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Artists Fear Impact of NFL's $1.5 Million M.I.A. Battle

The secret legal war over the Super Bowl middle finger sends can't-miss message from the league: Behave or pay.

NFL MIA Bird Flip - P 2013
The singer is refusing to pay $1.5 million.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. 

Attention pop stars: Don't disrespect the Super Bowl. The NFL has been waging a quiet 18-month arbitration battle to extract a public apology and $1.5 million from M.I.A. over the rapper-singer's middle-finger flip at the 2012 Super Bowl halftime show.

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The strategy, revealed Sept. 20 by THR.com, reminds performers that transgressions of the league's morals clause won't be tolerated by commissioner Roger Goodell, say observers. It appears to be working. If the "Paper Planes" artist has to fork over the money, which an NFL spokesman says would be donated to charity, "it will send a message that everyone will have to be more aware and more cautious," says Johnny Wright, who manages Justin Timberlake.

The NFL took control of halftime after Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" in 2004 spurred the FCC to levy a record $550,000 fine against CBS (since vacated). In a March 2012 legal filing, the league characterized M.I.A.'s gesture during Madonna's "Give Me All Your Luvin' " as a "disregard for the values that form the cornerstone of the NFL brand."

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But Howard King, M.I.A.'s attorney, takes issue with the league's assertion of "wholesomeness … in light of the weekly felonies committed by its stars." Still, some in the music community say artists are aware of the expectations of the most watched musical performance of the year. "Either follow their restrictions or don't perform," says Charlie Walk, executive vp of Republic Records, whose roster includes Drake and Nicki Minaj. "Everyone knows the rules when they sign up."