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10 wildest Super Bowl controversies ever, ranked

Highlights The Super Bowl is the biggest day on the annual sporting calendar, so it’s no surprise that it has been a day rife with controversy in years past
Controversies range from shocking ads, to broadcast mishaps, to bold guarantees, to wardrobe malfunctions
These controversies have resulted in lawsuits, investigations, and even a couple of instances where the FBI got involved
For millions of spectators, players, and fans around the high-octane spectacle, the Super Bowl is the annual gift that just keeps on giving. For an entire week famous athletes, celebrities, and pumped-up fans gather in a city for revelry and entertainment, with the rest of the world eagerly watching on. What could possibly go wrong? Well, we’re glad you asked. Here is the list of the 10 wildest Super Bowl controversies ever, ranked.
10 Super Bowl Ad From Hell
The advertising gods must have been crazy, very crazy, to allow the airing of this absolutely shocking ad for shoe and sportswear retailers Just For Feet during Super Bowl XXXIII, a matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and Denver Broncos. The ad begins with a group of white soldiers exuberantly tracking down a barefooted black long-distance runner, in a scene eerily reminiscent of a safari-style hunt. It only got worse from there. Inside the vehicle, a humvee branded with a Just For Feet license plate, the hunting party are busy mixing a JFF-branded tranquilizer concoction, which is later handed to the runner as a cup of water.
After drinking the mix, the runner gets dizzy and passes out, awakening to find that a pair of running shoes had been forced onto his feet. The runner, while protesting with a loud long “No!” tries to kick the unwanted objects off his feet. Unsurprisingly, many viewers were offended, and that was in 1999. A few words used in national papers to describe the ad were “appallingly insensitive,” “neo-colonialist,” “culturally imperialist,” and “probably racist”.
The fallout from the ad was so bad that Just For Feet, who invested $7 million in the doomed project, attempted to sue ad makers Saatchi and Saatchi for $10 million. The company argued that the Super Bowl commercial was so bad that it amounted to advertising malpractice. The lawsuit was, however, dropped the following year when Just For Feet filed for bankruptcy. As for the final, the Broncos won their second straight Super Bowl after beating the Falcons 34-19.
9 Super Bowl Streaker
For many reasons Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston is on record as one of the wildest in recent memory, and not just because of Janetgate. The event also featured an appearance from infamous British streaker Mark Roberts. Roberts, more noted for his appearances on English football pitches, made his mark on this side of the pond after gaining access to the field by dressing up as an official.
Once there, he greeted a few players before ripping off the Velcro outfit and parading around the field in nothing more than a silver thong. The not-so-modestly dressed man performed a merry Irish jig in front of the football, which was already set up on a tee for the second-half kick-off.
He was in the process of fleeing security officers when he was absolutely leveled by New England Patriots linebacker Matt Chatham. A massive security contingent then surrounded the streaker, who was hog-tied before being removed from the field. National broadcasters CBS minimized the damage by focusing their cameras elsewhere during most of the incident, but it was still a wild situation. As for Roberts, he considered the event to be a massive success, later telling ESPN that he spent most of his night in jail signing autographs.
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8 Porn-Bowl
The Super Bowl prides itself on being family-friendly entertainment, but that certainly wasn’t the case for some Arizona fans during Super Bowl XLIII. The Cardinals seemed to be closing in on a famous victory following a late Larry Fitzgerald touchdown that gave the team a three-point lead over the Pittsburgh Steelers with 2:37 remaining. Amid those celebrations some viewers in Tucson got much more than they bargained for. The NFL game flicked before changing to a scene from a pornographic film, doubtlessly sending parents and grandparents scrambling to cover sensitive eyes.
The incident only lasted for 37 seconds, but that was surely more than enough time to have left many poor souls who witnessed porn with their grandparents traumatized for life. The incident garnered national attention and left cable providers for the area, Comcast, scrambling to figure out how the mix-up occurred. It wasn’t until two years later that an investigation, which also included the FBI, pointed to Frank Gonzales, a former Cox employee, as the culprit.
Gonzales, who had been given access to the cable system months earlier as a technician, hacked in to switch the feed. He later pled guilty to two counts of computer tampering, and received three years of probation under a plea deal. A motive for his actions has never been determined. To add to their troubles Cardinals fans later had to sit through the Steelers marching 78 yards to score on wide receiver Santonio Holmes’ iconic six-yard game-winning touchdown catch with 35 seconds left. Ouch.
7 Barret Robbins Goes Missing
Ahead of Bowl XXXVII in San Diego, a match-up that featured the Oakland Raiders against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, First-Team All-Pro center Barret Robbins vanished without a trace, leaving teammates, coaches, and the NFL not only scratching their heads but with a sense of apprehension as well.
As it turns out, ahead of the biggest game of his life, the player was miles away, involved in an alcohol-fueled binge fest that caused him to miss the game entirely. According to his wife, Robbins was partying all over San Diego celebrating a Super Bowl win he thought his team had already captured before ending up in Tijuana, Mexico. It later came to light that Robbins, who was diagnosed with depression while attending university 10 years earlier, suffered a manic episode ahead of the Super Bowl and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Robbins later recounted to ESPN in a 2003 interview that he did not remember much about the life-changing incident and that the whole thing was still quite incredible. “I mean, this was the biggest game of my life. This was everything I had worked for as a child, as a young man, as a collegiate athlete, and going into the pros, this is everything I had worked for and… that’s what makes it the biggest. I mean, it’s unbelievable to me.” Without Robbins, the Buccaneers dominated the Raiders and triumphed 48–21.
6 Bad Call Bowl
Complaints over officiating at the Super Bowl are nothing new. But even so, by most measures, Super Bowl XL, which featured the Seattle Seahawks and Pittsburgh Steelers, took things to a whole other level. Players and fans of the Seattle Seahawks, in particular, were left in a sour mood after several of the calls made by referee Bill Leavy were deemed to be unfair. For their part, the Pittsburgh Steelers, who won the game 21-10, have simply put the incidents down to bad refereeing, insisting they were also the victims of a few bad calls themselves.
Levy, who died in March 2023, admits he has regrets for blowing a few of the more notable calls. He later told Espn, “It was a tough thing for me. I kicked two calls in the fourth quarter and I impacted the game, and as an official you never want to do that. It left me with a lot of sleepless nights, and I think about it constantly. I’ll go to my grave wishing that I’d been better.”
At the time, the officiating sparked a number of wild conspiracy theories, including suggestions that the NFL preferred the Steelers to win because of the team’s massive national fanbase, or the fact that they had a great narrative going into the game as that year’s Cinderella team. Whatever the case, this Super Bowl will continue to live on in infamy for Seattle fans and many others.
5 Blackout Sunday
No one likes to be left in the dark. But, unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened to fans around the world who tuned in to Super Bowl XLVII, a clash between the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers. With 13:22 remaining in the third quarter, the game ground to a halt as half of the light bulbs at the Superdome in New Orleans went out. In the 34 minutes that it took for all the lights to come back on, there were plenty of conspiracy theories to go around.
Some believed that the stadium lights were sabotaged, while others even floated ideas of the event being a deliberate act of terror. The issue was eventually revealed to be a faulty electrical relay device and the stadium’s back-up generator ended up having enough power to keep all the lights on.
Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis has, however, never quite bought into that explanation. His skepticism likely has to do with the fact that the blackout coincided with a halt in momentum for the Ravens and a furious rally from the 49ers that almost erased Baltimore’s 28-6 lead. The comeback came up just short on the final drive, however, and the Ravens defeated the 49ers by a final score of 34–31.
4 The Great Brady Heist
Stories recounting tales of stolen sports memorabilia are, unfortunately, far from uncommon. However, when the man involved just happens to be New England Patriots great Tom Brady, there is little wonder the situation threatened to become an international incident. In the aftermath of Super Bowl LI, where the Patriots registered a thrilling 34-28 comeback victory in overtime over the Atlanta Falcons, Brady revealed that his match-winning jersey was nowhere to be found.
“I put it in my bag and then came out, and it wasn’t there anymore, so it’s unfortunate because that’s a nice piece of memorabilia. So, if it shows up on eBay somewhere, someone let me know, try to track that down,” Brady said in his postgame news conference. In the days following the incident the Houston Police department announced that several investigators had been put on the case. In a twist to the tale, however, it was later revealed that the FBI also became involved because the jersey was located on foreign soil.
As it turns out, footage of the incident showed Martin Ortega, who was at the time a credentialed reporter and director of Mexican tabloid La Prensa, leaving the area with something tucked under his arm. The item was later recovered from Ortega, along with another of Brady’s jerseys from Super Bowl XLIX and Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller’s Super Bowl 50 helmet.
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3 Broadway Joe Namath Guarantees A Super Bowl Win
NFL Hall of Famer Broadway Joe Namath was never short on confidence, but even by his standards guaranteeing a win over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III was extraordinary. Generally speaking, not only is predicting a win over your opponent in most sports a big no-no, but, at the time, the Colts were regarded as heavy favorites to beat Namath’s New York Jets.
Just to put things in perspective, the Colts opened as gargantuan 18-point favorites with the bookmakers, a point spread that seems unthinkable for a modern day Super Bowl. Unfazed, Namath and the Jets managed to back up his boast with an unexpected 16-7 win over Baltimore. Namath was named the Super Bowl MVP after completing 17 of 28 passes for 206 yards, though he failed to register a touchdown.
2 Robinson arrested
Atlanta Falcons’ safety Eugene Robinson had his name splashed across the headlines just ahead of Super Bowl XXXIII, but not for the reasons he would have hoped. The night before the matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and the Denver Broncos at Pro Player Stadium in Miami, Robinson was arrested for soliciting sex from a prostitute. The woman that he had approached was an undercover policewoman. Oops.
According to the official report, Robinson was driving a car alone when he offered a female undercover officer for the Miami police $40 for oral sex. The player was released to Falcons General Manager Harold Richardson at around 11 p.m. the same night on the condition that Robinson promised to appear in court within 30 days. Robinson did not go on to have the best Super Bowl and was beaten on an 80-yard touchdown pass from John Elway to wide receiver Rod Smith.
However, he insisted the incident had nothing to do with his performance, despite admitting to not getting much sleep on Saturday night. To make things worse, at a breakfast on Saturday morning, Robinson had received the 1999 Bart Starr Award from the religious group Athletes in Action. The award, named for the Hall of Fame quarterback from Green Bay, ironically honors athletes of high moral character.
1 Nipplegate
In many ways, this has become the very dictionary definition for Super Bowl controversy. At Super Bowl XXXVIII a steamy half-time performance between pop icons Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake set pulses racing, but in the end also delivered much more than most were expecting. During the duo’s performance of “Rock Your Body”, Timberlake pulled off a part of Jackson’s costume to reveal the singer’s right breast, which was partially covered by a sun-shaped nipple shield.
The incident was viewed by around 150 million people on television. Broadcasters CBS quickly cut away, but the damage had been done. The fallout was seismic. Both artists insisted the event had not been intentional but simply a part of the routine that had gone wrong. That did little to put out the fires. The NFL banned MTV, which had also produced previous half-time shows, from future events.
Viacom and subsidiaries, MTV and Infinity, went on to enforce a blacklist of Jackson’s singles and music videos (though not Timberlake’s). CBS faced a massive fine of $550,000 from the FCC, but the fine was later quashed in court. However, the incident also made Janet Jackson the most-searched person and term of 2004 and 2005, and broke the record for “most-searched event over one day”. It also became the most-watched, recorded, and replayed television moment in TiVo history and enticed around 35,000 new [TiVo] subscribers to sign up.
All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference and all contract information courtesy of Spotrac unless stated otherwise.
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