Super Bowl scandals: six of the most memorable

Drunkenness, cocaine bingeing and nipples have all cast shadow over showpiece event

1) General inebriation

Super Bowl drunkenness has a long history, back to before the big game was even called the Super Bowl. In the debut game, Packers v Chiefs in 1967, Green Bay’s Max McGee decided to go out drinking the night before the game. He was a seldom-used, 34-year-old receiver who had only caught four passes all season and believed his team wouldn’t need him the next day.

After meeting two flight attendants at the hotel bar and with the city of Los Angeles before them, McGee headed out into the night and didn't return until 6.30am and remained deep in a hangover when gametime rolled around. Three plays into the game, his head still pounding, McGee was forced onto the field to get his head pounded when starting receiver Boyd Dowler hurt his shoulder. He soon pulled in a 37-yard touchdown pass, scoring the first touchdown in Super Bowl history, and ended the game with six catches for 138 yards and two scores – completing an undoubtedly great moment in drunken sports history.

Super Bowl-week drinking also ended in victory for another Packers player 30 years later. Despite being banned from drinking alcohol by the NFL due to past struggles with booze, Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre decided to spend a night out in New Orleans and was spotted drinking heavily on Bourbon Street, as is the tradition. Then, before kick-off of Super Bowl XXXI against the Patriots, he was spotted dry-heaving. The Packers officially blamed it on the flu, but no one cared much about the cause when Favre threw for 246 yards and two scores in a 35-21 victory.


And then there's the tale of a Super Bowl team that drank a lot and lost even more. Former Cowboys defensive back Darren Woodson told the Mike & Mike show in 2010 that the four-time Super Bowl losing Buffalo Bills of 1991 to 1994 could have won numerous drinking titles: "As much as everyone talked about how much experience the Bills had back then, they partied harder than any other team. That's all we heard about the entire week in LA [when we played them]. They were out Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. Couple guys got into altercations in the clubs, older, veteran guys with the Bills. Experience doesn't mean that much, it's all about leadership. There's a reason they [Bills] lost four Super Bowls. They partied harder than any other team."

At least any other team short of the Green Bay Packers.

2) Stanley Wilson’s relapse

Cincinnati Bengals fullback Stanley Wilson told his team-mates he had forgotten his playbook before Super Bowl XXIII and needed to go back to his hotel room to retrieve it. Unfortunately, Wilson had battled a cocaine problem – the Oklahoma product served a season-long ban in 1987 for violating the NFL's drug policy – and Super Bowl XXIII was held in the absolute worst place on earth for a cocaine user of the 1980s: Miami, Florida. (Or best, depending on your perspective.)

After Wilson did not return to the team meeting, running backs coach Jim Anderson found him in his hotel bathroom. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, "Wilson was sweating and shivering. White powder was evident on his nose and upper lip."

The talented back scored two touchdowns and averaged more than six yards per carry in Cincinnati’s playoff run, but the Bengals were forced to play without him the next day and lost 20-16 to the San Francisco 49ers. Relapsing in a Holiday Inn bathroom was the last official act of Wilson’s NFL career. As a three-time offender he received a lifetime ban and today he is serving a prison sentence in California for property theft. His son, Stanley Wilson II, played three seasons with the Detroit Lions in the mid-2000s, but has since been arrested twice while nude.

3) Janet Jackson’s nipple

The first day of February 2004 scandalised an entire nation, or at least some of those in the nation who were watching the Super Bowl that night and happened to be looking at their TV screen for the brief moment when part of Janet Jackson’s right breast became visible.

During half-time of Super Bowl XXXVIII between the Patriots and Panthers, Jackson and Justin Timberlake capped their performance of Rock Your Body with a "wardrobe malfunction". Timberlake ripped off a swatch of Jackson's jacket and – gasp! – a brief glimpse of a nipple shield and the surrounding flesh was seen by millions.

The fallout led to the FCC fining CBS $550,000 and the NFL going with ultra-conservative half-time guests for years – and this was pre-social media and during a time when only a small portion of the population had DVR technology.

The NFL didn’t have the savvy to have the images pulled from wire services, like Beyonce’s people did nine years later due to unflattering images of her half-time show. It was muted, old-timey OUTRAGE. Viewers had to actually speak to each other and say: “Did you see what I think I just saw?” No one could run it back to take another look to confirm and there weren’t 550,000 nipple memes on Twitter before the third quarter kicked off.

Because of all that, there was no impact on the game, which the Patriots won on an Adam Vinatieri field goal with four seconds left. Today? Rob Gronkowski would probably be running around during half-time showing his team-mates screenshots on his cell phone.

4) The Ray Lewis debate

Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta will always be remembered for Kevin Dyson and the Tennessee Titans (and Jeff Fisher! ) coming up just one yard short of taking the high-powered St Louis Rams to overtime. Rams linebacker Mike Jones made the game-saving tackle, but Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis will forever be linked to the game, too.

At a nearby Super Bowl party, Lewis and his associates were involved in a fight that led to the stabbing death of two men, with Lewis and friends speeding away from the scene in a limo. The blood-spattered white suit that Lewis wore that night was never recovered, just as authorities never secured a conviction in the murders.

A year later, Lewis and the Ravens were playing in the Super Bowl, but had to spend much of the lead up to the game defending a team-mate many thought should be in prison – with current Skip Bayless co-host Sterling Sharpe leading the way. "If I had felt in any way, shape or form he had been responsible, I would not have defended Ray, and I would not have played for the Ravens," Sharpe said. If the Ravens were fine with Lewis, the Giants sure played like they were scared of him, scoring just a single touchdown in a 34-7 loss as Lewis was named game MVP.

5) Eugene Robinson’s arrest

One man stands above all others for creating a Super Bowl distraction for his team: 1998 Bart Starr NFL man of the year award winner Eugene Robinson. January 30th, 1999, the date before Super Bowl XXXIII, was quite a memorable day for Robinson, the Pro Bowl safety of the Atlanta Falcons. At a morning breakfast, he was named the Bart Starr winner, an honour given each year to the NFL player who "best exemplifies outstanding character and leadership in the home, on the field and in the community".

That night, on a search for dessert in the Miami community, he was nabbed by an undercover officer for soliciting a prostitute. Things didn't get much better for him the following day when he got torched for an 80-yard touchdown pass to Rod Smith and got steamrolled by Terrell Davis on a long run in Denver's 34-19 win.

It's not a surprise Robinson was instantly scapegoated for the 14-2 Falcons getting blown out, but his late-night activities were not unique. A team-mate told the New York Times that "guys had been going there all week. It's just that Eugene was the only one who got caught." Let that be a lesson for today's Falcons and the oft-scandalised Patriots as they kill time in Houston before Super Bowl LI: whatever you do, just don't get caught. Actually, speaking of the Patriots . . .

6) Everything Patriots

For a franchise that does all it can to avoid "distractions" – just ask Tim Tebow's bank account – the New England Patriots do Super Bowl scandal better than any other team. Their initial foray into controversy began at the start of the 2007 season when Eric Mangini, the former Bill Belichick protégè who was New York Jets head coach at the time, reported New England for taping Jets' defensive signals during a 38-14 week one loss.

An NFL investigation ensued, more illegal tapes were discovered, Bill Belichick and the franchise were each fined six figures, the Patriots got docked a draft pick and Roger Goodell, then just beginning his second season on the job, ordered the tapes destroyed. No one knew then that the tape-smashing would be just the first of the inexplicable decisions that came to define his tenure as commissioner.

But like all Patriots scandals, "SpyGate" carried on for months . . . right through their 16-0 regular season and on into their Super Bowl XLII match-up with Eli Manning and the New York Giants. In fact, two days before kick-off, senator Arlen Specter told the New York Times he might call Goodell before a congressional hearing to explain the facts of the case and why he destroyed the evidence.

There's no way to know if all those "distractions" knocked the Patriots off their game. Tom Brady seemed plenty confident and cocky heading into Patriots-Giants I, logging a dismissive laugh that held the record for the most regrettable of all-time until July 2015. But the Patriots lost the game in dramatic fashion and the public mostly moved on, content with New England being punished via 18-1 infamy.

But seven years later, the Patriots were right back into more Super Bowl scandal. Following a 45-7 destruction of the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC title game, sports fans were hit with a new gate – Deflate – that saw Brady accused of having Patriots equipment managers, including one nicknamed “The Deflator”, make his footballs nice and soft.

For sake of brevity and not putting everyone to sleep, we won’t recap every news item from that interminable saga. But Brady had to address the balls in a memorable press conference before Super Bowl XLIX and fallout of the saga continues to today as Brady tries to make the man who suspended him for four games at the start of this season hand him the Lombardi Trophy.

The Patriots have yet to produce any new controversies for this year’s big game. But give them time. Brady could always put a #MAGA sticker on his helmet. Guardian Service