squad.

Then on the eve of Super Bowl XXIII against the San Francisco 49ers, Wilson was found in the team’s bathroom high on cocaine. He was subsequently left off the roster in a game the Bengals lost by just four points. There’s no telling whether Wilson’s absence made the difference in the outcome, but Wyche later claimed that he believed it did. After all, Wilson was the lead blocker for Woods and Brooks, who combined for less than four yards per rush in the Super Bowl compared to well over five yards during the regular season.

9. Donald Sterling, Owner, Los Angeles Clippers (NBA)

Courtesy of USA Today Sports

Courtesy of USA Today Sports

Yet another recent suspension that shocked the sports world. Sterling was in the process of overseeing one of the greatest turnarounds for a basketball team in NBA history when he was taped making racists remarks to his “friend” V. Stiviano in April of 2014. This started a process in which Sterling found himself suspended by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver for life. Sterling was then forced to cede control of the team to his wife, who eventually sold the club. Once one of the biggest movers and shakers in the NBA, Sterling’s story now represents a major black eye for the Association.

10. Latrell Sprewell, Guard, Golden State Warriors (NBA) 

A four-time All-Star, Sprewell is best known for chocking former Warriors head coach  P. J. Carlesimo during a practice back in 1997. Originally suspended just 10 games, brush back from the general public forced the NBA to suspend the former guard for an entire season. Golden State also voided the remainder of Sprewell’s contract, which called for $24 million over three years.

While this particular incident might not be as high profile as the Malice at the Palace between the Pacers and Pistons, it did set a precedent. It was the first time in modern professional sports history that public backlash forced a league to re-think its original suspension. Sprewell ended up playing seven more seasons in the NBA after his suspension, but he never reached the height of what we saw prior to the choking incident in Golden State.

Photo: USA Today Sports