The Top 5 Most Controversial NFL Scandals

[Get Exclusive Tips on our Patreon, Ad-Free

Sure, the NFL is seemingly more popular than ever, so established as a cultural phenomenon. Tens, if not hundreds of million people are passionate about their consuming connection to the league. This is evident in the attractive Super Bowl odds from Fanduel amongst others. 


The most significant scandals in NFL history affected individuals and organizations alike. The nature of the allegations, the prominence of the individuals involved, the punishment meted out and the overall impact led us to single out just five significant ones. Whilst realizing there were others worth strong consideration, these are the ones we have decided upon despite the strong competition (In no particular order); 

The Hornung/Karras Gambling Admission (1963)

The NFL suspended Paul Hornung and Alex Karras for the 1963 season after both admitted to betting on NFL games. Hornung and Karras were both Pro Bowl players and Hornung was one of the league’s biggest stars playing for the NFL’s most iconic team: the Green Bay Packers. Commissioner Pete Rozelle reinstated both players in 1964, and Hornung wound up in the Hall of Fame. Art Schlichter’s one-year ban two decades later also deserves mention among player gambling scandals, but his standing in the league was not as strong at the time.

Eddie DeBartolo Jr. Suspension (1998)

The San Francisco 49ers’ former owner remains a beloved figure in team lore. He was a finalist for the Hall of Fame this year. But his 1998 felony conviction for failing to report extortion relating to a Louisiana casino project produced a $1 million fine and one-year NFL suspension. DeBartolo wound up selling the 49ers, precipitating a decade of futility for the organization.

Michael Vick Is Sent To Prison (2008)

Involvement in a dogfighting ring brought down one of the NFL’s highest-profile, most dynamic quarterbacks in his prime. Vick was released and sent to prison, sending the Atlanta Falcons into turmoil. Vick owed nearly $20 million when he filed for bankruptcy in 2008 and the Falcons had to rebuild their franchise.

Patriots Spygate Allegations (2008)

Cheating claims levied against the New England Patriots threatened to tarnish the legacy of a flagship franchise at the peak of its powers. Commissioner Roger Goodell determined the Patriots acted against league rules by videotaping opponents’ hand signals. The NFL levied $750,000 in fines and revoked the Patriots’ first-round choice in 2008.

Saints Bounties Unearthed (2012)

Offering cash payments for injuries inflicted on opponents brought down the wrath from commissioner Roger Goodell: Saints coach Sean Payton was suspended for one year, former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was suspended indefinitely, general manager Mickey Loomis was suspended for eight regular-season games, the team was fined $500,000 and lost two second-round draft picks (one in 2012 and ’13) for their participation in a bounty program.

Final Thoughts

You might say the NFL has been saved by the thrilling game itself. If you consider how the Saints were robbed from advancing to the 2019 Super Bowl by bogus officiating, on top of many other controversial calls and non-calls,  it is apparent that there’s much work for the league to do in fixing its product, too. If there’s one lesson the NFL has probably grasped from the last decade, it’s that it would much rather have you debating the issues on the field rather than the controversies off the field.

It was surely a period to remember in the NFL, but largely for too many things you wish you could forget. There were bounties and bullying. Battered women and battered brains. A blackballed quarterback. A blown call that fueled questions about the integrity of the game. One team owner was suspended after he was busted for driving while intoxicated. Another was forced to sell his team amid allegations of workplace misconduct that were sexual and racial in nature. There were lawsuits galore. Abandoned cities. Locked out players. And then some.