Flag on the play. From Tom Brady’s Deflategate to Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protests, the NFL has been at the center of several controversies through the years.
In 2016, Kaepernick sparked debates among both fans and fellow players when he didn’t stand for the national anthem before taking the field with the San Francisco 49ers. At the time, the athlete’s peaceful protest was largely criticized, but he explained his point of view in August of that year.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color,” he said in an interview with NFL Media. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
When Kaepernick began his demonstrations, Black Lives Matter protests were breaking out across the United States in response to police brutality incidents, such as the death of Philando Castile. The quarterback’s team issued a statement addressing his decision to kneel, highlighting a person’s individual rights.
“The national anthem is and always will be a special part of the pre-game ceremony,” the 49ers noted. “It is an opportunity to honor our country and reflect on the great liberties we are afforded as its citizens. In respecting such American principles as freedom of religion and freedom of expression, we recognize the right of an individual to choose and participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem.”
Kaepernick was eventually made a free agent, but he never signed a contract with another NFL team. In 2017, he filed a grievance alleging that the league intentionally prevented him from playing football. A settlement was reached in 2019 and Kaepernick continues to be a vocal advocate for racial equality.
Brady, for his part, was implicated in a scandal of a different scale before announcing his retirement from professional sports in February 2022. The former New England Patriots star was accused of ordering the deliberate deflation of footballs used in the January 2015 AFC championship game. Brady and the Pats went on to win the Super Bowl one month later — and some viewers were quick to claim the team cheated their way to the top.
Brady denied having any involvement in the controversy, asserting in a 2015 press conference, “I would never do anything outside of the rules of play.”
Both the Massachusetts-based team and its then-QB faced consequences following an investigation, and Deflategate is still frequently made fun of to this day. In January 2022, Aaron Rodgers referenced the blunder during a conversation with Canadian network Sportsnet.
“This is too firm for the Patriots,” he teased as a reporter handed him a football.
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Scroll down for a look back at some of the biggest NFL scandals and controversies: