Free Speech, Lewd Cheerleaders, and a Female Finger: M.I.A.’s Battle With the NFL

Source: Thinkstock

British-Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A. has been involved in a legal battle with the NFL since flipping the bird on national television during her 2012 Super Bowl halftime performance with Madonna. After making the regular apologies for not catching the image quick enough to censor it out, it was revealed last fall that the NFL was going after M.I.A. in court over the performance, when it was reported that the organization was suing the singer for $1.5 million in damages on the grounds that she breached her contract and tarnished the organization’s reputation.

Now, according to court documents obtained by the Hollywood Reporter as well as portions of the documents tweeted by M.I.A., the NFL is seeking an additional $15.1 million in “restitution” for the value of her time on screen in 167 million households during her performance of the song “Give Me All Your Luvin’” with Madonna and rapper Nicki Minaj. The figure is based on what an advertiser would have paid for that screen time during the most-watched event on television.

The NFL has also enlisted the help of the Federal Communications Commission, which up until this point had been silent on the issue, according to a section of a document tweeted by M.I.A. on Monday. The FCC is taking action over 222 complaints received about the 2012 Super Bowl. Those complaints were seen by ESPN under a Freedom of Information Act request. While many of the complaints did relate to M.I.A.’s antics, with one person saying that the singer was “flipping off America and flipping off my family,” many of them also included the increasingly risque commercials that were featured during the game as well.

“The claim for restitution lacks any basis in law, fact, or logic,” say M.I.A.’s response papers, filed on Friday and seen by the Hollywood Reporter. “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.” Her response to the FCC, a small section of which she posted to Twitter, said that it took more than 542,000 complaints over Janet Jackson’s infamous wardrobe malfunction in 2004 for the FCC to get involved.

M.I.A. and her attorney have been defending her by establishing other examples of the NFL’s unwholesomeness, citing famous halftime performances that have had lewd behavior not criticized by the organization, such as Michael Jackson’s genitalia-grabbing and Prince’s guitar-stroking. For her part, M.I.A. has pointed out that a group of teenage cheerleaders from a local high school were commissioned by Madonna to dance in the performance of the song and performed some unmistakeably suggestive dance moves that seem to be less offensive to the NFL than the singer’s finger.

“The Show prominently features scenes of very young women dancers (possibly not even of adult age) poised in reclining positions, with their feet and hands and/or shoulders planted on the ground behind them. The women lewdly thrust their elevated pelvic areas in a manner unmistakably evocative of sexual acts (very probably qualifying as ‘indecent’ under the FCC definition), or at the very least, in a manner wholly consistent with the scenes a faire in a strip club,” M.I.A.’s response reads.

Back in September, M.I.A. posted a video of herself talking to an unknown person on the phone about the lawsuit. She referred to herself as a “scapegoat” for the NFL and pointed out that there were other equally if not more lewd images in the performance than her finger. She said the NFL is using her for ” figuring out the goal posts on what is offensive in America. Like, is my finger offensive? Or is it under-aged black girls with their legs wide open more offensive to the family audience?

“It’s a massive waste of time. It’s a massive waste of money. And a massive display of corporate dick-shaking. They want me on my knees … and to basically say it’s ok for me to promote being sexually exploited, as a female, than to display empowerment, female empowerment, through being punk rock,” M.I.A. goes on to say in the video.

It’s questionable how “punk rock” performing at the the Super Bowl could ever be, but M.I.A. has a point about the NFL’s willingness to ruthlessly pursue her in court for showing her finger while not batting an eye at the scantily clad girls doing suggestive dance moves they call cheerleaders. Asking for such an incredible sum from the singer is clearly revealing the organization’s frustration that she won’t back down and apologize per their demands.

It remains to be seen if the puritanical FCC and the court will determine that a female finger raised in a display of defiance is more offensive to the American public than the crotch-thrusts of young girls. Meanwhile, the question as to whether the American public needs a governmental body to protect us from images that have been dubbed ‘offensive’ by some remains.

More From Wall St. Cheat Sheet:

Follow Jacqueline on Twitter @Jacqui_WSCS