The M.I.A. Lawsuit Is a Publicity Stunt for the NFL


If you thought it was kind of ridiculous that the NFL was suing M.I.A. for $1.5 million for flashing her middle finger at 2012’s Super Bowl broadcast, well, you’ll be slightly over ten times more dumbfounded that the league is now asking for an extra $15.1 million. This means that the sum now being demanded from M.I.A. for a moment of the sort of naughtiness that will get you sent to your room without dinner in most other cases is now $16.6 million. Sixteen million, six hundred thousand dollars. It’s at about this point that you have to ask yourself: just what in god’s name is going on here?

Clearly, the idea that one raised middle finger has caused $1.5 million worth of damage to the NFL’s reputation is ridiculous. This is a league, after all, that makes a metric fuckton of money off a sport that has wrought untold damage on its players. It’s a league that has a team called the “Redskins” (who refuse to change their name despite 25 years’ worth of attempts to convince them to do so). It’s a league where support for gay marriage can allegedly get you fired. If football’s popularity is suffering, it’s not because of its halftime entertainment.

Perhaps realizing this, the premise of this new lawsuit has evolved subtly. The original $1.5 million claim was for breach of contract, on the basis that M.I.A.’s contract contained a clause dictating that she would not “abridge the level of wholesomeness, goodwill and reputation” enjoyed by the NFL. The basis of the new claim is different. As per The Hollywood Reporter , in addition to the already-reported $1.5 million the NFL is demanding for breach of contract, they now want “$15.1 million more in ‘restitution’ as the alleged value of public exposure she received by appearing for an approximately two minute segment during Madonna’s performance. The figure is based on what advertisers would have paid for ads during this time.”

In other words, they’re suing M.I.A. for stealing $15.1 million worth of publicity. M.I.A.’s response papers understandably brand this claim as “lack[ing] any basis in law, fact, or logic,” noting in particular that “there is, of course, no market in which performers pay to perform on television.”

In this respect, M.I.A. is entirely within her rights to call out the NFL’s hypocrisy, which she’s been quick to do — after all, say whatever you want about M.I.A., but she’s not stupid, and she’s been amusing herself for months collecting examples of the NFL’s tawdry side. Her latest arbitration papers apparently catalog all 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.” There’s plenty to catalog.

With this in mind, you have to wonder exactly what the NFL’s game is here. The obvious answer, of course, is that they hope M.I.A. will take a look at the amount of money they’re demanding and settle for a lot less. But it’s not like the league needs the money — its revenues in 2012 were $9 billion, and it’s apparently aiming for $25 billion by 2027.

Whether or not the popularity of football at a grassroots level is declining, the NFL isn’t exactly short of a dime. And if the value of the exposure that M.I.A.’s gotten from this whole thing is really their concern, they’d have been best served forgetting about it two years ago — if they’d done that, the singer’s moment of not-especially-naughtiness would be a footnote to Super Bowl XLVI, instead of an ongoing shitfight wherein every detail is reported by the press. As I wrote here last year, the court case is a perfect example of the Streisand effect.

So what’s going on? I suspect the most important thing for the NFL’s image is making sure everyone is looking while it slaps down M.I.A. It’s not her middle finger that’ll tarnish the NFL’s reputation with its support base — it’s the league failing to kick up an almighty stink about it. I suspect that if you spoke to any of the NFL’s executives off the record after a couple of beers, they’d tell you that this lawsuit is for show — that the important thing isn’t recouping cash for M.I.A.’s alleged transgressions, it’s making a show of standing up for the sort of “values” football is meant to represent.

And what values are those? As per Nielsen’s Year in Sports Media report, the NFL’s viewers are overwhelmingly white, male, affluent, and aged 35 and over. (You can compare and contrast this to some other sports for context.)

Its popularity is concentrated in the Midwest and the South, in the Rust Belt and the Bible Belt (which, incidentally, is where the vast majority of its players come from). This map covers Google searches for “college football” per capita, with darker colors meaning more searches (I couldn’t seem to find anything comparable for pro ball, but if anyone can, do let me know.)

It’s interesting to compare and contrast this to the map of red states from the 2012 election, no? (And also to this, and, um, this.)

The news that NFL fans are largely white, male, and most likely conservative isn’t really a surprise to anyone. The NFL has always been hugely popular with this demographic. And let’s be honest: this demographic isn’t particularly fond of having a middle finger waved at it by a mouthy woman of color. That, I suspect, is at the core of the NFL’s strategy here — it’s a cheap and easy way to be seen as standing up for its audience’s values. The stench of hypocrisy is pretty putrid — but then, it always is with the moral “majority.”