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These NFL controversies cast a dark cloud over a beautiful game. Welcome to WatchMojo and for this list, we'll be looking at the biggest controversies to take place in the National Football League. Our countdown of the biggest controversies in the NFL includes Ray Lewis, Michael Vick, Colin Kaepernick, and more!
Top 10 Biggest Controversies in the NFL
Welcome to WatchMojo and for this list, we’ll be looking at the biggest controversies to take place in the National Football League.
#10: Ray Lewis
One of the most impactful players and icons in NFL history, there is no doubt Ray Lewis’ has left a legacy that few have or will ever match. However, that legacy will forever be tainted. In 2000, while in Atlanta, Lewis and two companions got into an altercation with two men. The men were later found dead. Although a trial was held, Lewis pleaded guilty solely for the crime of obstructing justice. However, questions still remain; what was Lewis’ exact involvement in the incident? And what happened to the suit he wore the night the massacre took place, which reportedly was covered in blood but was never found? No one knows, but if one thing’s for certain, it’s that it’s a dark mystery that will follow Lewis for as long as he lives.
#9: The Former Washington Football Team Name
Among the several controversies that have plagued this team (but mostly the team’s previous owner Dan Snyder), none has been cast more spotlight than the one revolving around their former team name. For years, many had called for the team to change the name, believing it to be disparaging towards Native Americans. However, Snyder and the rest of the organization remained steadfast and would not budge. That is, until the Black Lives Matter Movement. Amidst the cultural reawakening and rise in social awareness, this sparked further demand for the team to change their name. That, along with pressures from team sponsors, resulted in the organization eventually folding. They subsequently operated under an interim name, Washington Football team, before eventually officially changing their name to the Commanders in 2022.
#8: Michael Vick
Throughout the early 2000s, Michael Vick revolutionized the quarterback position in football, set various records, and was generally considered one of the best players of the modern era. But it all came crashing down in 2007 when authorities found evidence that Vick alongside other associates ran a dog fighting operation going all the way back in 2001. Vick was subsequently suspended indefinitely by the NFL and spent nearly two years in jail. Although he did manage a comeback and played for the Philadelphia Eagles upon his release from prison, his reputation or career never completely recovered from the horrific scandal.
During the AFC Championship game between the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts in 2015, officials found the balls used by the former were underinflated by the league’s standards. This was reportedly done on the orders of legendary quarterback Tom Brady, who reportedly likened footballs to be smaller so that he has a better grip when throwing them. He denied having any involvement in the matter. After months of investigations, the NFL fined the New England Patriots a sum of $1 million dollars and docked them draft picks. Meanwhile, they suspended Tom Brady for four games during the 2016 regular season.
Back in 2007, the New England Patriots illegally videotaped opposing teams coaching signals from an unauthorized location during a Week 1 showdown against the New York Jets. Near halftime, a Patriots video assistant was caught filming hand signals from New York's defensive assistants on video. After an investigation, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell went on to fine Patriots head coach Bill Belichick $500,000 and the team $250,000. The Patriots also had to forfeit their first-round pick in the 2008 draft. The Patriots wound up being embroiled in a similar incident in 2019 when their production crew were caught filming the Cincinnati Bengals’s sideline.
Led by head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees, the New Orleans Saints were a dominant force in the NFL during a better part of the 2000s. However, the team would become infamous after the bountygate scandal. In 2012, an investigation by the NFL concluded that then Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams ran a secret program which rewarded players with cash bonuses for injuring opposing players. Several members of the Saints organization were aware of what was taking place but did not intervene. As a result, the organization was fined, forfeited draft picks and several players and coaches, including Payton, were suspended.
#4: Colin Kaepernick
Leading up to and during the 2016 NFL regular season, then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose to protest the treatment of African-Americans in the United States, police brutality, as well as the country’s current social and political climate. The quarterback proceeded to kneel during the singing of the national anthem prior to games. Kaepernick’s actions sparked outrage and many divided opinions. The controversy snowballed after the regular season when Kaepernick became a free agent. Since then, and as of the time of writing, Kaepernick has yet to be signed by an NFL team. Despite holding several workouts and even filing a lawsuit against the NFL (which went on to be settled), Kaepernick still hopes to play for an NFL team.
#3: Aaron Hernandez
Despite his talent on the field, off the field this tight-end’s troubles with the law cast a dark shadow over his career. It reached a boiling point in 2013 when Hernandez was taken into custody for ending Odin Lloyd’s life. The New England Patriots subsequently cut ties with him and in 2015, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Hernandez later stood trial in 2017 for the deaths of Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado, though he was innocent. However, he passed away in jail just a few days later, having taken his own life.
#2: Ray Rice
At one point, this running back was arguably one of the NFL’s biggest and brightest stars. However, just over a year after winning the Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens, his career would go downhill. During the 2014 offseason, a disturbing video surfaced online which saw Rice physically attack his then-fiancé/now wife Janay Palmer. Rice was subsequently released from the Ravens. Controversy surrounding the matter only intensified after it was reported that the NFL had prior knowledge of the footage before it was released and did not take immediate action. The incident served as just another chapter in the NFL’s long history of dealing with athletes embroiled in physical violence.
The NFL has a documented history with their players suffering injuries that have had a lasting impact on their health, most notably, those involving the brain. Over the years, the NFL has been accused on several occasions of attempting to cover up the matter, with many believing that they are not doing enough to prevent such injuries. Although the NFL has reiterated its commitment to player health and safety, it remains to be seen what will be done given its track record and the number of players who have suffered as a result.
Which controversy do YOU believe casts the darkest shadow on the NFL? Let us know in the comments.