Top 5 Most Controversial NFL Moments
referee on football field Photo By: Gene Gallin on Unsplash

Top 5 Most Controversial NFL Moments

We all want sports to be as fair and true as possible, but sometimes odd things happen that are less than ideal. Controversial NFL moments have been plentiful over the years, yet we want to shine a light on some of the ones that are the most glaring.

Everything from ruining footballs to crazy half-time shows to unusual referee calls has occurred in the NFL. Of course, you never expect a sports league to run smoothly at all times, but some moments really stick out because of divisive choices.

To make sure you know all about the weird and wacky parts of football, these are the top five debatable NFL moments that are still discussed to this day.


The New England Patriots may well have six Super Bowls thanks to great coaching from Bill Belichick and arguably the greatest quarterback of all time, Tom Brady, but the team is not without its controversial moments. Spygate and deflategate have tainted the otherwise perfect franchise, but what happened?

Spygate was a long and confusing incident during the 2007 NFL season, when it was revealed that Patriots’ coaching staff had been illegally videotaping the New York Jets’ defensive coaching signals. This was a violation of the league rules, and the NFL fined Belichick $500,000, the Patriots organization $250,000, and took away a first-round selection for the NFL Draft in 2008.

Deflategate was a major NFL controversy involving accusations of Tom Brady orchestrating the purposeful deflating of footballs used during the Patriots’ win over the Colts in the 2014 AFC Championship Game. As a result, Brady was suspended four games and the Patriots were fined $1,000,000 and lost two draft picks in 2016.

Janet Jackson’s Wardrobe Malfunction

Super Bowl 38 was certainly a decent game in which the Patriots defeated the Panthers, 32-29, back in 2004. However, it wasn’t the game itself that drew so much attention, as the half-time show had one of the most controversial NFL moments of all time.

During a duet between Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake’s “Rock Your Body,” the former NSYNC star (whether accidentally or on purpose we’ll never know) ripped off a section of Jackson’s costume to reveal her breast. The incident was on the air for barely a second, but it was enough to draw the ire from millions across the world for complaints about public indecency.

The moment was dubbed a “wardrobe malfunction” and as a result, the Super Bowl half-time shows are now always streamed live with a few seconds delay, in case any further scandalous events occur. Considering the uproar after the controversial NFL moment, a lot more care and planning goes on to ensure something like this never happens again.

Colin Kaepernick Takes a Knee

From 2011 to 2016, Colin Kaepernick was a hugely talented quarterback for the 49ers and had the potential to be one of the best in the league. Nevertheless, Kaepernick was less interested in his playing time and more on social injustices, as he began to kneel or sit down during every NFL game during the American national anthem for the 2016 season.

Kaepernick inspired many other players to do the same thing during the season, garnering an equal amount of praise and animosity from people on both sides of the argument. Some thought it was disrespectful to those in the military not to stand up for the anthem, while others found it a necessary act to bring light to racial inequality in the USA.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL media. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.”

Kaepernick became a free agent in 2017 and wasn’t signed by any NFL organization, leading many to believe that the QB was too controversial despite his skills on the football field.

Washington Changes Its Team Name

When a team is forced to change its name, you know it must have been a bad choice to begin with. Washington’s NFL team was once called the “Redskins” but faced intense criticism dating back to the 70s, as it was generally felt that the name was derogatory towards Native Americans living in the USA. However, it took until July 2020 for the team to depart from the moniker.

Amazingly, Washington had no official team name (simply going by Washington Football Team) for 18 months until a new and better name could be decided. Now, the team is known as the Washington Commanders, which is a nod to the city’s strong military ties. It’s still pretty unusual for a team to go such a long time without an official name, as 18 months to come up with “Commanders” is astonishing. It’s a fine name, but it took that long?

Washington also faced a similar issue with its NBA team, as the “Bullets” became the “Wizards” in 1995 after feeling that the former title was too connected to gun violence raging across the country. This was certainly a good decision, as the NBA was right to move away from gun connotations and pick a more family-friendly name.

Controversial NFL Moments: Honorable Mentions

  • New Orleans Saints bounty scandal – In 2012, it was revealed that the team’s coaching staff ran a bounty that would pay out bonuses to players who would purposely injure key opponents during a game. Saints’ defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, was banned for life by the NFL, while head coach Sean Payton received a one-year ban.
  • Bottlegate – A bizarre referee incident occurred during a regular-season matchup in 2011 between the Browns and Jaguars. The Browns converted a fourth down and spiked the ball to attempt a touchdown, but the referees decided to review the fourth down, deeming it not a complete play and overturning it. The rules typically state that a play cannot be reviewed if yet another play happens. Cleveland fans started throwing thousands of plastic beer bottles onto the field in protest, and after a lengthy pause, the remainder of the game was played and the Browns lost.
  • Snowplow game – During a very chilly game in 1982 between the Patriots and Dolphins, neither team was able to score a single point because of the masses of snow piling up on the field. With only a few minutes left in the game, the Patriots were able to secure a 33-yard field goal attempt, but asked a snowplow operator to clear a patch so the team’s kicker could try from a clean spot. The Pats made the field goal and won 3-0, cueing everyone to run indoors for a warm drink.
  • Where is video replay? Way backin 1979, the Houston Oilers (now the Texans) played the Pittsburgh Steelers in an AFC Championship Game. Late in the game, Houston’s Mike Renfro caught an incredible game-tying touchdown pass, only to be called out of bounds from the referees when photo evidence clearly showed he had two feet on the ground. The Steelers would then win the game after an unfair call.
  • The blackout – Super Bowl 48 was an interesting game between the Ravens and 49ers because, well, it didn’t happen for over half an hour. A power outage took place in the third quarter when the Ravens were leading the 49ers, 28-6. The game was suspended for 34 minutes while the stadium struggled to return power. When the lights came back on, the 49ers made a huge run and nearly won the game, but the Ravens held on to get the 34-31 victory.
  • Missing helmet – This one is more strange than controversial, but before the start of Super Bowl XXVI, Bills’ star Thurman Thomas was nowhere to be seen. Turns out, he was searching for his helmet, which he reportedly put on the field before each game, but the story is that someone moved it to make space for Harry Connick Jr. to sing the national anthem. Eventually, Thomas found his helmet but had a terrible game and the Bills ended up losing, with many people believing the helmet incident played a big part.

Antonio Brown Walks Out on the Buccaneers

During a game between the Jets and Buccaneers on January 2nd 2022, Tampa Bay’s star wide receiver, Antonio Brown, decided to publicly leave the team by walking off the field as the game was still happening. Brown started removing his uniform and safety gear and threw everything into the stands, before running across the field and into the tunnel to the locker rooms.

Brown was released by Tampa Bay hours after the controversial NFL moment occurred, but the wide receiver tells a different tale. Brown claims that he informed the team he wouldn’t be able to play because of an ankle injury. When the Bucs’ coach, Bruce Arians, told Brown to get in the game, Brown spoke about his injury and that he wasn’t able to play. Arians then told him to leave and not to come back. The Buccaneers organization refutes this version of Brown’s story.

Author: Joe Garland