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CMU Beef Of The Week #176: The NFL v MIA

By | Published on Friday 27 September 2013


Offence is a funny thing, isn’t it? What is teeth gnashingly offensive to one person can float past another completely unnoticed. And what floats past most people unnoticed can become a national scandal after the Daily Mail rewrites what happened. And sometimes, the fact that someone has a finger can become the most offensive thing in the world when there’s the possibility that if you look really upset there might be $1.5 million in it for you.

When, at Madonna’s Super Bowl half time show last year, guest performer MIA briefly waggled her middle finger around, a long procession of people stepped forward to say how disappointed they were. Broadcaster NBC came first (but noted that this was nowhere near as bad as Janet Jackson waving one of her breasts at Justin Timberlake), and then Madonna, followed by fellow guest star Nicki Minaj.

NBC also noted that, although it should have been quicker to blur out the offending digit, it wasn’t in charge of booking the half time performers, so wasn’t responsible for any of their wayward behaviour. The blame for failing to control the talent lay squarely at the feet of The National Football League.

And while everyone else was just a little bit disappointed by what happened, The NFL was very, very upset indeed. Fuming, in fact. How dare MIA go about putting her finger up in the air like she just didn’t care. Who does she think she is, Fred Durst? Won’t someone think of the children? None of America’s children had ever seen ‘the bird’ before MIA did it right there in front of them and now they’re all doing it all over the place. America is basically ruined now. These are all things people at The NFL might have said.

Though it’s not really important what anyone at The NFL actually said or thought, because the organisation’s lawyers saw to it that absolute outrage was the corporate position. And apparently this has all been discussed at length behind closed doors for over a year and a half now, until last week MIA’s lawyer Howard King announced that the singer was ready to go public with her side of the story to pre-empt a lawsuit from The NFL.

“Until now”, said King, “we had reluctantly remained quiet in the hopes of not becoming subject to the whims of 28 rich NFL owners who wanted to crush this brown, outspoken young lady, especially since they are making her life miserable for the cost of a 30 second spot in one of this weekend’s secondary games. But ultimately, we could not be forced into the type of public apology demanded by the NFL”.

When MIA’s side of the story did come out in a video statement on Monday, it took slightly longer to recite than a simple “I put my finger in the air briefly and I’m not sure why anyone cares”. Though that was the gist it.

“The NFL thing is completely ridiculous”, she began. “It’s been making me laugh for a while, but now it’s so boring I don’t even laugh anymore. So the precise moment in question, and you can actually freeze-frame this as many media outlets have. The frame you’re looking for has my middle finger in the foreground, and the larger picture where it zooms out is a row of ten to fifteen cheerleaders, young black females, that Madonna got from a local high school in Indianapolis, and they were all under sixteen. If you look at them, they’re all wearing cheerleader outfits, hips thrusted in the air, legs wide open, in this very sexually provocative position”.

She continued: “So, now, they’re scapegoating me into figuring out the goalposts on what is offensive in America. Like, is my finger offensive, or is the underage black girl with her legs wide open more offensive to the family audience? That’s basically what it comes down to. It’s a massive waste of time, a massive waste of money, it’s a massive display of powerful corporation dick-shaking. They want me on my knees and say sorry so they can slap me on my wrist. Basically, so they can say it’s OK for me to promote being sexually exploited as a female than to display female empowerment through being punk rock. That is what it boils down to, and I’m being sued for it”.

Of course, it’s a lot harder to pinpoint who to sue over the dancers, even if The NFL had an inclination to. Madonna probably has more lawyers than MIA, and you probably wouldn’t be able to get a whole lot of money out of some teenage girls, even if there were fifteen of them. And I’m not sure suing teenage girls for dancing while being teenagers is going to work, anyway. No, going for the person who did a thing that can be clearly defined as ‘offensive’ is the obvious position when you want to make a point.

The NFL confirmed yesterday that it would indeed be suing MIA for $1.5 million in damages. Though the organisation noted that this wasn’t about the money, as that would all go to charity. The lawyers who came up with the plan are presumably doing the same with their fees. Maybe.

But what exactly are they getting MIA on? The NFL has said that “the tremendous public respect and reputation for wholesomeness enjoyed by the NFL” was damaged when it became associated with the singer/rapper’s longest finger. But actually, it boils down to a simple breach of contract. MIA wasn’t paid for her appearance (presumably Madonna told her it would be great exposure) but she still had to sign an agreement with The NFL about how she would behave. And apparently fingers were a no-no under that deal.

And, despite bigging up the client’s glorious reputation, the NFL’s lawyers will presumably be happier talking about that contract than justifying the “squeaky clean image” claim. After all, as ESPN notes, the League has been involved in its fair share of other scandals of late, thanks to its players getting into unfortunate scrapes. This year, in fact, there’s already been one involving a middle finger – Miami Dolphins’ Randy Starks having stuck his up at his whole team (though presumably, as a good guy sportsman, he’d never seen such a gesture before MIA did it).

Starks, unlike MIA, did agree to apologise and was let off without punishment, The NFL deciding that it was a “team matter”. Presumably if MIA did say sorry, the lawsuit would be dropped and she’d be sent round to Madonna’s house for a stern talking to.

Meanwhile, underage dancers would walk free to dance another day, and the NFL players who’ve recently been arrested for such minor indiscretions as taking drugs, being drunkenly abusive in public, and beating up a woman in a nightclub would continue to play American football like nothing happened.

I only hope Bruno Mars is taking notes.