Five Spy Scandals that Rocked the International World of Sports

Sporting events provide the perfect cover to spy on the competition, track fans, and snoop on data. 

No sooner had Qatar’s football team kicked off the opening game of World Cup 2022 than the spy stories started swirling - allegations of drone spies, Facebook ‘honeypots’, and mobile-phone hacking. Swiss TV’s SRF told football fans to look out for a van parked outside of their hotel which could allegedly act as a mobile surveillance platform able to intercept WiFi signals, record videos, capture vehicle number plates, monitor call phone data, and intercept calls.

It certainly isn’t the first time a spy scandal has shaken the sporting world. Here are a few of the many highlights, including corporate espionage, an audacious head office hack, and a sign-stealing controversy involving American baseball scouts.

The Formula One spy scandal involved Ferrari mechanic Nigel Stepney
The Formula One spy scandal involved Ferrari mechanic Nigel Stepney

1. The McLaren Formula One spy scandal

A Formula One spy scandal shook the racing world in 2007 and the main players included Ferrari chief mechanic Nigel Stepney who was suspended as a result of ‘irregularities’. It seems Stepney passed on 800 or so pages of inside information and technical specs to McLaren’s chief designer Mike Coughlan. When Coughlan asked his wife to photocopy the docs at the local photocopying shop in Woking, England - just moments from McLaren’s HQ - the shop’s staff blew the whistle on possible corporate espionage. 

The sports’ governing body, Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), initially decided that while McLaren had the docs, there was no evidence they’d used Ferrari’s design secrets. New evidence emerged however, and McLaren was later disqualified from the constructors’ championship and handed a $100m fine.

Drivers Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton were free to battle it out on the race course, but the distractions could have helped Kimi Raikkonen claim the 2007 title.

New England Patriot US Football players
The New England Patriots

2. New England Patriots ‘Spygate’ video scandal

Matt Estrella, a 26-year-old New England Patriots videographer, was caught taping New York Jets coaching signals from an unauthorized location In September  2007, a scandal soon dubbed ‘Spygate’. Estrella filmed hand signals from New York's defensive assistants during a game the Patriots would go on to win 38-14.

The Patriots admitted wrongdoing and NFL  commissioner Roger Goodell fined coach Bill Belichick $500,000 (the NFL maximum) and the team another $250,000. The Patriots also had to forfeit their first-round pick in the 2008 draft - the first time a team lost their first-round picks due to an infraction. Goodell called the actions a ‘calculated and deliberate attempt to avoid long-standing rules’ but did not reverse the outcome of the game. A flood of new spying allegations soon followed. 

Five Spy Scandals that Rocked the World of Sports

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Sporting events provide the perfect cover to spy on the competition, track fans, and snoop on data. 

No sooner had Qatar’s football team kicked off the opening game of World Cup 2022 than the spy stories started swirling - allegations of drone spies, Facebook ‘honeypots’, and mobile-phone hacking. Swiss TV’s SRF told football fans to look out for a van parked outside of their hotel which could allegedly act as a mobile surveillance platform able to intercept WiFi signals, record videos, capture vehicle number plates, monitor call phone data, and intercept calls.

It certainly isn’t the first time a spy scandal has shaken the sporting world. Here are a few of the many highlights, including corporate espionage, an audacious head office hack, and a sign-stealing controversy involving American baseball scouts.

The Formula One spy scandal involved Ferrari mechanic Nigel Stepney
The Formula One spy scandal involved Ferrari mechanic Nigel Stepney

1. The McLaren Formula One spy scandal

A Formula One spy scandal shook the racing world in 2007 and the main players included Ferrari chief mechanic Nigel Stepney who was suspended as a result of ‘irregularities’. It seems Stepney passed on 800 or so pages of inside information and technical specs to McLaren’s chief designer Mike Coughlan. When Coughlan asked his wife to photocopy the docs at the local photocopying shop in Woking, England - just moments from McLaren’s HQ - the shop’s staff blew the whistle on possible corporate espionage. 

The sports’ governing body, Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), initially decided that while McLaren had the docs, there was no evidence they’d used Ferrari’s design secrets. New evidence emerged however, and McLaren was later disqualified from the constructors’ championship and handed a $100m fine.

Drivers Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton were free to battle it out on the race course, but the distractions could have helped Kimi Raikkonen claim the 2007 title.

New England Patriot US Football players
The New England Patriots

2. New England Patriots ‘Spygate’ video scandal

Matt Estrella, a 26-year-old New England Patriots videographer, was caught taping New York Jets coaching signals from an unauthorized location In September  2007, a scandal soon dubbed ‘Spygate’. Estrella filmed hand signals from New York's defensive assistants during a game the Patriots would go on to win 38-14.

The Patriots admitted wrongdoing and NFL  commissioner Roger Goodell fined coach Bill Belichick $500,000 (the NFL maximum) and the team another $250,000. The Patriots also had to forfeit their first-round pick in the 2008 draft - the first time a team lost their first-round picks due to an infraction. Goodell called the actions a ‘calculated and deliberate attempt to avoid long-standing rules’ but did not reverse the outcome of the game. A flood of new spying allegations soon followed. 

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Spygate engulfed Leeds football players in England
Leeds finished 13th in the 2018 table

3. Derby Country and Leeds United 'Spygate', 2017

British police were called to Derby County’s training ground in 2017 after a suspicious man was spotted loitering and watching the team practice ahead of a game against Leeds United. The man was duly escorted off Derby's grounds.

Leeds’ head coach Marcelo Bielsa admitted he’d sent a staff member to spy on Derby but he wasn’t apologizing - in fact, Bielsa said he’d done the same to every team Leeds played. Bielsa maintained it was perfectly legal, even if some might find it morally questionable, and added that he collected detailed dossiers on every Championship opponent.

Leeds apologized publicly, however, reminding Bielsa of their commitment to integrity and honesty. The English Football League fined Leeds £200,000 ($238,000). The debate still lingers in pubs across England, however. Was Bielsa acting in a way that was unsportsmanlike or was he a crafty coach?

The New York Yankee were  center of a signal stealng scandal
Signal spying scandals have engulfed Major League Baseball


4. Major League Baseball and spying (2016-2022)

Espionage concerns erupted in a series of Major League Baseball scandals involving the St. Louis Cardinals, Houston Astros, Boston Red Sox, and New York Yankees.

Chris Correa, the St. Louis Cardinals’ ex-director of scouting, was sentenced to 46 months in prison in 2016 after a high-tech operation that involved hacking the Houston Astros' player-personnel database and email system. Federal prosecutors estimated the hacks cost the Astros about $1.7m considering how Correa used the data to draft players. Correa pleaded guilty to charges involving the theft of trade secrets.

The Houston Astros were back in the news when it emerged that the team’s head office sent an email in August 2017 outlining its desire for baseball scouts to monitor signals from the stands ahead of the playoffs, suggesting they use cameras or binoculars to pick up signs coming from the dugout, according to an email obtained by The Athletic and others. “What we are looking for is how much we can see, how we would log things, if we need cameras/binoculars, etc.”

Some scouts were intrigued but others were ‘bothered’ by what they felt was an unreasonable request that could risk their reputation. Others were unclear if the scouts would be breaking the rules or just bending them.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred drew the line on signal stealing and electronic monitoring in September 2017 after the Boston Red Sox were fined for using an Apple smartwatch to try to steal signs. Manfred’s memo to all 30 clubs warned that future incidents of electronic sign stealing "will be subject to more serious sanctions, including the possible loss of draft picks". The cheating and signal stealing continued anyway, according to Andy Martino’s book Cheated. Martinto said the Astros used a television monitor to pick up signs in 2019 before signaling them to hitters through a coach whistling or using a massage gun.

Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman is sacked by Louisville’s Caleb Banks in 2022
Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman is sacked by Louisville’s Caleb Banks in 2022

5. The ‘WakeyLeaks’ football scandal

Large-scale sporting events certainly aren’t the only opportunity for spying. In 2016, North Carolina’s Wake Forest Demon Deacons were trounced by the Louisville Cardinals in a humiliating 44-12 loss. Wake Forest head football coach Dave Clawson was concerned, even speculating that Louisville somehow gained access to his team’s game plan. His suspicions led to an investigation and a scandal.

Investigators found that Tommy Elrod, a former Wake Forest football player and assistant coach, had not been kept on when Clawson took over in 2014. Elrod, who became a radio color analyst instead, was accused of leaking inside information about the Demon Deacons to their competitors, including the 2016 game plan against Louisville.

The scandal - dubbed ‘WakeyLeaks’ - saw Elrod fired from his radio role and banned from Wake Forest games. “It was really f****d up,” a Wake Forest assistant told The Athletic years later.

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