The NFL has endured a number of scandals in its 100-year-plus existence. From "Spygate" and "Deflategate" to a dogfighting ring and defamation suits, here are eight examples of cheating, wagering or bad behavior that have stirred controversy and given the football league black eyes.
1. 1925: Pottsville Maroons vs. Chicago Cardinals
In December 1925, the Pottsville (Pa.) Maroons—who played in the NFL from 1925-1928—defeated the Chicago Cardinals, 21-7, to claim the league title. At the time, the NFL champion was the team with the best regular-season record. "As far as the Chicago Cardinals are concerned," the Chicago Tribune wrote afterward, "Pottsville, Pa., is the hub of the National Professional Football League."
But then things got strange.
The following week, Pottsville played an exhibition against college powerhouse Notre Dame in Philadelphia, in defiance of the NFL's ruling that the game infringed on the territory of the Frankford (Pennsylvania) Yellow Jackets. NFL president Joe Carr suspended Pottsville from the league, making it ineligible for the championship it had won on the field.
Sensing a chance to pass the Maroons in the standings and win the NFL title, the Cardinals quickly scheduled and won two additional games. In one of the games, a 59-0 Chicago win, the Milwaukee Badgers used four high school players who were recruited to play by Cardinals halfback Art Folz. Carr banned Folz from the NFL for his chicanery, but Chicago was still crowned 1925 NFL champion.
2. 1963: Bad Bets by Paul Hornung and Alex Karras
In 1963, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle indefinitely suspended two of its biggest stars, Paul Hornung of the Green Bay Packers and Alex Karras of the Detroit Lions, for gambling on football games and associating with gamblers. Karras, an All-Pro defensive tackle, and Hornung, a running back who won the Heisman Trophy at Notre Dame in 1956, regularly bet hundreds of dollars on games.
“I did wrong,” Hornung said at the time. “I should be penalized.” In a statement, Rozelle emphasized the two hadn't thrown games: “There is no evidence that any NFL player had given less than his best in playing any game."
Both players were reinstated after 11 months, after Hornung agreed to stay away from gambling mecca Las Vegas and Karras sold a Detroit bar that police said was “frequented by known hoodlums.”
Hornung, who died in 2020. was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986; Karras, who died in 2012, joined him in 2020.
3. 1976: George Atkinson vs. Chuck Noll
In the 1976 season opener, Oakland Raiders defensive back George Atkinson delivered a concussive hit to Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Lynn Swann during a game. The next day, Steelers coach Chuck Noll complained about Atkinson, telling the media, “There is a certain criminal element in every aspect of society. Apparently, we have it in the NFL, too.”
Atkinson sued Noll for defamation, and while the jury sided with Noll in the 10-day trial, he mentioned his own player, cornerback Mel Blount, as part of the “criminal element.” Blount sued Noll, but he dropped his $6 million suit after an eight-week holdout from training camp.
4. 1984: Baltimore Colts Skip Town
Unhappy with declining attendance and an outdated stadium, Baltimore Colts owner Robert Irsay repeatedly threatened to move his team to a new city. But no one expected the team to flee to Indianapolis in a fleet of moving vans in the middle of the night. Indianapolis had offered Irsay a sweetheart deal to leave the Colts' longtime home.
After the Maryland legislature passed a bill on March 27, 1984, authorizing Baltimore to seize the team via eminent domain, the Colts moved out of their team facility the next night during a snowstorm. The move was accomplished quickly—and at no cost to the Colts—by the Mayflower moving company, run by a friend of Indianapolis' mayor.
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“There was something grossly fitting about Robert Irsay taking off by cover of night, during a storm, lacking even the common decency to inform the mayor of Baltimore of his decision," wrote the Baltimore Sun. "What a pity that Baltimore's love affair with the Colts must end in such an unseemly matter.''
In 1996, the NFL returned to Baltimore, which lured the Browns from Cleveland.
5. 2007 and 2015: New England Patriots Scandals
In the "Spygate" scandal of 2007, the Patriots were accused of taping the New York Jets’ defensive signals from the sidelines during a game. "I respect the integrity of the game and always have and always will," New England coach Bill Belichick said in a statement after the taping was revealed. But four days after the incident, the NFL fined Belichick $500,000, and the Patriots were required to forfeit a first-round pick. The team was also fined $250,000.
The NFL destroyed the "Spygate" game tape of the Jets game, a decision that remains controversial.
Eight years later, New England quarterback Tom Brady was accused of intentionally deflating footballs before the Patriots' 45-7 win in the 2014 AFC Championship Game against the Indianapolis Colts. The tactic supposedly gave the quarterback a better grip on the football.
After a lengthy investigation into "Deflategate," the NFL suspended Brady for four games because he was "generally aware" of the scheme, fined the Patriots $1 million and took away two draft picks. New England won the Super Bowl that season anyway.
6. 2007: Michael Vick's Dogfighting Ring
In 2007, federal authorities charged Atlanta Falcons star Michael Vick with running an illegal interstate dogfighting ring through his Bad Newz Kennels. The allegations against the star quarterback included extortion, gambling and the violent executions of dogs. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell called Vick's actions “cruel and reprehensible” and suspended him indefinitely. But the league was more concerned with his “actions in funding the betting" and the quarterback's "association with illegal gambling.”
After pleading guilty, Vick served 21 months in federal prison before returning to the NFL in 2009 with the Philadelphia Eagles. In 2010, he made the Pro Bowl and earned Comeback Player of the Year.
7. 2012: New Orleans Saints' 'Bountygate'
In the "Bountygate" scandal, the NFL suspended several Saints—including head coach Sean Payton and defensive captain Jonathan Vilma—for involvement in a system, allegedly run by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, in which players received bonuses for injuring opposing players.
Vilma, a linebacker, reportedly offered $10,000 to anyone who knocked out quarterbacks Brett Favre of the Minnesota Vikings or Kurt Warner of the Arizona Cardinals from playoff games in 2009, with the money allegedly provided by Williams. Vilma and Payton were suspended for the season. Three other defensive players and Saints GM Mickey Loomis were also suspended for multiple games. Williams was suspended indefinitely but later reinstated.
In Payton's absence, Joe Vitt was named interim head coach, but he was subsequently suspended by the NFL for knowing about the bounty system and failing to intervene. For the first six games of the season. the Saints were coached by offensive line coach Aaron Kromer. The Saints, 13-3 in 2011, finished with a 7-9 record in 2012 and set a record for most yards allowed in a season by a defense.
8. 2014: Ray Rice Domestic Violence Scandal
In July 2014, commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Rice, a Baltimore Ravens running back, for two games for assaulting his fiancée in an elevator in Atlantic City, N.J. Goodell initially defended the light suspension, telling reporters, “He’s been accountable for his actions. He recognizes he made a horrible mistake, that it is unacceptable, by his standards and by our standards.”
But after TMZ released a second, more graphic video of Rice knocking out his fiancee, the Ravens released Rice, and Goodell made the suspension indefinite. A court appeal reinstated Rice later in the season, but he never played pro football again.