The past year brought out the worst in professional sports players, owners, and fans alike, from domestic violence scandals in the NFL to the removal of racist team executives in the NBA.
Of course, shockingly bad behavior wasn’t limited to major league football and basketball alone. The most decorated Olympian of all time, Michael Phelps, was just sentenced to probation for drunken driving. FIFA was enough of a mess to inspire a 13-minute Jon Oliver segment ahead of the World Cup this summer.
But even the most casual sports observer understands what’s at the center of the Washington Redskins naming controversy, or can form an opinion on whether Ray Rice should be allowed to play football again. The NFL frequently surfaced in the headlines this year for all the wrong reasons, and its domination on this list suggests the league needs to get its act together on a couple fronts.
1. Ray Rice knocks his then-fiancee unconscious on surveillance video
It was a jarring and disturbing piece of surveillance video that brought down former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice. He was taped knocking out his then-fiancee back in February in the elevator of an Atlantic City, New Jersey casino. He then dragged her unconscious body outside.
Before that video leaked in September, the NFL had suspended Rice for just two games. He had pleaded not guilty to a third-degree assault charge in March and entered a pre-trial diversion program. But the damning footage gave the Ravens and the NFL no choice but to drop Rice and suspend him indefinitely from the league, respectively.
Amid the fallout, the Ravens and league officials scrambled to insist they were never aware of the extent of the alleged assault on Janay, who by that time was married to Rice, despite some reports to the contrary. So the scandal deserves top billing on this list for what it revealed about the NFL as an institution: league officials didn’t — and despite announcing a new, stricter domestic violence policy, still don’t — understand how to adequately respond to these incidents.
At no point was that more apparent than when Rice won his appeal of the indefinite suspension in November. An NFL arbitrator ruled that Rice never misled the league about the extent of the alleged assault. That meant the initial two-game suspension reflected exactly how grave the NFL believed the assault to be — which is to say, not very much.
2. Donald Sterling’s personal assistant/girlfriend records his racist comments
A damning recording also brought down former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. His personal assistant, V. Stiviano, who Sterling apparently thought of as his mistress, recorded the Clippers owner asking her not to bring black people to games with her. (She later said the audio was released without her permission.)
After the recording leaked in April, Sterling put his foot in his mouth yet again and made insensitive comments about NBA legend Magic Johnson and AIDS in an interview with CNN. But there were even more layers of the story to peel back, as Sterling’s racist views weren’t exactly a closely held secret. He’d been sued for wrongful termination by the a former Clippers general manager, who was black, as well as for discriminatory housing practices at an apartment complex he owned. Yet the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP kept up a mutually beneficial relationship with Sterling right up until the recording surfaced.
The NBA moved swiftly to deal with the image problem Sterling presented, though. He was banned from the league for life and forced to sell off the Clippers. The Sterling fallout even led Bruce Levenson, a former co-owner of the Atlanta Hawks, to sell his stake in that team after an internal investigation uncovered his own racially charged emails.
3. Redskins fans throw down with Native Americans on ‘The Daily Show’
One of the most pervasive sports scandals of 2014 was the Washington Redskins’ refusal to change its much-maligned name. But no single event revealed how deeply problematic the football team’s moniker is like an attempt by “The Daily Show” to bring diehard Redskins fans and Native Americans together for a dialogue about it.
The segment itself appeared harmless, but the material that didn’t make it into the final cut of the Redskins fans-Native Americans summit was shocking. One of the football fans who’d been previously employed by the Redskins reportedly left “The Daily Show” set in tears, then called the police because she felt “threatened” by the group of Native American activists.
The activists didn’t have so great a time, either. After the segment aired, comedian Migizi Pensoneau wrote a column about another unaired segment that showed the Native Americans walking around FedEx Field on game day. Pensoneau wrote he “actually was afraid for my life” because of the threats and taunts that tailgating Redskins fans aimed at him and the group.
It’s clear that “The Daily Show” crew weren’t aiming to reach a happy accord between the two groups, and their behind-the-scenes interactions showed how unwilling each side of the Redskins naming debate was to cross their brightly drawn battle lines.
4. Adrian Peterson is indicted in child abuse case
While the NFL was still reeling from the release of the Ray Rice elevator surveillance video, another domestic violence case involving a star running back surfaced. Minnesota Vikings player Adrian Peterson was indicted on a charge of child abuse in September for allegedly whipping his 4-year-old son with a tree branch, leaving the child with cuts and bruises.
The running back never directly apologized for the incident, although he emphatically denied being a “child abuser” and pledged to work with a psychologist to develop alternative ways to discipline his son.
5. NFL referee penalizes Muslim player who prayed in the end zone
Here’s a pro tip for NFL referees: don’t throw a flag if the player who just scored a touchdown looks like he’s praying.
During a New England Patriots game against the Kansas City Chiefs in September, a referee flagged Chiefs safety Husain Abdullah for unsportsmanlike conduct after he kneeled and bowed in prayer in the end zone. Abdullah is a devout Muslim who sat out the entire 2013 season in order to make pilgrimage to Mecca.
The call immediately drew backlash from social media users who pointed out that Christian players were never penalized (and often applauded, as in the case of former quarterback Tim Tebow) for such displays.
Brandon Marshall gets on knees & raises hands to Jesus after TD..No penalty..Husain Abdullah bows to Mecca..15 yards! pic.twitter.com/6G5sDfaWO0
— Arsalan Iftikhar™ (@TheMuslimGuy) September 30, 2014
NFL rules do prohibit “celebrations or demonstrations” while on the ground, but going to the ground in religious expression is an exception. The NFL later said that the referee made the wrong call in Abdullah’s case.