M.I.A.'s Super Bowl Flip-off Has NBC, NFL Pointing Fingers

MIA Finger Super Bowl 2012

The network and the league are at odds over who's to blame for the inappropriate gesture as legal options are explored.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

British rapper M.I.A.’s decision to flip the bird to more than 111 million viewers during the Super Bowl halftime show has led to some gesturing between NBC and the NFL; the network and the league released dueling statements Feb. 5, seemingly blaming the other for the singer’s errant finger during a performance of headliner Madonna’s new single “Give Me All Your Luvin’.”

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The NBC statement noted that “the NFL hired the talent and produced” the show. An NFL statement stressed a “failure in NBC’s delay system” and characterized the gesture as “completely inappropriate” and “obscene.”

Insiders say that after the game, NBC and the NFL discussed the situation at length after reporters began contacting them for comment. But the league did not give NBC a look at its statement. Sources say that NBC executives felt that the word “obscene” was over-the-top and, given the specter — however remote — of an FCC fine, rather loaded. By Feb. 6, the word had been stricken from the NFL statement sent to The Hollywood Reporter.

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A source close to M.I.A., 36, says the gesture was not premeditated, though she extends her middle finger in the song’s video. “She got caught up in the moment,” says this source. (A representative for M.I.A. declined comment.) And the performer did not make the gesture during rehearsals.

Although the NFL foots the bill to produce the pregame and halftime entertainment, the league does not pay performers; exposure to millions of viewers is its own reward. But artists do sign decency clauses, according to an NFL spokesman, who added that the league is “exploring all of our options.”

Observers say the NFL could seek damages from M.I.A. for breach of contract, but few expect it to go that far; a legal battle would bring negative publicity and a mountain of bills.

The last time the Super Bowl halftime show caused a stir was in 2004, when CBS and the FCC were flooded with complaints over Janet Jackson’s infamous nipple flash. But this time, far fewer people seem to have actually noticed M.I.A.’s fleeting finger, which was on the screen for less than a second, as it happened. Rather, it was blogs and social media that spread the word.

“We’re sorry this happened,” said an NBC spokesperson on Feb. 7, two days after the incident. “It was only on the air for two-thirds of a second. We’ve gotten very few complaints.”