By Eric Dodds
March 18, 2014

The largest fine the National Football League has ever levied against one of its players is $100,000 (issued to Ndamukong Suh of the Detroit Lions for a brutal chop block against John Sullivan). The penalty the league is reportedly seeking from one of its Super Bowl XLVI halftime performers, M.I.A. for briefly brandishing her middle finger on live television? It’s more than 150 times that amount: $16.6 million.

If that number sounds outrageous, that’s because it is. The “breach of contact” portion ($1.5 million) has been in the news since September, but the additional $15.5 million allegedly being sought — which ostensibly represents the value in advertising dollars of M.I.A.’s screen time — that figure just reflects the jaw-dropping pettiness of the NFL.

The NFL is already the most lucrative sports league in the world, generating over $10 billion in revenue each year. $16.6 million wouldn’t even pay half of the $44 million that commissioner Roger Goodell pocketed in 2012. What the league is short on right now is good publicity — homophobia, bullying and medical neglect are just a few of the issues that the NFL has faced in recent months. A messy lawsuit isn’t likely to help matters: is there anything to gain by going after the 38-year-old singer?

But let’s get back to that figure: $16.6 million. It’s a huge, ridiculous number — and entirely without precedent. Justin Timberlake ignited the biggest Super Bowl halftime controversy in history when he ripped off a piece of clothing covering Janet Jackson’s right breast in 2004, but neither was sued by the NFL. In his 2007 Super Bowl halftime performance, Prince did everything he could to turn his guitar into a phallic object but wasn’t reprimanded (perhaps because he played “Purple Rain” in the rain with a purple guitar and it was awesome). M.I.A.’s response to the suit, obtained by the Hollywood Reporter, also cited Michael Jackson’s 1993 Super Bowl halftime performance of “Billy Jean,” during which he repeatedly grabbed his crotch. The NFL sought no damages.

If anyone is to be blamed for the millions and millions who were irreparably damaged and scandalized by seeing a raised middle finger for a split-second, NBC would be a more appropriate target. The five-second delay available to blur potentially “graphic” action wasn’t properly implemented by the network broadcasting the game. All it had to do was apologize.

Equally ridiculous is the notion that the NFL is somehow entitled to the equivalent of advertising revenue for the couple of minutes that M.I.A. was on stage. The performance, featuring Madonna, Nicki Minaj and more than a dozen dancers — not commercials — would have aired with or without M.I.A. At the very most, the league should demand restitution for the split second that the gesture was visible.

It’s also worth remembering that M.I.A. is not, unlike her headlining co-performer Madonna, worth a reported $1 billion. Though once engaged to media scion Benjamin Bronfman — son of former Warner Music Group CEO Edgar Bronfman — the two reportedly split in 2012, so the singer may not have any additional funds for a potential legal battle.

In her response to the NFL’s alleged demands, M.I.A. hit close to home, saying that the league was bullying her for “daring to challenge the NFL.” That might be the last thing that the NFL wants to hear right now — but it doesn’t mean that she’s wrong.

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