Two years ago, Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A. stirred up what was really only a minor controversy (at least on the Janet Jackson boob scale) by very quickly flashing a middle finger during her appearance as part of Madonna’s halftime show at the Super Bowl in Indianapolis.

The NFL was pissed, as it had every right to be. And it sued, as it had every right to do.

The problem is that the NFL won’t let the controversy die, which is stunning enough to cause one to consider whether that is even what the league desires.

The league immediately pursued the 38-year-old in arbitration, requesting $1.5 million for, according to the Hollywood Reporter, breaching her performance contract (which paid her exactly zero dollars) and “tarnishing” the NFL’s “goodwill and reputation.”

But now things are really escalating quickly, per the Hollywood Reporter:

Now the NFL has added an additional claim, seeking $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. “The claim for restitution lacks any basis in law, fact, or logic,” say M.I.A.’s response papers, filed on Friday.

The music superstar tells the arbitrator that the “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.”

Bully is the perfect word. The money here means nothing (we’re talking about a number that would account for approximately 0.15 percent of the league’s annual revenue) but the fact that M.I.A. and her people fought back has seemed to further infuriate a $10 billion business with an ego larger than most sovereign nations.

I know, they want to make sure nobody tries to attempt such shenanigans again, but the problem is that by drawing this out they’re only extending the exposure on the middle finger. Maybe that’s an “any publicity is good publicity” thing, but I think it might just be a power trip with poor tact.

M.I.A.’s laywer’s response to the arbitrator is a thing of beauty. It constructs a pretty convincing argument for a double standard based on a slew of past incidents involving potentially lewd and inappropriate acts at halftime shows, in locker rooms and on the field. Read the whole thing right here.

One snippet:

As a first example regarding NFL show performers, Michael Jackson performed in the 1993 Superbowl Halftime Show, during which he repeatedly grabbed or fondled his genitalia, especially while he sang “Billie Jean.” This was NFL’s first foray into salacious performances in their Halftime Shows. 

And another:

As another example, Prince appeared in the 2007 Superbowl Halftime Show. During part of his performance, he was illuminated against the backdrop of a billowing sheet of fabric to project a huge shadow of himself. His oversized shadow was shown caressing the neck of his stylized trademark guitar (shaped like his personal symbol signifying “the performer formerly known as Prince”), as if stroking an erect oversized phallus in a manner reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix performances where he fondled his guitar’s neck. Discovery is expected to confirm that NFL knew in advance exactly what would be presented, from pre-game rehearsal and from the stage set configuration 

And finally:

Time and time again, NFL players, coaches and team owners have been seen and heard on screen during broadcast NFL games “flipping the bird,” uttering profanities (the mildest of which is the scatological term NFL accuses Maya of mouthing), and making racist comments. Discovery from NFL broadcast archives will demonstrate the pervasive incidence of such matters. The racist comments have been so commonplace that NFL was recently reported to be considering (only now, after many years of misbehavior) the imposition of a 15 yard penalty against players who utter the “N-word” on the field.  

What I wonder is if these things cross Roger Goodell’s desk or not. Goodell seems reasonable and he has a PR background. He has to know that this battle makes the league look silly. Maybe the league just has a lawyer who is particularly determined to beat M.I.A. because this feels personal. Maybe that’s the case. But the attention isn’t worth it, so I get the feeling this straw will break the camel’s back at the league office. I’d be surprised if this didn’t disappear in the very near future. Roger Goodell has a lot more important things to worry about than a stray finger from two years ago.

[The Hollywood Reporter]

About Brad Gagnon

Brad Gagnon has been passionate about both sports and mass media since he was in diapers -- a passion that won't die until he's in them again. Based in Toronto, he's worked as a national NFL blog editor at theScore.com, a producer and writer at theScore Television Network and a host, reporter and play-by-play voice at Rogers TV. His work has also appeared at CBSSports.com, Deadspin, FoxSports.com, The Guardian, The Hockey News and elsewhere at Comeback Media, but his day gig has him covering the NFL nationally for Bleacher Report.