Mark Roberts is not an athlete, technically. But he is certainly a Sports Story.
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A few months before Super Bowl XXXVIII, a man in Liverpool named Mark Roberts wrote to the National Football League. It was 2003, and NFL Europe was still in full swing. Then, as now, the league had its eyes on global domination.
Roberts said in his letter that he was interested in becoming n American football referee. But in Liverpool there weren’t a lot of resources for a burgeoning official. In fact, he didn’t even have a way to get a proper referee uniform. So somebody at the NFL office took it upon themselves to reply with words of encouragement. They also sent him a box featuring two complete NFL referee uniforms—hats and everything.
What this unsuspecting league official did not realize was that they were actually playing right into the hands of the world’s most creative and most prodigious streaker. By 2004, Roberts had already streaked hundreds of events—from Wimbledon (where he did a somersault over the net) to the British Open (where he wrote “19th hole” on his back in marker with an arrow pointing down, quite helpfully). But the Super Bowl was another animal entirely: higher security, bigger stakes, and a massive global audience.
Roberts had a plan. He also had a sponsor, the betting site Golden Palace, who got him a first row seat and a good lawyer. Roberts spent the first half of the game between the Patriots and Panthers scoping out the situation at Houston’s Reliant Stadium. There was a security guard standing right in front of him. Getting onto the field would be tough.
Then, as the smoke cleared from the Janet Jackson/Justin Timerblake halftime show, and the players lined up to kick off, the security guard for some reason bolted. This was the time. Now or never. Roberts removed his clothes (fastened only with velcro) at his seat to reveal the referee uniform underneath. He put on his referee hat. Then he leaped down over the barrier and onto the sidelines.
Dressed as a referee, Roberts sprinted to midfield, holding his hands up to the confusion of the special teams units on the field. Then came the moment he had been waiting for. He stripped off the referee uniform—also conveniently velcroed—in a single swift motion, leaving it crumpled at his feet. Then he soaked in the scene: the site of tens of thousands of fans all around and above him; the sound of their screaming all for him. Time seemed to slow down. So Roberts did what any naked man would do in the middle of the biggest sporting event on earth: he began to dance.
Roberts danced and danced for what felt like hours. Kicking up his legs, revealing the high NFL referee socks he was wearing. “I was running out of moves,” he told one interviewer. Then, all at once, the security guards on the field realized what was happening.
“The best part for the audience is the chase,” Roberts has said. In this case, the chase was short. A New England Patriots player bumped Roberts to the ground. He was swarmed by police and carried off. But like Tom Brady, he went home a winner.
Mark Roberts began his streaking career at an international Rugby Sevens tournament in Hong Kong in the early 90s. It started the way most legendary stories do: on a drunken dare. Roberts ran his mouth in a bar about how easy it would be to streak at the event. The next day, his friends bought him a ticket, and Roberts obliged.
It turned out, the adrenaline rush was addictive. So he just kept doing it. At increasingly large venues. At dog shows and soccer matches and horse races and the Winter Olympics. He enjoyed the challenge of putting together a strategy to sneak onto the field of play. (This became increasingly tough as his notoriety grew.) He came to develop a certain set of beliefs about streaking.
For one thing, a streaker should not interrupt the course of play—at that point, he or she becomes more than a funny distraction; they become a nuisance. Roberts never wanted to be a nuisance or mess things up for athletes he admired. He only wanted, he said, to entertain. A well-timed streak only adds to the spectacle of live sports; even the highest drama can stand to be punctuated with a little bit of humor.
Mark Roberts has never been philosophical about his life’s work. What compels a person to repeatedly take their clothes off and exhibit himself in absurd ways before thousands of people? To Roberts, this is not a particularly interesting question. The answer is simple: it’s fun.
“I think everybody in the world should streak at least once,” he told The Guardian.
At their best, sports are a collective, empowering experience that bring out the best parts of being human. Mark Roberts is a silly and shameless man with a genius for taking his clothes off in public. He is also a part of that experience. He got paid a million dollars for the Super Bowl stunt. But he has said he would have done it for free.
“I just wanted to make the great people of America laugh.”
I enjoyed this interview Roberts did with Bryan Armen Graham of The Guardian.
I’ll also point you to a poignant 10-minute documentary about Roberts directed by Errol Morris as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30. You can watch it online here.
Roberts sat down a few years back with Tony Siragusa for Yahoo to talk about the Super Bowl streak.
He was also featured on Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel:
Thank you for reading Sports Stories. We’ll see you next week.