A compilation of the most notorious con artists in sports

A compilation of the most notorious con artists in sports

They are the sports world’s versions of George Santos — and here's how they got caught

We may earn a commission from links on this page.
Image for article titled A compilation of the most notorious con artists in sports
Image: Getty Images

George Santos, Anthony Devolder, or whatever identity he’s assumed by the time this is published, pulled off one of the most daring cons in U.S. history during the midterm election cycle. In an era of con artists exploring extreme lengths to swindle their way into office, Santos faking a resume, spending months convincing party leaders, then voters living in the media capital of the world to seat him for a two-year Congressional term is in a class of its own.

Typically, the allure of the confidence game is skipping town when their objective is complete and before the jig is up, but Santos stepped in quicksand. Along with the bevy of allegations against the U.S. rep for N.Y.’s 3rd congressional district, his sketchy campaign benefactors, his even more bewildering backstory, and the other skeletons in his closet, is that he lied about a prominent volleyball career at Baruch College — a college he never even attended. That revelation drew chuckles, but serves as a reminder of the depths of Santos’ lies.

He expounded on those claims in radio interviews and even concocted a story about slaying Harvard, and Yale, and sacrificing his body, undergoing double knee replacement surgery during his accomplished volleyball career.

In observance of George Santos’ maneuvering under the sports penumbra, allow me to dive into the most deliberate cons on this side of the fence and most importantly, how they got caught.

Advertisement

2 / 11

Ali Dia

Ali Dia

Image for article titled A compilation of the most notorious con artists in sports
Screenshot: Twitter/@unibet

Signed as a free transfer by Southampton in 1996, despite making only one appearance with a non-league semi-pro club, the Blyth Spartans, Dia finessed his way onto the field for 53 minutes of a single Premier League match. He left a legacy behind that has withstood the test of time. Dia was signed without hesitation as a free transfer by Southampton in 1996, through a trustworthy recommendation from AC Milan striker George Weah, the previous year’s winner of the FIFA World Player of the Year and the Ballon d’Or, during a call to manager Graeme Souness.

Weah, who amazingly enough is the current president of Liberia, informed Souness that Dia was his cousin. As you can probably guess, Dia and Weah were not related. Weah wasn’t aware of Dia’s existence and he definitely did not dial up Souness. It’s not even clear if he even knew Souness existed. Instead, the “George Weah call” was later revealed to have been a serendipitous prank orchestrated by an acquaintance of Dia.

After joining the club for training, Dia was originally intended to debut in a reserve friendly against Leeds United where his inadequate skills would have given him away. However, fate meddled when the pitch they were scheduled to play on was waterlogged from a thunderstorm. Then, 32 minutes into the first half of a match against Leeds United, starting midfielder Matt Le Tissier pulled a thigh muscle and Souness replaced him with Dia.

Somehow, Dia nearly scored on a direct shot at Leeds goalkeeper Nigel Martin, but spent his 53 minutes mostly running aimlessly or as Le Tissier famously described it, “like Bambi on ice.”

Nobody had reached out to Blyth Spartan either. Their manager recalled wondering where Dia was on match day until noticing him stalking around the pitch in a Southampton kit on Match of the Day that evening.

The man who conned his way onto a Premier League pitch should have made millions selling his story. Instead, he disappeared into the wind just as surreptitiously as he arrived. Today, Dia is still recognized as the worst transfer in Premier League history, which is a Monty Python “tis’ but flesh wound” tier understatement. 

Advertisement

3 / 11

Aaron Rodgers

Aaron Rodgers

Image for article titled A compilation of the most notorious con artists in sports
Image: Getty Images

After testing positive for COVID-19 in November 2021, Rodgers was fined for attending a Halloween party with vaccinated teammates and breaking rules by not wearing a facemask in press conferences. Rodgers’ victim mentality prevented him from issuing a genuine mea culpa. Instead, he went on to justify why he did it and in a narcissistic rant painted the reaction to him as the problem. He also lamented being “in the crosshairs of the woke mob.”

It probably wasn’t as scandalous as Antonio Brown’s faux vaccination card scam, but Rodgers made his own mess even worse by dragging it out and refusing to apologize, explaining his team of pseudo-scientists and being a straight-up lunatic. Rodgers’ lie about being “immunized” was as unnecessary as it was deceitful. Instead of copping to his vaccination status like a slew of other players, Rodgers was more concerned with the reception his disclosure received.

Advertisement

4 / 11

Antonio Brown

Antonio Brown

Image for article titled A compilation of the most notorious con artists in sports
Image: Getty Images

Lost amid Antonio Brown’s reckless behavior, tantrums and his final disturbing appearance as a professional football player was his needless two-game suspension for submitting a falsified COVID-19 vaccination card to the NFL in December 2021. Brown was hilariously caught after his personal chef claimed he was owed $10,000 for his services.

Brown never faced criminal charges for using a fake vaccine card, which is potentially illegal, but that’s been the least of Brown’s legal troubles. Though he denied the charges, Brown was suspended for three games by the NFL. Brown and Rodgers reside at the bottom of the list because their cons were relatively elementary in comparison to the others. Congressional leaders may want to double-check George Santos’ vaccination records. Not just for COVID-19. I mean all of them.

Advertisement

5 / 11

George O’Leary

George O’Leary

Image for article titled A compilation of the most notorious con artists in sports
Image: Getty Images

In 2001, George O’Leary’s Irish heritage, intensity, proven reputation as a program-builder following seven years spent reviving the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and Notre Dame’s desperation for a fiery leader to replace the milquetoast Bob Davie, intertwined to make him the perfect name in the crowd to lead college football’s most prestigious program into the 21st century. O’Leary never even helmed Notre Dame for a spring practice.

O’Leary’s swelling national profile brought increased scrutiny. The questions surrounding his experience on the University of New Hampshire football team began swirling after The Union Leader sought background info for a feature story on O’Leary. Their reporting uncovered former teammates who didn’t remember him and exposed a tangled web of deception stretching back decades.

Coaches have fibbed before about GPAs or finishing their degrees, but O’Leary fabricated an entire football letterman career that never existed. O’Leary’s con began when he provided falsified info to the Syracuse media guide when he was hired as an assistant coach before the 1980 season.

What most people forget is that O’Leary’s falsehood about a master’s degree he’d earned from the non-existent “NYU-Stony Brook University” served as the final straw for Notre Dame and prompted him to resign in disgrace. He eventually settled in at the University of Central Florida where he’d remain in charge until his retirement in 2015. George O’Leary’s lies were also uncomplicated, and probably unnecessary but spanned two decades.

Furthermore, subsequent investigations into Georgia Tech during O’Leary’s tenure led to the Yellow Jackets being placed on probation, a reduction in scholarships, and the vacating of several seasons in which their former coach activated ineligible players. It’s only a matter of time until we learn that George Santos told Republican officials he played football for O’Leary during the vacated years.

Advertisement

6 / 11

Danny Almonte

Danny Almonte

Image for article titled A compilation of the most notorious con artists in sports
Image: Getty Images

In the summer of 2001, Almonte and his Baby Bombers became the darlings of the Little League World Series. The 12-year-old, 5-foot-9 Dominican-American pitcher and his fire-breathing fastball were the impetus for Rolando Paulino’s Bronx All-Stars catapulting into the semifinals. Almonte threw the first perfect game in LLWS history, striking out 16 of the 18 miniature pre-teen batters he faced, and became the most talked about future prospect in the sports universe.

However, a Sports Illustrated cover story written by two reporters who’d traveled to the Dominican Republic discovered Almonte’s birth date was April 7, 1987, not 1989. Almonte was 14 years old at the time of the LLWS, two years above the age limit. Almonte’s parents were the stereotypical overbearing parents who took unscrupulous means to get their child an advantage. His father was prosecuted by Dominican authorities for falsifying a birth certificate, and the adults involved drew a rebuke from President Bush, but it was Danny Almonte’s name that became synonymous with scandal.

Advertisement

7 / 11

Bishop Sycamore

Bishop Sycamore

Image for article titled A compilation of the most notorious con artists in sports
Screenshot: ESPN

Perhaps they slipped through the cracks amid the seasons impacted by COVID, but the head coach Leroy Johnson convinced the Ohio High School Athletic Association his sketchy scheme was a credible athletic program, talked premier national powerhouse IMG Academy to schedule them (for a second time) and deceived ESPN into believing they were fielding multiple highly ranked recruits and to place them in primetime.

Not only had Johnson scheduled two games in three days, but the roster was a melangé of junior college dropouts in their early 20s and high schoolers lured by the promise of a sprawling campus and football facilities. Johnson allegedly told players they’d be practicing at Ohio State facilities for a burgeoning “IMG of the Midwest.” Instead, the actual school address was a duplex in Duncanville, Ohio and they practiced behind the complex where Ohio State students lived.

However, this wasn’t Danny Almonte redux in which the older players outmatched the nationally renowned program. Nah, Johnson had stepped into a pool too deep for his lies to swim in, and midway through the second quarter against IMG, ESPN realized they’d been duped.

IMG scraped Bishop Sycamore off the floor, outscoring them 37-0 in the first half. During the 2020 season, the Bishop Sycamore Centurions were trounced in every single one of the six games they played in 2020 including a 56-6 loss to IMG Academy.

Johnson was fired almost immediately amidst the swirling media attention and Bishop Sycamore founder Andre Peterson denied the program was a scam. However, Johnson’s successor confirmed that Bishop Sycamore was a “post-grad football academy,” “not “a school” and that any misconceptions were due to errors in filing paperwork. An upcoming HBO documentary will highlight the extent of Johnson’s delusions and the effect his scandal had on the kids he recruited. Would it be surprising if we later found out that George Santos said he was a position coach for Bishop Sycamore? (Kidding, of course.)

Advertisement

8 / 11

Femke Van den Driessche

Femke Van den Driessche

Image for article titled A compilation of the most notorious con artists in sports
Image: Getty Images

The use of performance-enhancing drugs in cycling is one thing, but in 2016, Femke Van den Driessche became the first cyclist caught using a motorized bike in competition. At the women’s under-23 race in the 2016 World Championships, Van den Driessche failed to finish due to mechanical problems, and electric cables were spotted during a pit stop equipment check. Although she resorted to cliché defense by explaining that her bike must have gotten mixed up with a friend’s in error, a review discovered that Van den Driessche had been receiving a mechanical advantage since at least the previous year. After being handed a six-year suspension, Van den Driessche retired from the sport.

Advertisement

9 / 11

Rosie Ruiz

Rosie Ruiz

Image for article titled A compilation of the most notorious con artists in sports
Image: Getty Images

Rosie Ruiz’s first-place finish in 1980’s Boston Marathon was the result of one of the simplest schemes in sports history. Ruiz came out of nowhere to win the women’s race in 2:31:56, a 25-minute improvement over her pace in the New York City Marathon. Her third-fastest-time history for a woman puzzled officials until their study of race photographs demonstrated that she only appeared towards the home stretch. Ruiz hopped on the subway and re-joined the Boston Marathon one mile from the end, although there have been unconfirmed theories abound that Ruiz never meant to actually win the race, but accidentally re-joined ahead of the other 450 competitors in an attempt to record a similar time as she did at the New York City Marathon.

Ruiz was stripped of her medals, disqualified and protocols were established to prevent similar circumstances from occurring again.

Advertisement

10 / 11

John Spano

John Spano

Image for article titled A compilation of the most notorious con artists in sports
Image: Getty Images

Conning your way onto the field is bold, but the gall to use those tactics to gain access to the apex of the sports industry’s C-Suite class is breathtaking. The process of buying a Big Four pro franchise supposedly involves extensive background checks, complex financial assessments, the confirmation of assets, and millions of dollars exchanged before being handed keys to the castle. However, John Spano sidestepped those gatekeeping measures through sheer guile en route to becoming the gold standard for con artists in the sports world.

Spano’s brazen fraud was remarkable. Spano purportedly earned a majority of his wealth through the ownership and operation of a corporation called The Bison Group, which specializes in leasing aircraft and other equipment. Once the NHL’s Board of Governors unanimously approved the New York Islanders’ sale to the 33-year-old Texas businessman for $165 million, the entire sandcastle of lies dissipated.

Spano’s litany of forgeries, and previous failed bids to buy NHL franchises earned him the trust of the league, Spano deceived the NHL and major banks into believing he had the assets to buy the Islanders. The NHL’s lack of due diligence in administering an independent verification of Spano’s net worth and financial statements created an embarrassment for Commissioner Gary Bettman, who’d gone out of his way to praise Spano even after his deal with the Chargers fell through.

In reality, his alleged $230 million net worth was measured in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Then-Stars President Jim Lites later recalled his excuses for canceling the consummation of his deal to buy the Dallas Stars in 1995 as “laughable,” but noted that he wasn’t “flamboyant enough to be a con artist.”

Spano ultimately was charged with multiple counts of fraud committed during his Islanders ownership bid by federal prosecutors in New York and was sought for additional charges by federal prosecutors in Fort Worth. After initially fleeing, Spano returned to the States where he was sentenced to 71 months in federal prison. Conveniently enough, George Santos represents the district where the Islanders play. I think we found his inspiration.

Advertisement

11 / 11