In sports, like in society, there are written rules that must be followed in order to maintain a safe environment and assure that things run smoothly. And just as citizens are arrested and penalized by authority figures should they break the laws of society, athletes are ejected from games and penalized by referees and umpires should they break the rules of their sport.
It’s only natural that in the heat of the game athletes should get worked up. After all, sports are often compared to battle, in that two opposing forces come together with the mutual goal of defeat. However, often players take this battle metaphor a little too seriously and cross the line, and they are thereby ejected from the game. As long as there are sports, there are bound to be ejections (just ask Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox, who was thrown out of 161 games in his MLB career—that would be like getting ejected from every game but one in the regular season).
Here are the top 15 most controversial ejections in sports history. These ejections may be controversial for a number of reasons, from a ref/umpire making a questionable call to a player jumping into the stands and fighting fans, and from a player throwing a mouthpiece to a player throwing a near-fatal punch.
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15 Steph Curry’s Mouth Guard Toss
During the 2016 NBA Finals, unanimous MVP Steph Curry voiced his displeasure at what he believed to be several unfair foul calls by chucking his mouth guard into the crowd, hitting a courtside Cavs fan (who just happened to be the son of one of the Cavs’ owners) square in the chest. Curry was immediately ejected for his outburst, at which point, to his credit, he went up to the fan and apologized.
Curry later said of the incident: “I've thrown my mouthpiece before. I usually aim at the scorer's table. I was off aim. Definitely didn't mean to throw it at a fan… That was obviously not where I was trying to take my frustration out.”
After the game, Steph and his coach Steve Kerr were each fined $25,000 by the league, and the Warriors would go on to lose to the Cavs in seven games despite having been up 3-1 in the series.
14 Vic Carapazza vs. Toronto Blue Jays
MLB umpire Vic Carapazza had himself quite the day on July 1. Working home plate during a Canada Day game between the Blue Jays and the Cleveland Indians in Toronto, Carapazza immediately made his presence known by ejecting Jays slugger Edwin Encarnacion for arguing balls and strikes in the first inning.
But Encarnaciion wasn’t the only player that Carapazza ejected that day; he also tossed John Gibbons, who came out to defend his player, and Russell Martin in the 13th inning for once again arguing balls and strikes. The problem wasn’t just that Carapazza had a suspect strike zone (although he certainly did); the problem was that he had a quick trigger, tossing players and coaches as soon as they voiced their displeasure with him.
The game ended up being a wild one, going 19 innings, in which two position players (Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney) took the mound for the Jays, who eventually lost. Carapazza was later largely criticized for his performance during the game, as his name trended on social media throughout Canada, with many dubbing him the worst umpire in the MLB.
13 Scott Foster: Worst NBA Ref?
We move from arguably the worst MLB ump to arguable the worst NBA ref: Scott Foster. This is the second time the Golden State Warriors have appeared on this list. Being the best team in the league (and arguably the best NBA team of all time) comes with a target on your head, and not just from opposing teams. During a game between the Portland Trail Blazers, Warriors guard Shaun Livingston was ejected by Scott Foster. That in itself isn’t controversial, but what is controversial is the fact that Livingston was the one who had been fouled, yet there was no call. And when Livingston protested this, he was quickly given two technical fouls and tossed from the game, which led to criticism from both the Warriors’ coach and fans around the league.
Now, this in itself likely wouldn’t warrant inclusion on this list, but it does when you consider Foster’s track record. According to a poll conducted by the Los Angeles Times, players and coaches voted Foster the worst ref in the league—and it wasn’t even close. One player said of Foster’s quick trigger: “You couldn’t say anything to him. Hell, I don’t think you could even look at him.”
12 Jonathan Papelbon Greets The Fans
Washington Nationals reliever Jonathan Papelbon has had his fair share of controversies in his 12-year career, such as the time he put teammate Bryce Harper in a choke hold, but this incident, which took place on September 14, 2014 during a game against the Miami Marlins, was arguably the most controversial. Pitching for the Phillies at the time, Papelbon blew a save and was booed off the mound by Philadelphia fans, which the closer responded to by grabbing his crotch. Papelbon alleged that he was merely adjusting himself, but umpire Joe West felt otherwise and ejected him from the game, which Papelbon, in his typical hotheaded fashion, did not take lightly, getting into a screaming match with the ump before storming into the locker room. Unsurprisingly, Papelbon was suspended for seven games and fined an undisclosed amount by the league.
What makes this particular ejection so controversial, aside from the lewdness of the act and the pitcher's track record of outbursts, was that Papelbon made the gesture to his own fans. Sure, Philly fans can be brutal, but surely “The DC Strangler” must have realized that there were children in attendance.
11 Kermit Washington’s Near-Fatal Punch
Perhaps the most brutal punch every thrown during a professional sporting event, making Rougned Odor’s right hook to Jose Bautista look like a mosquito bite, Kermit Washington of the Los Angeles Lakers hit Rudy Tomjanovich of the Houston Rockets so hard that he almost killed him. According to the doctor who operated on Tomjanovich, the blow was so severe that it were as if he had been hit by a car going 50 miles per hour.
The “infamous punch,” as it is now known, took place in 1977, when a fight broke out between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of the Lakers and Kurt Kunnert of the Rockets. After Washington got involved in the scuffle, Tomjanovich, looking to break up the fight, came rushing in, at which point Washington punched the five-time all-star square in the face, shattering his jaw and essentially ending his career.
During the melee, the Los Angeles crowd was going wild, yet as soon as Tomjanovich was hit, creating a sound that Abdul-Jabbar described as being like a melon smashing against concrete, the arena went completely silent. The crowd’s reaction was later described as “the loudest silence you have ever heard.”
Needless to say (and this is the least controversial aspect of the incident), Kermit Washington was ejected from the game.
10 Zidane’s Head-Butt
In what would end up being his final moment in international play, legendary French footballer Zinedine Zidane head-butted Italian player Marco Materazzi during the 2006 FIFA World Cup Final, causing Materazzi to flop—I mean fall—to the ground and Zidane to be ejected. Although Zidane had already announced his retirement prior to the tournament, it wasn’t exactly the send off that the French midfielder had been hoping for, as his team would go on to lose to Italy in a shootout.
Before the infamous head-butt took place, Materazzi and Zidane were exchanging words with one another after the Italian player could be seen goading on the Frenchman by tugging his jersey. At first, Zidane walked away from the situation, but at the last minute he spun around and landed a head-butt firmly against Materazzi’s chest.
While at the time the cause of Zidane’s sudden outburst was a mystery, Materazzi later revealed that Zidane had offered to give him his jersey after the game, to which the Italian responded, “I would prefer your sister.” Materazzi swore he had no idea Zidane even had a sister.
9 Shaq’s “Excessively Violent” Dunk
This one’s controversial not because of what took place, but because of what didn’t take place. In 2004, during a game between the Utah Jazz and the Los Angeles Lakers, Shaquille O’Neal, like he’s done to countless players throughout his career, dunked on Andrei Kirilenko. It was an aggressive dunk, no doubt, but there was virtually no contact to Kirilenko. No problem, right?
Wrong. For no logical reason, referee Bob Delaney decided to eject Shaq from the game, deeming the play to be excessively violent (whatever that means, given that Shaq didn’t even touch the opposing player). Rather than deal out a foul, the ref thought it appropriate to toss O’Neal altogether. Without their star center, the Lakers would go on to lose the game 88-83, a win as much credited to the Jazz as it was to the ref.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson later accused Delaney of being "prejudiced against Shaq."
8 Charging The… Dugout?
Minor League Baseball has a history of violence and dramatic ejections. As players struggle to climb the ladder from A-ball to the big leagues, frustration often sets in and tempers arise. While there have been many famous minor league brawls over the years—such as the time Phillies prospect Domonic Brown caused the benches to clear after he dramatically flipped his bat following a home run, or the time Red Sox prospect Izzy Alcantara donkey-kicked a catcher in the face before charging the mound—but one recent event sticks out in particular, not because of how big the brawl was, but because of how it was initiated.
During a game between the New Jersey Jackals and the Rockland Boulders of the Can-Am League, Fernando Cruz, a pitcher for the Jackals, charged the Rockland dugout in the middle of an at bat. Upon arriving at the Boulders’ dugout, Cruz was swiftly taken down by Rockland pitcher Pat Butler via a close line tackle. Still heated and looking to fight, Cruz had to be escorted from the field by a teammate.
7 Bobby Knight’s Chair Toss
Bobby Knight was one of the greatest college basketball coaches of all time. He led the Indiana University Hoosiers to three NCAA championships and five regional championships, posting a career .709 winning percentage. He was inducted into both the College Basketball Hall of Fame and the Basketball Hall of Fame, and he is credited with popularizing the motion offense.
But despite all of his accomplishments, Knight will probably be best remembered for his temper tantrums, with the most famous one taking place in 1985, when, in response to a foul call, he picked up a plastic chair and chucked it toward the court in the direction of the net. He later joked about the famous incident by saying that he saw an old woman across the court and was simply throwing the chair to her so she could sit down. At the time, however, the event was no laughing matter, as Knight was understandably kicked out of the game and descended into the tunnels to the sound of Indiana fans chanting his name.
6 The Punch Heard Round The World
In a May 2016 game against the Blue Jays, Texas Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor took offense to a hard slide by Toronto right fielder Jose Bautista and landed what has been called the cleanest punch in MLB history. Bautista’s slide was a reaction to being plunked by Rangers pitcher Matt Bush, who in turn was retaliating for Bautista’s famous bat flip during the 2015 American League Division Series. Several players were ejected from the game and Odor was later given an 8-game suspension.
This, however, was not the first time Odor, who is known for his hot temper, had started a bench-clearing brawl. In 2011, his first year in pro ball, while playing for the A-level Spokane Indians, he found himself in a nearly identical situation. This time, however, he was the one who had slid hard into second base. He proceeded to push and punch the Vancouver Canadians second baseman in almost identical fashion to the push-punch combo he would apply to Bautista five years later.
5 Tim Duncan Ejected For Laughing
Of all the reasons to get ejected from of a game, laughing has to be one of the silliest. It might be the kind of reason why you would kick a grade school student out of class, but it’s no reason to throw a grown man out of a sporting event. That didn’t stop NBA ref Joey Crawford from ejecting Tim Duncan from a game in 2007. To make matters worse, Duncan wasn’t even in the game at the time—he was sitting on the bench, minding his own business.
Duncan claims that Crawford, after seeing the star Spur laughing, said, “Do you want to fight? Do you want to fight?” On top of being ejected, Duncan was fined $25,000 by the league for verbal abuse of an official, but Crawford came out worse in the situation, as the league suspended the ref indefinitely due to his inappropriate reaction.
4 George Brett’s Pine Tar Bat
In what resulted in one of the most famous freakouts in sports history, home plate umpire Tim McClelland ruled that George Brett’s two-run home run during a game between the New York Yankees did not count because the bat used by the Royals third baseman had too much pine tar on it. As a result of the call being reversed, the Royals lost the game 4-3. The second the call was overturned, Brett exploded out of the dugout and began arguing with the ump, leading to one of the most heated confrontations in baseball history, one that made Earl Weaver look like a saint by comparison.
The Royals, however, protested the call, and American League President Lee MacPhail ruled to overturn it, at which point the game resumed with the home run standing, and the Royals went on to win 5-4. George Brett and Royals manager Dick Howser, however, did not take part in the game continuation, as they were both retroactively ejected.
3 Ron Artest vs. Pistons Fans
Before he changed his name to Metta World Peace, Ron Artest was anything but peaceful. He’d had a bunch of incidents in the early part of his career, but nothing compares to the one that took place on November 19, 2004 between his Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons. After Artest fouled Ben Wallace near the end of the game, which Wallace deemed to be unnecessary given the score, the Pistons center retaliated by shoving Artest, which soon devolved into an all out brawl—and not just a brawl between players, but a brawl between players and fans.
Fans began throwing objects onto the court, and Artest became irate after he was hit by a cup. He rushed into the crowd and attacked a fan who he thought had thrown the cup, and soon enough the entire arena was in mayhem.
In total, 9 players received suspensions, but Artest’s was understandably the longest. He was forced to sit out 85 games, the longest suspension ever for an on-court incident.
2 Joe Mikulik And The Art Of The Ejection
Like we said, Minor League Baseball has a history of dramatic ejections. It seems as though Minor League managers have made getting ejected a kind of art form, and no one has perfected the art better than veteran minor league manager Joe Mikulik. Known just as much for his on-field meltdowns as he is for his coaching ability, Mikulik had arguably his best performance in 2006 during a Single-A game. After being ejected for arguing a close call at second base, Mikulik proceed to put on one of the most epic temper tantrums in sports history, pulling out bases and throwing them around the diamond, chucking bats onto the field, and pouring water on home plate.
The manager’s meltdown went viral, being featured on The Tonight Show and Pardon the Interruption, amongst other shows. In response to his behavior, Mikulik was completely unapologetic, famously saying, “I could get two mannequins at Sears and umpire better than what I saw this whole series.”
1 Todd Bertuzzi-Steve Moore Incident
There have been many ejections in the history of the NHL due to excessive—and at times criminal—violence, but perhaps none is more famous than the time Todd Bertuzzi tackled a defenseless Steve Moore to the ice in March of 2004.
During a game between Vancouver and Colorado in which the Avalanche crushed the Canucks 9-2, Vancouver forward Todd Bertuzzi jumped Steve Moore from behind, punching him and slamming him to the ice. Moore, who landed face first, was knocked unconscious and was unable to move for roughly ten minutes. He suffered three fractured neck vertebrae and a severe concussion, and his career was over. Not only was Bertuzzi kicked out of the game and suspended by the league, but he also pleaded guilty to assault and was required to complete 80 hours of community service and was put on probation for a year. Moore later named Bertuzzi in a civil lawsuit and the two settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
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