In its 102-year history, there have been numerous controversial moments in NFL history. From Colin Kaepernick’s high-profile and valiant activism to “Deflategate”, football fans have experienced several contentious events since its inaugural 1920 season.
Nevertheless, it would be unfair to label the NFL as a controversial league overall. For all its rules and complexities, it’s remarkably well-run. Teams have very rarely had to be punished for breaking the rules, and players generally steer clear of doping in modern times.
All this is in stark contrast to some other worldwide sports leagues. The NFL hasn’t had to deal with anything on the level of the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal in the Italian Serie A, for example.
Still, NFL fans have endured their fair share of controversial refereeing mistakes and other events. The most popular and lucrative sports league in the world knows how to excite its viewers, and new technology is continuously increasing the quality of match officiating.
One area in which this has had an enormous effect is sports betting. The NFL is now by far the most popular sports league to bet on in the US, buoyed by sportsbooks offering various bet types and generous bonuses.
Check out some of the leading NFL betting apps to see what all the fuss is about. It’s an easy way to ramp up the excitement, and it doesn’t even require any NFL controversies to up the stakes.
Regardless, sports bettors and casual fans alike will enjoy hearing about some of the most high-profile controversies to grace the sport. Keep reading for a pick of our favorites.
The Most Controversial Moments in NFL History
Merger between the AFL and the NFL
People often forget that the NFL had several rival leagues in the first few decades after its establishment in 1920. One of these, the AFL, was gaining traction in the late 50s and early 60s – so much so that it was beginning to infringe on the NFL’s TV and sponsorship deals.
It was clear something had to be done, even more so after the AFL started bidding for NFL draft picks and free agents. The two leagues reached an agreement in 1966, agreeing to a merger that would take full effect in 1970.
Although it worked out for the best, there was a lot of controversy surrounding the union in those early days. These were quickly dispelled by the success of the Super Bowl, a match devised to prove the ultimate victor between the two leagues.
Colin Kaepernick’s brave kneel
In a move that has since been replicated across the globe at several prestigious international sporting events and in other sports leagues such as the English Premier League, Colin Kaepernick caused waves of controversy after taking the knee during the national anthem.
It was meant as a protest against institutionalized racism, most significantly in the police force. Kaepernick stood for justice with his kneel, but many people didn’t see it that way. Instead of anti-racism, countless commentators have argued the gesture is disrespectful to the country and the American flag.
One such commentator was the president Donald Trump, who declared that NFL owners should sack players protesting during the national anthem. After the 2017-2018 season, Kaepernick became a free agent and hasn’t played NFL football since.
While there hasn’t been any concrete explanation why, most people agree teams haven’t signed him for political reasons. Kaepernick hasn’t let the controversy dampen his flame. In the last few years, he has been engaged in political activism, most notably with a memorable campaign with Nike.
Was it a helmet or a football?
In a clear refereeing error that simply wouldn’t happen in the modern day, officiators at the December 1998 game between the Seattle Seahawks and New York Jets somehow mistook Vinny Testaverde’s helmet for the football.
The game was largely uneventful until the last few minutes when the quarterback attempted to rush into the end zone and find a match-winner for the Jets. Unfortunately, he was unable to get over the line, but what happened next was highly controversial.
Somehow mistaking Testaverde’s helmet for the football, the match officiators awarded a touchdown, consequently winning the game for the Jets. Afterward, NFL officials admitted their mistake, leading to the implementation of the replay system the following year.
“Deflategate”: The New England Patriots in trouble
A controversy that unfortunately went down as one of Tom Brady’s most memorable games for all the wrong reasons, “Deflategate” rocked the NFL in January 2015. The New England Patriots legend was accused of deliberately deflating the footballs used during the 2014 AFC Championship Game.
Brady was suspended for four games as a result, while the Patriots were hit by a $1m fine and had to forfeit two draft selections in 2016. The quarterback successfully appealed against the suspension in 2015 but served the first four games of the 2016-2017 season.
Deflategate, as the situation was called in the press, was controversial for several reasons. Obviously, the act of deflating footballs was highly controversial, but so was the question of whether it had actually happened or whether the low pressure was caused by weather or other circumstances.
When asked about direct evidence to support the NFL’s claims against Brady, a leading lawyer stated that there was “No direct evident Mr. Brady clearly knew about this”, so the jury is out on his involvement.
Ultimately, the allegations against Brady and the Patriots have since been proven false. The NFL couldn’t prove that the footballs were manually deflated, with experts pointing to changes in temperature and humidity levels to explain the pressure difference.
2002 San Francisco 49ers NFC wild-card comeback
Officially one of the top NFL controversial plays, the 2002 San Francisco 49ers NFC wild-card comeback is another highly dubious moment in football history. The New York Giants somehow managed to throw away a 24-point lead as the 49ers pulled off one of the greatest comebacks in sporting history.
However, it almost wasn’t to be. In the dying seconds, the Giants attempted to snatch a win from the jaws of defeat, launching a pass down field. Rich Seubert was the intended receiver, but the officials called a penalty due to his purported ineligibility to receive the ball.
As a result, the 49ers ran out as unlikely winners. It wasn’t until the following day that the officiators revealed their mistake, by which point there was nothing the Giants could do.
Hail Mary or Fail Mary?
At 8 ET, the “Fail Mary” game airs on ESPN.
Respond with the biggest “sports fail” you’ve seen and we’ll try to reply with context as to just how bad it was. pic.twitter.com/yVqFd8ukib
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 4, 2020
This particular controversy can be blamed almost exclusively on a labor dispute that meant the official referees who were to officiate the Monday Night Football game between the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks were unavailable.
There were a number of less dramatic blunders during the game, but the worst one came at the end. Russel Wilson launched a vain attempt at a match-winning last-gasp play with a Hail Mary for the Seahawks.
Golden Tate of the Seahawks and M.D. Jennings of the Packers both came down with the ball at the same time, immediately causing confusion for the referees. One gave a touchdown, while the other did not.
Ultimately, the Seahawks were given the match-winning play. However – it was afterward declared that Golden Tate should have been hit with an offensive pass interference penalty. As a result, the touchdown shouldn’t have stood.