Any league that exalts prim uniformity right down to the height of the players' socks is going to be a pregnant stage for pratfalls. The proud home of mud-caked warriors who are often accompanied by stirring music and Sturm-und-Drang narrative has the highest profile of any American sports institution, so any bit of egg that ends up on its fiercely serious puss -- from undignified end zone dances to unsavory off-field indiscretions -- is all the more mortifying.
There are many rich examples, from the epic (the Chicago Bears' 73-0 rout of the Washington Redskins in the 1940 NFL Championship Game) to the grim (LyleAlzado's 1991 claims of rampant steroid use) to the slapstick (Miami Dolphins kicker GaroYepremian's comically pathetic pass attempt in Super Bowl VII). Here are the 10 biggest howlers.
1. Wardrobe malfunction: Feb. 1, 2004
The staid old NFL learned a painful lesson by trying to get hip and edgy, especially on its highest holy day. The surprise stripper in the bishop's cake was Janet Jackson, whose "wardrobe malfunction" at the hands of Justin Timberlake during the MTV-produced halftime show at Super Bowl XXXVIII gave 140 million viewers a lasting mammary. FCC chief Michael Powell and the White House weighed in on the outrage while commissioner Paul Tagliabue led the chorus: "The show was offensive, inappropriate and embarrassing to us and our fans."
After fielding 500,000 complaints from the general public, the FCC came down with cement loafers on CBS to the tune of a record $550,000 in fines. The fallout left even the edgiest shock jocks afraid to say boo. Meanwhile, the NFL vowed to keep abreast, so to speak, of its halftime entertainment, subsequently rolling out Paul McCartney (2005) and the Rolling Stones ('06). As fossilized as the bones of the Tyrannosaurus Rex, these counterculture icons from the 1960s evoked memories of past dangers to the morals of American youth while remaining essentially inert.
2. Eugene Robinson's Miami vice: Jan. 30, 1999
NFL history is littered with unsavory wreckage, the most recent of which includes the Vikings' Love Boat, Onterrio Smith's Whizzinator and Michael Strahan's alleged covert cinematic enterprises in his sister-in-law's boudoir. But Atlanta Falcons safety Eugene Robinson stands out for the timing and manner in which he greased his righteous reputation as family man and pillar of the community.
Prior to Super Bowl XXXIII in Miami, Robinson received the Bart Starr Award from Athletes in Action for "high moral character." He celebrated by leaving his wife in the team's hotel the night before the game and takin' it to the streets in a reported effort to purchase a little lovin', touchin' and squeezin' from a lady of the evenin', who turned out to be an undercover cop. "Unfortunately, even as Christians, we do things wrong," head coach Dan Reeves intoned after the team bailed the red-faced Robinson out of the hoosegow. "We're all sinners."
The same could be said -- in a purely football sense -- of the Falcons, who got blown out by the Denver Broncos 34-19. Robinson did his part by getting burned deep by Rod Smith's pivotal 80-yard touchdown that put Denver up 17-3 in the second quarter.