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From Shouldergate to Deflategate: History of ‘–gate’ football scandals

A look back at the controversies that came before Deflategate.

Tom Brady had not even reached his first birthday when ESPN’s John Clayton, working for the Pittsburgh Press, gave us “Shouldergate.” During the 1978 NFL off-season, Clayton uncovered that the Pittsburgh Steelers were holding practices in full pads in violation of league rules.

Head coach Chuck Noll had closed the practice at Three Rivers Stadium off to the media. However, he did not do a very good job at hiding the team’s illegal activity. Clayton was able to speak with players who were still dressed for contact in the locker room. Perhaps they had forgotten they were wearing the pads. 

“Noll’s Top Secret, call it Shouldergate if you wish, was not very successful,” Clayton wrote in an article for the Press titled “Steelers‘ Secret Slips Out.” 

Just a few years after the Watergate scandal brought down Richard Nixon's administration, Clayton borrowed the “–gate” suffix for the Steelers‘ controversy.

The Steelers lost a third round selection in the 1979 NFL draft as a result of the rule violation. As The Pittsburgh Tribune detailed last year, Clayton received backlash from Steelers fans, the Pittsburgh community and even other journalists for his reporting.

Despite criticism of the “Shouldergate Spy,” Clayton opened the door for many “–gate” scandals to follow.

MCCANN: Deflategate, one year later

Almost a decade later, the SMU football program found itself in the middle of “Ponygate,” after two former Mustang football players revealed that boosters had been giving cash payments to potential recruits. University officials and the team’s coaches reportedly had full knowledge of the illicit payments.

The NCAA completely shut down the football program in 1987 for the following two seasons, making SMU the first school to receive the “death penalty” as a result of rule violations. The team was reinstated in 1989, but was under strict probation following its return.

Since then, the sports world as seen a handle of incidents given ”gate” names that have varied greatly in both seriousness and coverage.

There was “Bottlegate” in 2001 when Cleveland Browns fans threw garbage, including bottles, onto the field when referee Terry McAulay reversed a Browns reception at the 1-yard line during a game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, calling it an incomplete pass. The 15–10 loss to Jacksonville prevented the Browns from making the playoffs.


In 2002, San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Terrell Owens pulled a sharpie out of his sock to sign a football after scoring a touchdown. The incident, naturally, was dubbed “Sharpie–gate,” though the “scandal” was relatively tame for the always–controversial Owens.


Before Deflategate, the Patriots found themselves at the center of the “Spygate” controversy in 2007, when a team cameraman was caught tapingJets coaching signals from an unauthorized location. The league fined New England $250,000 and forced the team to give up a first-round draft pick. 

In “Bountygate,” members of the New Orleans Saints’ coaching staff were accused of operating a bounty system that rewarded defensive players for big plays, including plays that hurt the opposition's players.

Saints head coach Sean Payton was suspended for the 2012 season due to Bountygate

Saints head coach Sean Payton was suspended for the 2012 season due to Bountygate

Ohio State University football players were caught up in “Tattoogate”after trading memorabilia for tattoos. The scandal caused the 2011 resignation of head coach Jim Tressel.

“Deflategate,” of course, became one of the most high–profile scandals in NFL history last season after the Patriots were accused of using underinflated footballs during the AFC championship game. 

Perhaps the ubiquity of “–gate” scandals in football can be traced to the original “Watergate” scandal: After the scandal forced the resignation of President Nixon, former Michigan football standout Gerald Ford took the oath of office.