The Top 5 Most Devastating Controversies in NFL History
Historians insist that it's not dates and events that matter from the past. Instead, people and themes over time are the aspects of history that have an impact on our lives.
This doesn't only apply to the causes of the Civil War or the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement, however. Real human stories fraught with vitriol and unique events are why we care about NFL controversies and continue to argue for our chosen side long after the rest of the world has moved on.
So what are the top controversies that have rent the NFL asunder over the years? Let's start on a holy note (or unholy, if you're a Raiders fan) with the Immaculate Reception.
Franco Harris' Reception Sends the Steelers to the Super Bowl and Angers Raiders
Two days before Christmas in 1972 and with 22 seconds left in the game, the Steelers faced a fourth down with 10 yards to go at their own 40-yard line. They were down 7-6.
What happened next is the stuff of pure NFL legend.
With a couple of Raider linemen in his face, Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw lofted a pass towards his halfback John Fuqua. The events of the ensuing moments are still controversial.
The central question on the play revolved around who the ball ricocheted off before Franco Harris snagged it just inches from the ground. If it hit Fuqua first, the pass would have been illegal. At the time, the rules stated that once an offensive player touched the ball, he was the only one who could could make the catch.
The ruling on the field was that Harris did indeed catch the ball legally. As a result, his amazing run to the end zone won the game for the Steelers in dramatic fashion.
The initial call confirmed that the ball had hit Raiders safety Jack Tatum instead of Fuqua. There was a lengthy delay before the call was confirmed by the officials, and deliriously happy Steelers fans flooded onto the field.
Video footage released shortly after the game was inconclusive. But Raiders players, their coach John Madden and many of their fans whipped themselves into a frenzy about a few key points in the aftermath.
—Jack Tatum didn't think that the ball hit him. If Tatum was right, then it could have only hit Fuqua, which would make Harris' catch illegal.
—Did the ball hit the ground before Harris grabbed it? If so, it would have been an incomplete pass.
—Why did it take so long for the officials to confirm the call?
Recently, both a professor of physics (using a triangulation of trajectory and momentum) and a newly uncovered NBC filming angle have confirmed that the call on the field was correct.
For much of the 1970s, however, the Raiders had a chip on their shoulders about that play. Their rivalry with the Steelers became legendary, and the Immaculate Reception (and the controversy surrounding it) is known as one of the greatest moments in NFL history.
"Nipplegate" Sent Ripples Through Popular Culture
Super Bowl XXVIII will always be better known for its halftime show than the game between the Carolina Panthers and the New England Patriots.
You all know the story. During a duet of Justin Timberlake's song "Rock Your Body," Timberlake ripped off part of Janet Jackson's costume, revealing her right breast.
While this controversy didn't truly catch the NFL in the crosshairs, it caused innumerable headaches for CBS. The NFL was destined to get caught in wake of the uproar.
Lawsuits by outraged parents and family values groups flooded in to CBS, and networks started to censor their programming much more closely. The "culture wars" of the 2000s heated up and pitted those who laughed it off against those who thought that the incident signified the decline of American values and the rise of smut.
Of course, the double standards of the reaction to Timberlake vis-a-vis Janet Jackson brings up issues of the continuing racial divide and inequality of women in the court of public opinion in this country.
With tongue in cheek, possibly the worst outcome of the "wardrobe malfunction" was the parade of aging rockers that we've had to tolerate at Super Bowl halftime shows since 2004.
Baltimore Colts and Cleveland Browns Relocations Left Scars on NFL Cities
When a team pulls up stakes and moves to another town, the hurt to that community runs deep. While "city jumping" is an age-old practice for sports teams everywhere as they search for profits, the pain engendered in Baltimore and Cleveland when their teams flew the coop is especially acute.
Robert Irsay fled Maryland for Indianapolis and the newly built Hoosier Dome after Baltimore seemed reluctant to pony up for a new stadium.
The Baltimore Ravens still don't acknowledge the "NFL team from Indianapolis" as the Colts. Instead, the word "Indy" graces the scoreboard when the Ravens and Colts play each other these days.
Ironically, Baltimore gained an NFL franchise again when Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell moved to Maryland, giving birth to the Ravens. Cleveland wasn't without an NFL team for long, but the tough (and capitalist) stance set forth by Irsay and Modell echoes through the minds of fans everywhere.
When a team (like the Jacksonville Jaguars) starts to see smaller crowds and a loss of revenue, its fans begin to fear that they may suffer the same fate as Baltimore and Cleveland. That is the true lasting legacy of these relocations.
Videotaping Other Teams' Practices Gets Belichick and the Patriots in Trouble
I'm not going to wade into the convoluted details of Spygate. As a broad sketch, it involved accusations of improper videotaping from a low-level Patriots employee (Matt Walsh), a retraction and apology for an exposé from the Boston Herald and the disgrace of a Bill Belichick disciple in 2010 (Josh McDaniels).
The accusations of Spygate somewhat taint the sustained excellence displayed by the New England Patriots throughout the past decade. They also brings into question the gray area that many NFL coaches and team employees frequently work in as they try to gain a competitive edge on their opponents.
In the pursuit of championships, coaches can be tempted to toe the line between cheating and fair play to win the glory so prized by competitive men. Spygate tore back the curtain on the moral ambiguity exemplified by some NFL coaches.
1925 Championship Was the Chicago "Black Sox" Scandal of the NFL
The Chicago Cardinals are the "official" NFL champions from 1925. It took a technicality to give them their title. There is no doubt, however, that the Pottsville Maroons (from Pennsylvania) were the better team that year.
The Maroons were the dominant team and steamrolled the second-best team (the Cardinals) in their head-to-head battle in early December of 1925. With the Super Bowl still years from becoming the institution that it is today, in those days the team with the best record won the championship.
The Maroons seemed destined to take the crown after their 21-7 victory. Shortly thereafter, however, they were suspended by NFL commissioner Joe Carr for playing an exhibition game against the Notre Dame All-Stars within the territory of another NFL franchise (the Frankford Yellow Jackets).
Thus, despite clearly being the better team, the suspended Maroons were unable to play any more games that year. Meanwhile, the Cardinals handily dispatched two feeble teams to surpass the Maroons for the best record.
Although the Cardinals owner refused to accept the title, claiming (rather chivalrously) that they had been beaten by a better foe, the records still show the Chicago Cardinals as the 1925 NFL champions. This decision was approved again (long after the fact in 1963) when a commission appointed by the league voted 12-2 to keep the Cardinals in the books as champions.
This particular controversy still echoes through the years with the current iteration of the Chicago Cardinals, who now play in Phoenix. Some say there is a "Pottsville Curse" on the team that has kept it from another title throughout the years since it was unfairly awarded the championship.
A Recap of the NFL's Most Devastating Controversies
1. 1925 championship (The Maroons were red with anger at losing the championship on a technicality.)
2. Spygate (The gray in this case was more intense than the color of Bill Belichick's hoodie.)
3. Colts and Browns relocations (Quoth the Baltimoreans, "Nevermore.")
4. Nipplegate (The impressionable children of America still haven't recovered from Janet Jackson's exposure.)
5. The Immaculate Reception (Terry Bradshaw was once better known for being a clutch quarterback than for guffawing at every single comment during pregame shows.)
The Holy Roller: Raiders vs. San Diego Chargers in 1978
Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler "forward fumbles" the ball, and after another player boots it toward the end zone, Raiders tight end recovers it in the end zone for the winning points. Rules changed regarding forward fumbles in the wake of this incident.
The Tuck Rule Game: Raiders vs. Patriots in 2002
Tom Brady appears to fumble after being sacked by Charles Woodson. After review, officials rule that Brady's arm was moving forward, which makes the play an incomplete pass. The Patriots go on to win. It's amazing how many of these controversies involve the Raiders!