I truly believe there's something for everyone during the Super Bowl, whether it's the halftime show for music lovers, a wide array of game day snacks for the foodies, or, you know, the actual game for sports fans.
Even the lovers of drama and mess have something to look forward to, because every year, there seems to be some sort of controversy during the big game.
Here are 13 of the biggest Super Bowl scandals from sports history, from controversial commercials to Tom Brady's alleged deflated balls:
1. The New England Patriots 2015 Super Bowl victory has since been marred by cheating allegations in a scandal known as "Deflategate." In November 2014, an equipment manager for the Indianapolis Colts noticed that the game balls the Patriots used in a game seemed to be softer than permitted. A few months later, the Colts and Patriots were set to rematch in the AFC Championship game. Ryan Grigson, the Colts general manager, sent an email to the NFL, expressing concern that the Patriots might have an "illegal advantage" by letting air out of their game balls after they had been approved by officials because of quarterback Tom Brady's preferences. During the game, which the Patriots won, several of their game balls had to be re-inflated after testing below the legal air pressure limit.
On January 21, 2015, ESPN reported that the NFL had found that 11 of the 12 balls tested were "significantly below" the legal minimum. Tom Brady denied any wrongdoing, and Patriots coach Bill Belichick claimed the balls had deflated because of poor weather conditions. The Patriots went on to win the Super Bowl, but the investigation continued. In May 2015, an official report claimed that Brady was likely "generally aware" of the deflated balls. Brady was suspended for four games, and the Patriots were fined and docked draft picks. Brady went on to appeal his suspension, which was upheld after the NFL learned that Brady had destroyed his cell phone.
2. In December 2003, Janet Jackson was tapped to headline the upcoming Super Bowl halftime show. In 2002, Jackson had allegedly been approached to perform but was later replaced by U2. Leading up to the show, Jackson's choreographer told the audience to expect "shocking moments." Although a slew of guest singers had been previously announced, Justin Timberlake's appearance had been kept under wraps. During a rendition of "Rock Your Body," Timberlake pulled at a piece of Jackson's corset top, exposing her nipple on live television in front of over 100 million viewers. The incident soon became known as "Nipplegate."
Following the show, Timberlake released a statement. "I am sorry if anyone was offended by the wardrobe malfunction during the halftime performance at the Super Bowl," he said. "It was not intentional and is regrettable." The next day, Jackson released an official statement of her own, in which she said the incident was a planned "costume reveal" that had gone awry. A body piercer revealed that Jackson's stylist had reportedly purchased nipple jewelry from him ahead of the show, and claimed that the stylist told him to tune in for "a surprise at the end."
The FCC reported that they received an estimated 500,000 complaints after the performance, and launched an investigation. They ultimately fined CBS $550,000 for airing the "wardrobe malfunction." The fine was later revoked by the US Court of Appeals. On February 3, 2004, MTV, who produced the show, claimed that Jackson had "engineered" the incident. Meanwhile, Timberlake said he was "frustrated" by the impact of the performance on his career because he was having "a really good year." In fact, Timberlake's appearance at the upcoming Grammys was contingent on issuing an on-air apology for his role in the incident.
In 2006, Jackson opened up about the incident to Oprah, where she insisted it was not planned. "What people don't understand is, he was supposed to take and rip the [leather] piece off that he did, but more came off than what was supposed to," she said. In 2018, rumors that Jackson would accompany Timberlake during his Super Bowl LII halftime show swirled, although Jackson ultimately did not appear. In 2021, Timberlake issued a formal apology to Jackson via Instagram. "I know I failed," he wrote. Jackson revealed that she and Timberlake are "very good friends" in her 2022 documentary.
3. Maybe I'm biased because I'm a huge Baltimore Ravens fan, but the Super Bowl power outage, which the NFL dubbed "Blackout Sunday," was one of the most bizarre things I've ever witnessed during the big game. The Ravens were leading the San Francisco 49ers 28–6, when, less than two minutes into the third quarter, the power went out in the Superdome in New Orleans. The game was halted for over 30 minutes while officials attempted to diagnose the issue. Authorities quickly ruled out reports of terrorism and a stadium fire as potential causes. Soon, people began pointing fingers at Beyoncè, who had just completed her halftime show, complete with elaborate lighting and special effects.
In a joint statement, Entergy, which provides power to the Superdome, and SMG, which operates the Superdome, said the outage was caused by "an abnormality" in the system. "Once the issue was detected, the sensing equipment operated as designed and opened a breaker, causing power to be partially cut to the Superdome in order to isolate the issue." In an interesting twist, elements of the power system in the Superdome had been replaced just a few months before. Doug Thornton, who runs the Superdome, told Sports Illustrated that he had a bad feeling that something was going to go wrong during the game, and even developed a power outage preparedness plan. In the end, power was restored and my beloved Ravens went on to win 34–31 (sorry to all of you 49ers fans out there!).
4. When Prince took the stage during Super Bowl XLI in the midst of a massive downpour, NFL officials were reportedly terrified that something would go wrong during the rainy performance, and probably weren't expecting the singer's shadow to become the most controversial element of the show! The NFL traditionally records the dress rehearsal for halftime performances so they have something to air in the event that the show can't go on for any reason. Prince was reportedly unhappy with the sound quality during the dress rehearsal performance and insisted that the halftime show go on as planned, despite the inclement weather.
The singer took the stage and dazzled while performing a unique blend of his hits and covers by other artists. Towards the end of the performance, a sheet came up, intending to create a shadow effect during his rendition of "Purple Rain." When the singer turned his guitar sideways, it ended up looking rather phallic. Over 150 people reportedly complained to the FCC over the shadow, which also became fodder for late-night jokes. Despite the alleged backlash, NFL spokesperson Greg Aiello said they hadn't received any official complaints. "We respect other opinions, but it takes quite a leap of the imagination to make a controversy of his performance," he said. "It's a guitar."
And here's the full halftime performance for your viewing pleasure, because it truly is one of the greatest of all time:
5. In 2018, Ram Trucks debuted a Super Bowl ad featuring a sermon from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The ad juxtaposed King's message of the importance of service with shots of people helping others. After the ad aired during the game, people immediately took to social media, questioning the use of King's words to sell trucks. Part of the messaging used in the ad actually stemmed from King's belief that people should be cautious about overspending and questioning exactly why consumers "are so often taken by advertisers."
The ad also came on the heels of a rather tumultuous year in the NFL, following debates over kneeling during the National Anthem to call attention to racial oppression. Although many believed the ad truly missed the point of King's message, both Ram and Dr. Eric Tidwell, who was in charge of licensing King's words and imagery, stood by the commercial. "We found that the overall message of the ad embodied Dr. King’s philosophy that true greatness is achieved by serving others," Tidwell said in a statement.
6. M.I.A. shocked viewers when she stuck up her middle finger for the cameras during her halftime performance with Madonna at Super Bowl XLVI. After the stunt, the Federal Communications Commission revealed that they received 222 complaints. In a complaint obtained by ESPN, a parent wrote that they were outraged that their children had to see M.I.A. "flip off the cameras, essentially flipping off America, and flipping off my family." Despite the backlash, the FCC did not issue NBC any fines for the gesture.
Both NBC and the NFL quickly responded to the controversy. In a statement, the NFL apologized for "the obscene gesture," which they called "completely inappropriate." The NFL took legal action against M.I.A. In March 2012, they filed a claim for $1.5 million in damages, citing the contract that performers sign, in which they must agree that their wardrobe and performance comply with the NFL's standards. In March 2014, the NFL sought an additional $15.1 million from the singer, who said she was a "scapegoat" for the NFL, and critiqued them for claiming they promoted wholesome messages. When the news of the additional damages broke, M.I.A. tweeted, "@madonna ummm .... can I borrow 16 million?" By August 2014, the case had been privately resolved.
7. The week leading up to Super Bowl XX proved to be quite the chaotic whirlwind for Chicago Bears quarterback, Jim McMahon. McMahon, fresh off of the success of the Grammy-winning "Super Bowl Shuffle," was nursing a bruised butt cheek after defeating the Rams in the NFC championship, and made headlines after calling out team management for not flying his acupuncturist to New Orleans to treat him ahead of the big game. At a press conference the following day, McMahon, who was reportedly simultaneously chewing gum and tobacco, told reporters that while he wasn't totally comfortable with his newfound fame, "I don’t want no job in no factory."
Following the press conference, the Bears finally agreed to fly McMahon's acupuncturist to New Orleans. McMahon, who had been recently fined by the NFL for wearing a headband with the Adidas logo, donned a headband reading "Acupuncture" at practice. As news helicopters flew over the practice field, McMahon pulled down his pants and mooned them to "show ’em where it hurt." Later that evening, McMahon allegedly peed in a doorway when a reporter asked him about the meal he had just eaten. By the end of the night, McMahon, who was being trailed by both a Rolling Stone reporter and a biographer to chronicle his Super Bowl weekend, was found throwing fruit off of a balcony, where he told a reporter that, "life is not complete without violence."
The next morning, McMahon claimed he was awoken by multiple phone calls to his hotel room, all from angry women. He soon learned that there were reports that he had gone on a Chicago radio show at 6 a.m. to call the women of New Orleans "sluts" and the men "idiots." The story was completely false, but so many believed it to be true that McMahon was receiving death threats. As a result of the backlash, McMahon had to wear a different number at practice, because he feared that he would be shot by a sniper. "If somebody wants to kill your ass, they’re going to get a gun and do it," he told GQ. The Bears went on to defeat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX, 41–10.
8. In 2007, Snickers came under fire for a Super Bowl ad that many believed was anti-gay. The ad depicted two male mechanics accidentally kissing while eating two ends of the same candy bar. After the kiss, the pair are shown attempting to prove their manliness by ripping out their chest hair. Snickers also posted alternate endings for the ad on their website. One showed the men violently attacking each other after the kiss, while other clips showed players from that year's Super Bowl teams jeering at the ad.
Both the Human Rights Campaign and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation issued complaints to Masterfoods, USA over the ad. While Snickers ended up pulling the ad from TV and their website, Alice Nathanson, a spokesperson from Masterfoods, said that the ad was well-received by the majority of consumers, citing positive reviews from various media sources. "We know that humor is highly subjective and understand that some people may have found the ad offensive," she said. "Clearly that was not our intent."
9. While Christina Aguilera is certainly not the only celebrity to botch the National Anthem, she just so happened to mix up the lyrics during one of the most watched sporting events in the world. At Super Bowl XLV in 2011, Aguilera skipped the line, "O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?," and instead sang "What so proudly we watched at the twilight’s last gleaming." The verse actually uses the word "hail'd" instead of "watched."
People on social media immediately noted the flub, with many pointing out the way the camera panned to the players, who were reportedly trying to contain their laughter over the mistake. The following day, Aguilera apologized for her mistake. "I can only hope that everyone could feel my love for this country and that the true spirit of its anthem still came through," she said.
10. While the Super Bowl is supposed to be a family-friendly event, viewers in Arizona were given an eyeful of some rather inappropriate content during Super Bowl XLIII. Fans were expecting a replay of an Arizona Cardinals touchdown, but instead, saw between 10 and 30 seconds of porn. "We are mortified by last evening's Super Bowl interruption, and deeply apologize to our customers for the inappropriate programming," Comcast Cable said in a statement. They added that they believed the interruption was "an isolated malicious act."
The company launched an investigation into potential culprits. In 2011, the FBI arrested Frank Tanori Gonzalez, a former cable company employee, on suspicion of fraud and computer tampering. According to Yahoo, Gonzalez had allegedly involved himself in the investigation in an attempt to throw authorities off. He was eventually caught after his username, which had been used for several other interruptions, was linked to the incident. Gonzalez never revealed why he did it. He received three years of probation, but no jail time for the stunt.
11. In the wake of the NFL's treatment of Colin Kaepernick's decision to kneel during the National Anthem, several high-profile stars allegedly declined offers to headline the 2019 Super Bowl halftime show. Both Rihanna and Pink reportedly turned down offers from the NFL, and eventually, Maroon 5 was in talks to perform. Soon, a Change.org petition calling for the band to drop out of the show began circulating, even before the performance was confirmed.
After Maroon 5's performance was confirmed, the band was allegedly desperate to find a Black artist to perform alongside them. André 3000, Mary J. Blige, Usher, Lauryn Hill, and Nicki Minaj had all reportedly turned down halftime show requests. Eventually, Big Boi and Travis Scott were attached to the show. Scott drew criticism after reports of his appearance began to surface. Jay-Z allegedly asked the rapper to drop out of the show. In January 2019, Scott announced that he was partnering with the NFL to donate $500,000 to DreamCorps. He also said that he had discussed the decision with Kaepernick, and revealed that the two had "mutual respect," although Kaepernick later retweeted a statement from his girlfriend that said there was "NO mutual respect."
12. Former NFL quarterback, Tim Tebow, made headlines for what some have called one of "the most controversial Super Bowl commercials of all time." In 2010, Tebow, who is outspoken about his Christian beliefs, starred in an anti-abortion commercial for the conservative group Focus on the Family alongside his mother, Pam. In the ad, Pam said that she contracted amoebic dysentery on a mission trip to the Philippines while pregnant with Tim. She claimed that doctors advised her to have an abortion, but she refused.
The ad was immediately criticized for its believed anti-abortion stance. Tebow acknowledged that he knew many people wouldn't agree with the commercial. "I think they can at least respect that I stand up for what I believe," he said. "I've always been very convicted of [his views on abortion] because that's the reason I'm here, because my mom was a very courageous woman." Despite the controversy, CBS agreed to allow the ad to air, reportedly because the words "abortion" and "pro-life" never appeared in the commercial.
There were actually two versions of the ad. The commercial with Pam asking viewers to "celebrate life" aired during the pregame show, while a second, more playful version was shown during the actual game. In the wake of the controversy surrounding the ad, Planned Parenthood created a counter-ad featuring former athletes. Many also found it unfair that CBS allowed the Focus on the Family ad to air, but allegedly rejected a commercial from Mancrunch.com, a gay dating website, in a move GLAAD called a "homophobic double standard."
13. And finally, Barret Robbins, a center for the Oakland Raiders who had been dubbed "the best lineman in the NFL" prior to Super Bowl XXXVII, made headlines when he failed to show up to the big game. Robbins re-aggravated an old knee injury during the AFC Championship game and had been told he might not be able to play in the Super Bowl. Robbins had also been privately dealing with depression and bipolar disorder, which many Raiders teammates and coaches reportedly did not know about. In the days leading up to the game, Robbins had reportedly stopped taking his medication, and traveled to Tijuana, Mexico, where he was allegedly binge drinking.
According to the Hollywood Reporter, Robbins later revealed that he had become manic and was under the impression that the Raiders had already won the Super Bowl, so he had begun partying accordingly. He showed up at the team hotel the night before the game, but he was sent away to be with his family. Robbins earned back his spot on the team in 2003, but was later released after testing positive for steroids. "Being comfortable in my own skin is very underrated when it comes to dealing with substance abuse and being bipolar," Robbins said. "I’ve come a long way in the last year. It’s good to have a fresh start. I got to get some emotions out and put some things in the past, so I’m very grateful."
Do any other Super Bowl scandals come to mind?
Super Bowl LVII airs this Sunday on Fox.
If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse, you can call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) and find more resources here.