With 20 seconds to go in the 4th quarter and Super Bowl XLIX all but decided, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady surveyed the opposition, took the snap from center, shuffled back, and went down to a knee.
Then things got ugly.
The linemen began shoving one another—as is somewhat customary—before Seattle Seahawks linebacker Bruce Irvin escalated things by shoving the face of the Pats’ chief exhibitionist, tight end Rob Gronkowski. One of Irvin’s teammates then took the reins, throwing Gronk to the ground, while Irvin set his sights on the Pats’ back up tight end, Michael Hoomanawanui, slamming him down on the turf before removing his helmet and jawing at the blue, red, and white. Irvin was summarily ejected from the game for instigating the brawl.
Meanwhile the Pats’ hero, diminutive wide receiver Julian Edelman, absorbed a massive helmet-to-helmet hit from Seahawks strong safety Kam Chancellor early on in the 4th quarter and appeared wobbly and slow to get up following the collision. According to Detroit Free Press reporter Dave Birkett, the Patriots’ medical personnel requested he be checked for a concussion—but the request was ignored, and Edelman remained on the field for the rest of the drive. Later, he’d score the game-winning touchdown. The Pats eventually took a knee after the melee, winning their fourth championship in 14 years.
When asked in his post-game interview if he was tested for a concussion, Edelman remained tight-lipped, though he did refer to Seattle as “St. Louis” before correcting himself. And he’s sustained head injuries in the past, missing the final two games of the regular season with a bad concussion. But he was outdone by megalomaniacal Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who in his victory speech chose to draw an imaginary line between 9/11 and the firestorm of controversy facing his squad in the wake of “deflategate.”
“The first one we won I thought was pretty special because it happened at a unique time in our country when it meant a lot,” Kraft said. “I never thought another trophy could feel as special, but this one absolutely does. And every true Patriot fan understands it.”
An unchecked potential head injury, a brawl, and a 9/11-invoking speech by the owner of a team with a rich history of cheating. It was indeed a fitting coda to the worst season in NFL history.
The terrible, awful season kicked things off on February 19, when TMZ posted shocking video of Baltimore Ravens star running back Ray Rice pulling his unconscious fiancée out of an Atlantic City elevator. In the following months, the Ravens spoke highly of Rice’s “character,” culminating in a May 23 press conference with Ray and Janay Rice (they married on March 28) in which the player apologized for “the situation my wife and I were in.” The Ravens live-tweeted the event and issued a tweet that read, “Janay Rice says she deeply regrets the role she played the night of the incident.” It was later deleted.
On July 24, the NFL announced a meager two-game suspension for Rice, and the following month, instituted a new domestic violence policy that calls for a 6-game ban for first-time offenders (players are routinely given 6-8 game suspensions for marijuana use). On September 8, TMZ released footage from inside the elevator showing Rice delivering a haymaker to Janay and knocking her out cold. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell claims it’s the first time he’s seen the video—a claim that’s seconded by Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who made the news rounds defending Goodell—and announces that Rice has been suspended indefinitely from the league. But two days later, the Associated Press report that despite his protestations, Goodell was given a copy of the Rice tape back in April.
Rice’s “indefinite suspension” is overturned in November after a “double jeopardy” appeal by the players’ union, and he’s reinstated as a free agent.
In April, a number of NFL cheerleading squads filed suit against the league claiming they were in violation of state and federal employment laws. Among them was the Buffalo Jills, the cheerleading squad of the Bills, who claimed that they were given a lengthy handbook outlining the many rules and regulations of being a Jill, including things like: “how much bread to eat at a formal dinner,” “how to properly wash ‘intimate areas,’” “how to change tampons,” and that they were subjected to a weekly “Jiggle Test” in which, according to the lawsuit, “defendants scrutinized the women’s stomach, arms, legs, hips, and butt while she does jumping jacks.”
Two months later in June, the United States Patent and Trademark Office voted to invalidate 6 of its federal trademark protections for the Washington Redskins, concluding that the team’s name is tantamount to an ethnic slur. “The writing is on the wall, on the wall in giant, blinking neon lights,” Senator Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat and the majority leader, said of the decision. Still, the Redskins appealed, and despite some national dialogue, including a lively Daily Show sketch pitting Redskins defenders against actual Native Americans, the majority of the football-viewing public—including, oddly enough, Oscar-winning actor Matthew McConaughey—seemed to support the “Redskins” name.
Ray Rice wasn’t the only NFL star running back guilty of a heinous crime this football season. On September 12, Minnesota Vikings RB Adrian Peterson was indicted in Texas on charges of “reckless or negligent injury to a child.” According to Sports Radio 610, one of Peterson’s children pushed another one of his kids off a motorbike video game, so Peterson grabbed a tree branch, removed the leaves, and gave his 4-year-old child what he called a “whoopin.” Doctors who examined the boy found lacerations on his thighs and bruise marks on the lower back and buttocks, deeming it “child abuse.”
Police reports obtained by Sports Radio 610 alleged that Peterson’s abused child told authorities, “Daddy Peterson hit me on my face,” adding he was worried that he’d be hit in the face again if he reported the incident; that he’s regularly hit by belts and that “there are a lot of belts in Daddy’s closet”; that Peterson put leaves in his mouth when he was being hit by the tree branch; and that Peterson “has a whooping room.” On November 4, he pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of reckless assault on his 4-year-old son, avoiding jail time—but was suspended until at least spring 2015 by the NFL.
Oh, and in October, one month after the child abuse indictment, Peterson was alleged to have used a credit card from his charity, All Day, Inc., to pay for a 2011 orgy with himself, two relatives—including his brother, then a minor—and four women. The orgy ended with a rape accusation and a 38-page police report, but no charges filed.
There was also Carolina Panthers Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy, who was found guilty of assaulting a waitress in July. “He looked me in my eyes and he told me he was going to kill me,” said the accuser, a 24-year-old cocktail waitress in downtown Charlotte. “I was so scared I wanted to die. When he loosened his grip slightly, I said just, ‘Do it. Kill me.’” New Orleans Saints linebacker Junior Galette was charged with domestic violence on January 5 of this year after a woman alleged that he scratched her face and tore her earring out of her ear, leaving it bloodied. And on January 14, Indianapolis Colts linebacker Josh McNary was charged with felony rape after a 29-year-old woman left his home with reported vaginal injuries and a bloodied ear.
And then there was, of course, “deflategate,” wherein the champion New England Patriots were accused of deflating 11 of 12 balls during their 45-7 AFC Championship win against the Indianapolis Colts (at halftime, the balls were found to be 2-3 pounds lighter than league regulations). Despite Brady openly admitting in the past that he prefers throwing a lighter ball (11 PSI, compared to Aaron Rodgers’ preferred 14 PSI), and video surveillance footage showing a Patriots assistant disappearing with 24 balls (the Pats and Colts’ game balls) into a bathroom for 90 seconds, both Brady and Patriots coach Bill Belichick—you know, of “Spygate” fame—denied any knowledge of the incident.
Federal court documents unearthed by The New York Times also revealed that league-appointed actuaries for the NFL presiding over a settlement between the NFL and 5,000 former players who sued the league alleging it hid the damage of concussions from them determined that nearly one-third of retired NFL players will develop "long-term cognitive problems." "Thus, our assumptions result in prevalence rates by age group that are materially higher than those expected in the general population," said the report. "Furthermore, the model forecasts that players will develop these diagnoses at notably younger ages than the generation population."
Even the nicest story of the 2014-2015 NFL season ended in heartbreak. In May, the St. Louis Rams selected Michael Sam in the seventh and final round of the 2014 NFL Draft, making him the first openly gay player to be drafted. Sam celebrated by kissing his partner on national TV, and was praised by President Obama with the following message: “The President congratulates Michael Sam, the Rams and the NFL for taking an important step forward today in our Nation’s journey. From the playing field to the corporate boardroom, LGBT Americans prove everyday that you should be judged by what you do and not who you are,” a White House official said.
Amid anti-gay hostility from many NFL players—and even NFL commentator Herman Edwards—Sam was cut on August 30, a few months before the start of the regular season. He was later added to the Dallas Cowboys practice squad on September 3, but was cut on October 21. Since he failed to secure a spot on an NFL roster, Sam did not achieve the distinction of being the first openly gay player in NFL history.