Worst Scandals in NFL History
The National Football League’s path to billion-dollar riches wasn’t always paved with gold. Over the course of its 100-year existence, the NFL has seen a few potholes along the way — headline-grabbing scandals that rocked the league to its core.
These controversies, which have ensnared even the game’s biggest stars, are as much a part of the NFL's story as any Super Bowl victory or record-breaking moment on the field.
Here’s a look at the worst scandals in NFL history.
25. No Championship for Pottsville
People involved: NFL president Joseph Carr, Pottsville Maroons head coach Dick Rauch
Outcome: Pottsville Maroons denied 1925 NFL title, awarded to Chicago Cardinals
Bottom line: The Pottsville Maroons had the NFL’s best record in 1925, which made them the league’s champion.
But NFL president Joseph Carr made the controversial decision to suspend the team for playing in an "unauthorized," game, and the Chicago Cardinals were named champions.
In 1963, the NFL investigated the Maroons' claim to be the rightful champ and decided not to award them the title. In 2003, the NFL refused to reopen the case.
24. 'Golden Boy' Goes Down
People involved: Green Bay Packers quarterback Paul Hornung, Detroit Lions defensive tackle Alex Karas
Outcome: Hornung and Karas suspended entire 1963 NFL season
Bottom line: When NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle found out the league’s most popular player, Paul Hornung, bet on NFL games he suspended him for one year.
Rozelle doled out the same punishment to Detroi Lions defensive tackle (and future sitcom TV star) Alex Karas, one of the league’s best defensive players.
Both players were able to recover their reputations by being contrite and owning up to the mistakes they made.
People involved: New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams
Outcome: Payton suspended entire 2012 season, Williams suspended indefinitely
Bottom line: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell handed out some of the harshest penalties in league history after discovering the Saints operated a slush fund that paid defensive players "bounties' for injuring opposing players.
Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma and four other players had their suspensions overturned on appeal. Vilma’s was the most significant as he was the only one of the players suspended for an entire season.
Head coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams returned to coaching after serving suspensions, and both are still in the league today.
22. Plaxico’s Predicament
People involved: New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress
Outcome: Convicted of attempted criminal possession of a weapon, sentenced to two years in prison
Bottom line: Super Bowl XLII star Plaxico Burress carried a loaded gun into a New York City nightclub and accidentally shot himself in the leg, fumbling for the gun as it fell out of his waistband walking up a staircase.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg insisted Burress’ celebrity didn’t matter. Mandatory sentencing kicked in (there’s a zero-tolerance policy for guns in the city), and the star wideout served two years in prison.
21. Baltimore Colts Move to Indianapolis in Dark of Night
People involved: Baltimore Colts owner Robert Irsay
Outcome: Colts moved to Indianapolis
Bottom line: Robert Irsay had moving trucks come to Baltimore and move his team to Indianapolis in the middle of the night after city officials began the process of using imminent domain laws to prevent the move.
Baltimore would not get an NFL team back until the Ravens came to town in 1996.
Sweet payback was the Ravens winning their first Super Bowl six years before the Colts did in 2006.
20. Big Ben's Reputation Takes a Hit
People involved: Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger
Outcome: Six-game NFL suspension in 2010
Bottom line: Ben Roethlisberger, one of the NFL’s biggest stars, was accused of rape in August 2009 in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, and again in March 2010 in Milledgeville, Georgia.
No charges were filed in either case, but the NFL still came down hard on the two-time Super Bowl champ.
Roethlisberger was suspended for the first six games of the 2010 season, which team captain Hines Ward called "justified."
19. DeBartolo Gets Blackmailed by the Bay
People involved: San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr.
Outcome: Convicted of failing to report a felony, fined $1 million and sentenced to two years probation
Bottom line: Eddie DeBartolo Jr., one of the most successful owners in NFL history with five Super Bowl wins, failed to disclose that Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards tried to extort $400,000 from him in exchange for a river boat casino license.
The NFL took control of the 49ers away from DeBartolo after he pled guilty and paid a $1 million fine and testified.
Edwards was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison.
18. The Case of the Disappearing Pro Bowler
People involved: Oakland Raiders center Barret Robbins
Outcome: Released from Raiders in 2004
Bottom line: Barret Robbins disappeared from the Raiders’ team hotel on the eve of Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego. He showed up late that night, incoherent after a day of partying in Tijuana, and the Pro Bowl center didn’t play in the game the next day, which the Raiders lost 48-21 to the Buccaneers.
Robbins, who later was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, was charged with attempted murder after brutally assaulting three police officers in Miami Beach in 2005. They subdued Robbins by shooting him three times.
He got probation for that violation but has spent the last decade in and out of prison and mental health facilities.
People involved: New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick
Outcome: Belichick fined $500,000, Patriots fined $250,000 and 2008 first-round draft pick
Bottom line: Bill Belichick’s filming of the opposing team’s sidelines and hand signals during games dogged the Patriots throughout the undefeated 2007 regular season.
The end result was maximum fines to both coach and organization.
After U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter criticized the NFL’s investigation, Goodell met with Specter and told him he suspected the Patriots had been filming opponents since 2000.
16. Bad Move, Mr. Robinson
People involved: Atlanta Falcons safety Eugene Robinson
Outcome: Arrested for soliciting a prostitute
Bottom line: Eugene Robinson, one of the NFL’s best safeties for over a decade, received the Bart Starr Man of the Year Award on the eve of Super Bowl XXXIII. Later that night, he tried to pay an undercover Miami police officer for sex.
Robinson still played the next day, but was torched by Denver Broncos receivers all game, and Atlanta lost 34-19.
He played two more years, one for the Falcons and one for the Panthers, then retired after the 2000 season.
15. Chmura’s Double Life
People involved: Former Green Bay Packers tight end Mark Chmura.
Outcome: Acquitted of child enticement, third-degree sexual assault
Bottom line: Mark Chmura was accused of raping his family’s 17-year-old babysitter at an after-prom party, then acquitted on all charges.
Chmura admitted his behavior the night in question "wasn’t something a married man should do," and was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in 2010.
His fall was made even more striking because Chmura always espoused a moralistic approach to life during his career, even publicly criticizing President Bill Clinton’s "morals" after his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
14. Relapse Nightmare for Stanley Wilson
People involved: Cincinnati Bengals running back Stanley Wilson
Outcome: Banished from the NFL for life
Bottom line: Stanley Wilson, who already had been suspended for an entire season for cocaine use, told teammates he needed to retrieve his playbook from his hotel room before a team meeting on the eve of Super Bowl XXIII in Miami.
Coaches found him 20 minutes later, catatonic from a cocaine high. He was taken off the active roster for the Super Bowl, and the Bengals lost 20-16 to the San Francisco 49ers in sloppy, wet conditions that would have been perfect for Wilson’s bruising running style.
In 1999, Wilson was sentenced to 22 years in prison for burglary.
13. The 'White House' Crumbles for the Cowboys
People involved: Assorted Dallas Cowboys players
Outcome: Three Super Bowl wins in four years
Bottom line: The house on the suburban cul-de-sac in Valley Ranch, Texas, stood in the shadow of Cowboys headquarters and was rented in the name of wide receiver Alvin Harper.
Jeff Pearlman’s book, "Boys Will Be Boys," told of its real use — a haven of drugs, sex and wild parties that included both players and coaches and culminated in the group renting a fleet of white limousines to shepherd women from Dallas to Super Bowl XXX in Arizona.
Not too long after, tales of the "White House" came to light after wide receiver Michael Irvin was arrested on drug possession charges and ended up being suspended five games. As part the saga, a Dallas police officer was arrested on charges of trying to hire a hit man to have Irvin killed.
12. Monster in Our Midst
People involved: Former NFL safety Darren Sharper
Outcome: Convicted on multiple sexual assault and drug charges, sentenced to 20 years in prison
Bottom line: Darren Sharper was one of the premiere safeties in the NFL for over a decade, but his true nature came to light after he retired in 2010.
He was a serial rapist who drugged and raped women across the U.S., including four in a 24-hour period, in two states.
He was convicted, along with friends Erik Nunez and Brandon Licciardi, a sheriff’s deputy in a suburb of New Orleans.
11. Tragedy in Nashville
People involved: Former Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair and girlfriend Jenny Kazemi
Outcome: Double murder-suicide
Bottom line: Steve McNair’s affair with Jenni Kazemi, a 20-year-old waitress, came to a tragic end on July 4, 2009, when their bodies were discovered in a Nashville condominium rented by McNair.
Kazemi fatally shot McNair four times while he was sleeping on the couch, then turned the gun on herself.
Kazemi was alleged to have been despondent over the thought that McNair was sleeping with other women and about to end their relationship.
10. Sinking 'Love Boat'
People involved: 17 members of the Minnesota Vikings
Outcome: Four Vikings (Fred Smoot, Daunte Culpepper, Bryant McKinnie, Moe Williams) charged with indecent, disorderly and lascivious conduct
Bottom line: Fred Smoot was identified as the ring leader in the famous "Love Boat" scandal.
Two party boats were rented, and almost 100 strippers and escorts from Atlanta and Florida were flown to Minnesota for a "sex party" on Lake Minnetonka for Vikings players, with some of them performing sex acts in front of the boat’s crews.
The scandal led to the firing of head coach Mike Tice.
9. Dirty Little Secret of Steroids
People involved: NFL players and coaches
Outcome: Drug policy enacted by NFL that exists to this day
Bottom line: The NFL came up against a mighty foe in the 1980s — anabolic steroids.
Its rampant use almost tore the game apart, but commissioner Paul Tagliabue enacted a drug policy that’s still in place today and often pointed to as the toughest in all of pro sports.
Credit a Sports Illustrated cover story on former Raiders defensive end Lyle Alzado for being part of the solution, as Alzado said he believed his steroid use led to a brain tumor that took his life at just 43 years old.
8. Murder Was the Case for Ray Lewis
People involved: Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis
Outcome: Acquitted on two counts of murder and aggravated assault
Bottom line: Following a post-Super Bowl XXXIV party in Atlanta, Ray Lewis was involved in a fight that resulted in the deaths of two men, Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar.
Lewis and two friends were acquitted on all charges, although the weapon that killed the men, a bowie knife, and Lewis’ all-white outfit from that night were never recovered.
He was named MVP of the next year’s Super Bowl.
People involved: New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady
Outcome: Four-game suspension for Brady, Patriots fined $1 million, two draft picks
Bottom line: Did he or didn’t he? The NFL’s long and winding investigation into whether New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady deflated footballs in the 2015 AFC championship game — a 45-7 win over the Indianapolis Colts — ended with a four-game suspension for Brady.
The Patriots and Brady won that Super Bowl (their fourth), and Brady responded by leading the Patriots to another Super Bowl victory in 2017 once he came back, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was the one who handed him the Lombardi Trophy.
6. Pulling Back the Veil
People involved: Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice
Outome: Indicted for third-degree aggravated assault, reached plea deal to avoid prison time
Bottom line: TMZ released a video of Ray Rice brutally assaulting his then-fiance in a hotel elevator that shocked the nation.
The incident helped shine a light on an almost systemic problem of domestic violence among NFL players.
Rice, a three-time Pro Bowler, was only suspended by the NFL for two games. But he never played another down in the NFL.
5. Murder for Hire
People involved: Carolina Panthers wide receiver Rae Carruth
Outcome: Convicted of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, sentenced to 18-24 years in prison
Bottom line: Rae Carruth hired an associate to murder his girlfriend, Cherica Adams, who was eight months pregnant with his child. Adams died, the child lived and Carruth was captured as he tried to flee from the authorities.
He was released in October 2018 after serving 18 years in prison. Carruth’s son, who was born with severe disabilities, was raised by Adams' mother.
4. Aaron Hernandez's Fall
People involved: New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez
Outcome: Convicted of first-degree murder, sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole
Bottom line: Aaron Hernandez, one of the NFL’s best tight ends, was sentenced to life in prison for Odin Lloyd’s murder in 2015. He was acquitted of a separate, double murder in 2017.
After a Boston sports talk show revealed that Hernandez reportedly was known to be either bisexual or homosexual and had multiple affairs with men before and after he’d been in prison, Hernandez hung himself in his cell two days later.
3. Bad, Bad Newz
People involved: Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick
Outcome: Convicted of conspiracy in interstate commerce/aid of unlawful animal cruelty and sentenced to two years in federal prison
Bottom line: A federal investigation uncovered proof that Michael Vick’s company, Bad Newz Kennels, was a front for an interstate dogfighting ring.
Three years into a nine-year, $130 million contract, he was convicted along with four other men and served two years at Leavenworth Federal Prison.
Vick returned to the NFL after his prison sentence and eventually signed another $100 million contract, this time with the Philadelphia Eagles.
2. Trial of the Century
People involved: NFL Hall of Fame running back O.J. Simpson
Outcome: Acquitted on two counts of first-degree murder
Bottom line: O.J. Simpson was accused of murdering his ex-wife, Nicole Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman.
Simpson hired a team of the nation’s best attorneys and beat the double-murder rap, thanks to a brilliant cross-examination of the county’s forensic team by attorney Barry Scheck, and an "incendiary defense" that alleged a vast racial conspiracy against Simpson by the Los Angeles Police Department.
Years later, Simpson served 10 years in prison for armed robbery and kidnapping in Nevada and was released in 2018.
1. What Brain Trauma?
People involved: NFL players, owners, executives
Outcome: NFL settled lawsuit for $765 million in 2013
Bottom line: How will history judge the NFL and two decades of concussion denial?
The first diagnosis of an NFL player with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) came in 2002, and as our understanding of the disease continues to evolve, so will our understanding of the league’s culpability.
Each year, more and more ex-football players commit suicide, most notably Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau in 2012. Seau shot himself in the chest and left a note asking that his brain be examined for CTE.