The NFL's halftime shows are generally attempts at serious entertainment that devolve into absurdity, so it's perfectly fitting that the NFL is attempting a serious lawsuit that is, in truth, absolutely ridiculous.
More than two years ago, during Madonna's halftime performance, Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A. offered up a brief middle finger during her performance. In order to protect your delicate sensibilities, we've blocked the offending digit with a headshot of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
If you think you can handle a half-second view of a single upraised digit, however, steel your heart and watch the video below:
Whoa. WHOA. That was like saying "We're No. 1," but WITH A DIFFERENT FINGER. You can see the problem there, right? Right ... ?
The NFL sure did, attempting to fine M.I.A. $1.5 million for alleged breach of contract and alleged tarnishing of the NFL's reputation. Now, according to the Hollywood Reporter, the league is taking a new and peculiar tactic, attempting to fine M.I.A. another $15.5 million for "restitution" of the "exposure" she was given during her performance.
How did the NFL arrive at such a figure? By taking into account the fact that the halftime show was watched by approximately 167 million people, and multiplying M.I.A.'s two-minute appearance by the approximate value of the time commercial sponsors paid to advertise on the Super Bowl.
Such a claim would be patently ridiculous on its face: seriously, who in America had their life measurably worsened in any way by seeing a brief glance of an action they could observe a hundred times a day in traffic?
Plus, as M.I.A.'s attorneys note, the NFL isn't exactly swimming in credibility on this issue. In court filings, they note, in exhaustive detail, the "profane, bawdy, lascivious, demeaning and/or unacceptable behavior by its players, team owners, coaching and management personnel and by performers chosen and endorsed by NFL to perform in its halftime shows."
M.I.A.'s attorneys pointed to Michael Jackson's "genitalia adjustments" in his 1993 Super Bowl halftime show, and Prince's use of a silhouette to make his guitar look like an "erect oversized phallus" in 2007. Plus, they noted the NFL's own idea to penalize the use of the N-word with a 15-yard penalty as an example of differing punishment. Finally, they contended that NBC failed in its duty to televise the show on a five-second delay.
Court filings contend that the "continued pursuit of this proceeding is transparently an exercise by the NFL intended solely to bully and make an example of Respondents for daring to challenge NFL."
The NFL has many serious issues threatening the integrity of its game: concussion concerns, locker room atmosphere, off-field criminal activity, game-day experiences, city-versus-team financial wrangling, and so much more. On that list, M.I.A.'s middle finger ranks somewhere below finding a new executive shoe-polish supplier.
Certainly, the NFL has the right to protect the integrity of its product, and the halftime show is probably the most valuable space of entertainment real estate in American culture. But the pettiness and hypocrisy of this approach undercut the NFL's stated goal of brand protection. If the NFL is truly interested in preserving its image, it'll drop this farce of a case and forget it ever happened.