The Biggest Cheating Scandals in Sports Movie History, Ranked – The Ringer

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We don’t talk enough about how the 1994 California Angels clinched the pennant with the help of a bunch of spiritual beings …
At 6:11 a.m. PST last Thursday, LeBron James was watching the 1985 underdog sports comedy Teen Wolf and wondering how Scott Howard (Michael J. Fox) ended up at the free throw line with two shots to win the climactic game. It’s a good question. But I have a better question: Have you ever thought about what it was like for the fans of the opposing team, who had to watch an honest-to-goodness werewolf drop 56 points on their squad? Before the 1985 season, werewolves seemingly existed only in movies or European folklore days—and now an entire gym was witnessing Howard, a kid who was maybe good for four points and two assists the previous season, turn into a mythological species and drain unnecessary stepback jumpers that would’ve foiled a prime Mark Eaton.
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Teen Wolf belongs to a very specific subgenre of sports movies about underdog squads that receive some form of unexplainable help and immediately become championship-caliber teams. This subgenre hit its peak between 1985 and 2005 thanks to movies like Teen Wolf (1985), Ladybugs (1992), Rookie of the Year (1993), Angels in the Outfield (1994), D2: The Mighty Ducks (1994), The 6th Man (1997), Air Bud (1997), Like Mike (2002), and Herbie: Fully Loaded (2005). These movies feature zero valuable lessons about hard work and zero Kickboxer-esque moments in which a character’s legs are pulled apart by a pulley system designed to make people’s splits legendary. Actually, if Jean-Claude Van Damme had starred in Teen Wolf, at least a third of the film’s running time would’ve been dedicated to training montages of JCVD as he learns how to fully optimize his wolf form.
Here are some other facts that connect the films in this subgenre. It’s fun knowing that there are at least three common threads between each of the films.
How did we go through such a stretch of celebrating rampant injustice and dishonesty? Does this run of films* explain why everyone was so cool with Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998? Is this why Rob Manfred went so easy on the 2017 Houston Astros? Because think about it: Contemporary R-rated sports movies like Above the Rim, White Men Can’t Jump, The Program, Blue Chips, and Varsity Blues made a point of showing the downsides of cheating and hustling, but the most prominent children’s sports movies were all about winning with zero consequences. It’s high time we remove our collective Bud Selig glasses and revisit this era, taking stock of the most egregious cheating and loophole exploiting ever committed by these so-called great and inspirational (and fictional) sports teams. Here are the nine biggest cheating scandals in sports movie history.
*We scoured the theatrically released films between 1985 and 2005 to create this list. Movies like Teen Wolf Too (1987), Little Giants (1994), Ed (1996), Space Jam (1996), Juwanna Mann (2002), and The Ringer (2005) didn’t make the cut because there’s either not enough cheating (Little Giants) or the protagonists learn something valuable and become better humans (or werewolf-human hybrids) as a result of their cheating (Juwanna Mann, The Ringer, Teen Wolf Too).
Team: California Angels
What did they win? The AL West Division title
How did they win? A nice kid named Roger (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) prayed for the Angels to win the AL West after his deadbeat dad said they’d become a family again if they got the pennant.
The reason why Angels in the Outfield is in ninth place can best be explained by a moment when coach George Knox (Danny Glover) is questioning catcher Triscuitt Messmer (Tony Longo) about whether or not he felt a divine presence assist him when he hit a monster home run during the day’s game. Triscuitt admits that he felt some extra power from somewhere, but instead of giving credit to an angelic force, he says the extra chili dogs he had for lunch—specifically the third one, which “tasted kinda funny”—gave him the strength to hit a blast.
Angels in the Outfield is the only movie on this list in which the players don’t know that they’re cheating. Sure, strange things are clearly afoot: An angel-aided Matthew McConaughey pulls off his second-best movie leap ever (Reign of Fire is no. 1), and there’s the infield hit involving Adrien Brody that causes 17 errors. But the only person who can see the angels is Roger, and people understandably have a hard time believing that he’s seeing spiritual beings and instead think he’s just a good-luck charm or some wunderkind with pre-Moneyball analytical skills. When word gets out that Knox keeps Roger around because he sees angels, it leads to a press conference in which Knox struggles to explain how they’ve won 50 of their last 59 games and has to be aided by Maggie Nelson (Brenda Fricker, a.k.a. the Pigeon Lady from Home Alone 2), the woman who runs Roger’s foster home. Maggie stands up and says, “One of these boys is, uh, the child who can see angels.” (I love the “uh” there.) She then unleashes a wildly nebulous speech about love and faith that leaves everyone thinking, like, “I guess there aren’t angels helping them, but rather the values that angels represent, or something?” The ’94 California Angels were cheaters. But there’s definitely some gray area when it comes to divine intervention.
Team: Chicago Cubs
What did they win? The World Series
How did they win? A nice 12-year-old kid named Henry Rowengartner (Thomas Ian Nicholas) broke his arm, and his tendons fused with his humerus too tightly, which allowed him to throw high stinky Limburger cheese (fast pitches). After he was signed by the Cubs, they went on an epic two-month winning streak.
While the idea of a tendon that heals too tightly and gives a 12-year-old a rocket arm is far-fetched, the idea of signing him to put butts in the seats isn’t. (And in terms of legality, the case of Henry Rowengartner would’ve definitely gone to the courts; MLB’s current CBA clearly states that an American player must be at least 17 years old to sign with a team. But historically, things have been a little hazier, so with the right lawyers the Cubs could’ve won.) In 2004, the mere presence of 14-year-old Freddy Adu on D.C. United’s squad led to huge numbers for Major League Soccer. From a purely economic standpoint, when Larry Fisher (Dan Hedaya) signs Henry, it’s a stroke of brilliance that saves the club from financial ruin. In this world, the only thing smarter than signing Rowengartner would’ve been to have a Henry Rabblehouser (the spelling error wasn’t intentional, but because of this the bobblehead becomes a collectible) bobblehead night because on average, bobblehead nights boost attendance by 24.7 percent during weekday games. Guaranteed sellout.
Sure, signing a 12-year-old kid who’s just had major shoulder surgery and then rushing him onto the mound with almost zero cardio or strength conditioning is exploitative and dangerous. But the ’93 Cubs are still relatively low-level offenders. (Dan Hedaya innocent!) The nice thing about Rookie of the Year is that Henry throws gouda without the aid of magical properties. And in Rookie of the Year’s defense, its ultimate message is basically “Look, this lucky bullshit isn’t going to last forever.” In the division-clinching final game of the season, Henry loses his ability to throw stinky cheese but finds a way to win. He rallies his Cubbie teammates by getting two outs in the ninth via trickery, and for the third out, he channels his inner Scruffy McGee and strikes out his nemesis Heddo—a trash-talker so legendary he apparently has only one name—with three floaters. All in all, the kid plays baseball for a couple of months, makes some money, realizes his mom is super cool, and finds a father figure in Gary Busey (who delivers a really good, genuinely warm performance), while the Cubs eventually go on to win the World Series. Everybody wins.
Team: The Ladybugs, a girls youth soccer team
What did they win? The league soccer championship
How did they win? Hoping for a promotion at his job, Chester Lee (Rodney Dangerfield) started coaching the all-girls soccer team his company sponsors. After they lost the first game, Chester recruited his fiancée’s son, Matthew (Jonathan Brandis), to play for the team.
The best thing that can be said about Ladybugs is that Dangerfield doesn’t yell, “We’re all gonna get laid” when the Ladybugs squad wins the championship. I’m pretty sure that when it was released on March 27, 1992, alongside White Men Can’t Jump, The Cutting Edge, and The Power of One, theatergoers weren’t expecting to learn any life lessons from it—and they were right. The main takeaway from Ladybugs is that creative cheating will not only win you a soccer championship, but also get you a gigantic raise because your boss respects the imagination and guile it took to convince a surly teenager (who really just needs a reliable father figure) to lie to his mom and trick a group of friendly girls.
The reason why Ladybugs is in seventh place here and not in movie jail is because of Dangerfield’s long history of playing characters who cheat, bribe, or lie their way to victory. In Caddyshack, he fakes an injury and ends up winning $80,000. In Back to School, he bribes his way into college and wins a college diving championship. In Easy Money, he pretends to be a reformed playboy so that he can spend his mother-in-law’s money. In Ladybugs, when his 0-1 team is about to kick off its second game, Chester prays for help and vows that he’ll stop staring at women (for too long) if they win. Then, when Matthew scores a goal in about 15 seconds, Chester looks up at the sky and says, “Hey God, I take it all back. I may not need you.”
If Dangerfield were the star of Herbie: Fully Loaded, he would have Herbie wait outside his favorite bar and drive him home when he’s loaded. If Angels in the Outfield were designed around his on-screen persona, he would pray for the Angels to win the pennant because during a bender in Las Vegas he put $50 on the +50,000 underdogs and is hoping to use the money to keep his favorite strip club from closing. Basically, cheating is paramount in Rodney’s films. It’s expected. So it’s just not as egregious as magical basketball shoes.
Team: Los Angeles Knights
What did they win? A trip to the playoffs for the first time in club history
How did they win? Frank Bernard (Eugene Levy), the general manager of the Knights, pulled off a miracle by signing Calvin Cambridge (Bow Wow), a 14-year-old orphan who beat Knights star Tracy Reynolds in a halftime game of one-on-one thanks to the power of some magic shoes.
Like Mike feels like the culmination of 17 years of these types of movies. There are sprinkles of Angels in the Outfield (orphan gets adopted), Rookie of the Year (a kid plays pro sports), and Slam Dunk Ernest (magic shoes), and as in Air Bud, The Sixth Man, and Teen Wolf, the sport of choice is basketball. The movie also continued the trend of having an excellent child actor—in this case Bow Wow, who by then was no longer Lil—anchor the silliness.
The reason Like Mike is below Rookie of the Year is because of the magic shoes—this child is a walking bucket specifically because he’s wearing Michael Jordan’s old sneakers. While it is a bit dubious when Henry is signed in Rookie of the Year, it’s still perfectly legal, and the Chicago Cubs’ World Series win is technically legitimate. But if anyone somehow found out that Calvin was siphoning the talent of Michael Jordan from a pair of shoes, the Los Angeles Knights would most certainly be punished. Wilson Chandler got 25 games for taking PEDs in 2019—they would’ve thrown the book at Calvin. Moreover, the entire Knights organization would likely face penalties for pretending that there was a rational, legal explanation for a 14-year-old’s ability to posterize Ben Wallace or avoid a Doug Christie uppercut.
Still, I do appreciate Bernard’s moxie. He sees a kid dunk from the free throw line, so he signs the kid who dunked from the free throw line. His ambitious gamble pays off in the first game, when Calvin scores 27 points and helps the Knights come back from a 16-point deficit against the 2002 Spurs—a team that had Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker and went 60-22 before winning a championship. Bernard’s team makes the playoffs for the first time ever, a huge achievement for the city of Los Angeles, where, in this universe, the Los Angeles Lakers have seemingly and inexplicably been dissolved. It’s probably a good thing that Calvin’s shoes were destroyed during the final game. That way the whole thing kinda just dies down before anyone asks how he’s able to jump 40 feet.
Team: Team USA (but basically the Ducks)
What did they win? The Junior Goodwill Games
How did they win? After blowing out his knee during a minor league hockey game, Gordon Bombay (Emilio Estevez) was offered a chance to coach Team USA at the Junior Goodwill Games. He assembled a team in mind-boggling fashion by gathering most of the kids from his youth hockey team—who months ago could barely skate—and picking up some actually nationally heralded players (one of whom can’t stop), and they headed to Los Angeles to battle Iceland for the title. In the end, Bombay drew up a highly irresponsible play to help the Ducks win.
During the hotly contested Junior Goodwill Games championship matchup between Iceland and Team USA, there’s a moment when the Icelandic players stop for 14 seconds to give Russ Tyler (Kenan Thompson) a hilarious amount of time to slap off his patented, literally unstoppable knucklepuck, which ties the game in the final seconds of the third period. Before this play, the suspiciously large Europeans (Olaf was played by 20-year-old actor Kai Lennox) were all over Team USA like salt on sun-dried salted cod, but in the dying embers of the game, they stand in disbelief as their worst nightmare comes true. The only plausible explanation for the 14-second delay in Icelandic action is that the players must’ve assumed a penalty would be called when Team USA’s goalie skated up to the center line and took his helmet off (not allowed) to reveal that it was actually Tyler dressed as the goalie (also not allowed). Now, admittedly, refereeing had been somewhat lax prior to this moment, but calls were still made when, for example, a Team USA player stormed the ice to illegally lasso an unsuspecting Icelander. The lack of a call in the decisive Tyler moment suggests home cooking, which can’t be proved, but there’s really no legitimate reason why Bombay’s illegal play would stand.
It would be fun to know what was going through Bombay’s mind when he drew up the final play. Most coaches at his level would exploit the fact that three Icelandic players swarm Russ every time he touches the puck, which would potentially create a four-on-two advantage for snipers like Adam Banks (Vincent LaRusso) or Connie Moreau (Marguerite Moreau) to exploit. Bombay completely ignores this and instead draws up a play that would be immediately blown dead in 99.9 percent of hockey games around the world. Maybe he’s riding high after finding a loophole that allowed the Ducks to change uniforms in the third period, or maybe Charlie Conway (Joshua Jackson) assumed (correctly) that the Junior Goodwill Games wouldn’t have the stones to overturn a buzzer-beating goal and hand the trophy to the tournament’s villains. Either way, Bombay has a perfectly legal strategy at his disposal and still decides to cheat. It’s a bad look.
Team: The Washington Huskies
What did they win? The NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament
How did they win? The ghost of the Washington Huskies’ best player came back from the dead and helped lead the Huskies to the national championship.
It’s safe to say that of all the characters on this list, and of the roughly 1,260 players who have played on NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament–winning squads since 1939, Kenny Tyler (Marlon Wayans) faces the strangest moral quandary. On the one hand, having his brother, Antoine, back from the dead is nice because they get to hang out and cheat their way to the national championship final. On the other hand, even after dying and coming back as a ghost, Antoine is the worst, and with him around, Kenny will never become his own man because of a pattern that was created in their childhood days. Most players only have to worry about basketball, but Kenny is wrestling with depression, guilt, the rigors of sport, and the knowledge that there’s an afterlife that he hopes won’t put him in a Constantine situation.
In total, here are the ways in which the ghost of Antoine Tyler affects the Huskies’ title run:
What separates the Washington Huskies of The 6th Man from the California Angels of Angels in the Outfield is that the Huskies eventually become aware of their spiritual cheating aid—and when he’s helping them win a Pac-10 title and clinch a spot in the NCAA tournament, they’re all for it. It isn’t until Ghost Antoine throws a member of the Georgetown Hoyas into a backboard that everyone’s like, “Hey, Kenny, tell your dead brother to leave us alone.” I have a feeling that Kenny and the rest of the squad would’ve been totally fine riding a ghost all the way to a championship if he were a friendly ghost who assisted in subtler, less evil ways. You do have to cut the Huskies some slack—their teammate died tragically on the basketball court and then returned soon after as proof that ghosts exist—but still, they’re pretty egregious cheaters.
Team: Peyton Racing
What did they win? A NASCAR Nextel Cup Series race
How did they win? Former street racer Maggie Peyton (Lindsay Lohan) teamed up with a magical car named Herbie, and together they (but mostly Herbie) won a NASCAR Nextel Cup Series race.
The opening credits of Herbie: Fully Loaded feature a barrage of clips that showcase the adventures of Herbie, a sentient Volkswagen Beetle who was introduced to the world in the 1968 film The Love Bug. The clips wisely avoid the scene in which Herbie tries to kill himself by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge and instead focus on Herbie’s efforts to help various drivers cheat their way to undeserved victory.
In Herbie: Fully Loaded, Maggie Peyton comes across Herbie in a junkyard, and within hours, she’s defeating NASCAR legend Trip Murphy (Matt Dillon) in a street race. The race goes viral, and because there’s way too much plot, she’s forced to keep her race a secret from her overprotective dad (Michael Keaton) while keeping Herbie away from the justifiably pissed-off Trip, who wants to smash Herbie into oblivion. In the end, Maggie takes her brother’s (Breckin Meyer) spot in the Nextel Cup Series, and she and Herbie win a race when Herbie uses the fencing around the track to leap ahead of Trip.
The biggest problem with Herbie: Fully Loaded is that Maggie never wins a race on her own. During the climactic race, she unilaterally relies on Herbie to do wild shit like the aforementioned fence trick, and she literally drives over Tony Stewart’s car instead of around it. The whole point of these films is for underdogs—usually underdogs with wildly protective (or absent) parents—to learn they belong with the best because they beat the best. Maggie skips all of that because she bonds with a magical car that has wild mood swings and may have lost its car mind while sitting imprisoned in a junkyard for years.
Team: Fernfield Timberwolves
What did they win? A middle school basketball championship
How did they win? A preteen kid named Josh Framm (Kevin Zegers) befriended quite possibly the most athletic golden retriever ever, and together they teamed up to dominate middle school basketball.
“You check in your rule book. Bet you won’t find anything that says a dog can’t play.” —Coach Arthur Chaney, 1997
The reason Air Bud is so high on this list is because of how coach Arthur Chaney (Bill Cobbs) exploits the lack of specific terminology in a middle school basketball rule book to get Buddy, a golden retriever, into a championship game. To Chaney’s credit, it’s a brilliant move and a testament to his eye for talent: Bud is a once-in-a-lifetime athlete who will go on to win, among other things, the FIFA Women’s World Cup and the World Series (with the Anaheim Angels).
Normally, the teams on this list have lost their angelic assistance or rocket arm by the fourth quarter or ninth inning and need to win on their own. Air Bud is the exception, as Bud is used as a late-game substitute and puts up 10 points, five assists, and four steals in seven minutes, helping the Timberwolves erase a 16-point deficit. To win the game, Bud headbutts a kid in his groin, which sends the ball flying and into the hands of Josh, who drains the shot and gains back the confidence he lost after his dad died. When the game ends, all the Fernfield supporters lose their minds in celebration, and it doesn’t look like any of them feel bad for the preteen children on the other team who just had their championship hopes erased by a beautiful animal with a top speed of 30 to 35 mph.
Most of the teams on this list put on this phony, self-righteous air of “let’s win the championship on our own,” as if the whole reason they’re even in the final isn’t because they rode an angel’s and/or ghost’s coattails for the majority of the season. I respect that the Fernfield Timberwolves are unabashed, proud cheaters. If you’re not exploiting the rule books, are you even trying to win?
Team: Beacontown Beavers
What did they win? A Nebraska high school basketball championship
How did they win? An average teenager named Scott Howard (Michael J. Fox) learned that he was a werewolf.
This entire piece came from the observation that although Scott Howard doesn’t wolf out for the championship game, even when he is in human form he’s still a werewolf with heightened powers. When he makes his big speech and says, “If we’re gonna win, we gotta pull it off ourselves—we don’t need the wolf,” he’s sneakily trying to convince everyone that he’s just a cool dude who doesn’t need to become a furry Mon-star to succeed. But if you’ve seen the movie, or any other werewolf movie like Wolf (1994), The Wolfman (2010), An American Werewolf in Paris (1997), Ginger Snaps (2000), Underworld (2003), or the Twilight series, you know that even in human form, werewolves can still dunk the ball down someone’s throat.

Go back and watch the first game in Teen Wolf, when the Beacontown Beavers lose 72-12 to the Dragons. Then watch the rematch, when the two teams are squaring off for the championship. Scott enters the game in the first quarter, when the Beavers are already losing by 19 points, and he leads an improbable comeback in which they outscore the Dragons 49-29. He’s an electric tornado who takes hard knocks like they’re nothing, scores 14 points, dishes six beautiful assists, and has cardio for days. At one point he dishes a behind-the-back assist like he’s frickin’ Chris Paul. He’s obviously light-years better than he was at the beginning of the season, when merely sinking a free throw was cause for pandemonium. And that’s because by the championship game, he has the blood of a mythical beast coursing through his veins.
In the end, Scott wins by exploiting the fact that there’s no “Bruce Banner” rule that bans people with superpowers from competing in high school athletics (and no one anywhere learns any valuable lessons about sportsmanship and fairness). From what I hear, the Dragons are still petitioning the state of Nebraska to force Beacontown to vacate the title.
So in conclusion, I just really want to watch Rookie of the Year again. It’s delightful.
Mark Hofmeyer is an Atlanta-based film critic and script writer who contributes to Fandom, Film Theory, and Rotten Tomatoes. He also hosts the Movies, Films and Flix podcast and Deep Blue Sea: The Podcast.
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