By: Matthew Boyd on October 12, 2013
Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/whittlz/
The NFL sued rapper/singer M.I.A. for displaying the middle finger during her halftime performance at the 2012 Super Bowl. The league is attempting to recover over one million dollars in damages from the female musician, claiming that her “obscene actions” amounted to a breach of contract. Although there is limited public information available about the technical legal claims of the suit, the NFL’s efforts to reclaim “damages” seem to be motivated more by a desire to punish the musician than to obtain restitution for real harm.
The NFL filed this unusual lawsuit in March of 2012 but word of this suit was only recently disseminated to the public by M.I.A.’s attorney, who attempted to garner public support for his client. On February 5, 2012, the Sri-Lankan artist known as M.I.A. performed alongside Madonna in the Super Bowl XLVI halftime show and during the performance of her song “Give Me All Your Luvin,’” M.I.A. raised her middle finger and pointed it at the crowd. One month later, the NFL filed a lawsuit against the musician for breach of contract.
While M.I.A. entered into a contract a month prior to her performance, the terms of the agreement were vague at best. Specifically, the terms that were allegedly breached required the musician to “acknowledge the great value of the goodwill associated with the NFL and the tremendous public respect and reputation for wholesomeness enjoyed by the NFL” and that she must “ensure that all elements of [her] Performance, including without limitation [her] wardrobe, shall be consistent with such goodwill and reputation.”
M.I.A. argues that terms like “public respect,” “goodwill,” and “reputation for wholesomeness” should be applied judiciously when describing the NFL, whose members have often failed to promote the wholesome image that the NFL claims to be protecting. In addition to other recent transgressions which cast doubt on the NFL’s wholesome image, NFL players have made public homophobic remarks, devised reward systems for injuring fellow players, and have faced serious criminal charges for off-the-field behavior.
M.I.A. also argues that the gesture was not perceived as offensive by viewers and affiliates of the NFL. Of Super Bowl XLVI’s 111.3 million viewers, only 222 viewers, or approximately .0002% of the viewing audience, complained to the Federal Communications Commission. This includes complaints made pertaining to any part of the broadcast, not just M.I.A.’s halftime performance. Additionally, the FCC and NBC (Super Bowl XLVI’s broadcasting network) have not pursued similar claims against M.I.A.
Nonetheless, the NFL has persisted in its attempt to hold M.I.A. liable. The NFL claims that the musician’s “offensive gesture” was committed “in flagrant disregard for the values that form the cornerstone of the NFL brand and the Super Bowl.” Even though M.I.A. was not compensated for her halftime performance, the NFL is claiming $1.5 million in damages for the alleged breach.
In the event of litigation, it seems unlikely that a court would find in favor of the NFL. Actual monetary damages are an essential element that the NFL must prove before it can recover for breach of contract. Essentially, this means that in order to receive its sought after damages, the NFL must prove that M.I.A.’s breach caused identifiable monetary damages. Additionally, plaintiffs claiming breach of contract are rarely awarded punitive damages because the general goal of contract law is to return the aggrieved party to the condition that he was in before the contract was entered into. Accordingly, the NFL will have a difficult time establishing that it is entitled to recover from M.I.A. for any of the damages it claims.
Although the claim seems frivolous, the NFL continues to pursue its case, and only time will tell whether the NFL will succeed in its attempt to strong-arm the musician into settlement submission. Until then, it appears that M.I.A. will continue to defend her halftime gesture—perhaps redirecting it toward the NFL itself.
 See generally Sam Gardner, NFL’s Lawsuit vs. MIA Is Laughable, FoxSports.com (Sept. 20, 2013, 5:45 AM), http://msn.foxsports.com/nfl/story/super-bowl-XLVI-lawsuit-MIA-rapper-middle-finger-halftime-performance-hypocrisy-091913 (explaining events surrounding NFL decision to file $1.5 million lawsuit against singer for alleged breach of contract during Super Bowl performance).
 See id. (explaining that “M.I.A.’s lawyer has finally gone public with the news [of the lawsuit] in an effort to garner public support in favor of his client”).
 See Eriq Gardner, NFL Waging Secret Legal War over MIA’s Super Bowl Middle Finger, TheHollywoodReporter.com (Sept. 19, 2013, 10:20 AM), http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/nfl-waging-secret-legal-war-632282 (describing how musician MIA “extended her middle finger during a performance of ‘Give Me All Your Luvin’” during performance at Super Bowl halftime show).
 See id. (“The contract stated that she ‘acknowledge the great value of the goodwill associated with the NFL and the tremendous public respect and reputation for wholesomeness enjoyed by the NFL’ and that she ‘ensure that all elements of [her] Performance, including without limitation [her] wardrobe, shall be consistent with such goodwill and reputation.’”).
 See John Koblin, The NFL Wants $1.5M. from MIA for Flipping the Bird at the Super Bowl, Deadspin.com (Sept. 19, 2013, 2:19 PM) http://deadspin.com/the-nfl-wants-1-5-m-from-m-i-a-for-flipping-the-bird-1350062537 (reporting that MIA’s lawyer criticized NFL by stating that “[the] NFL’s claimed reputation for wholesomeness is hilarious [because] of the weekly felonies committed by its stars, the bounties placed by coaches on opposing players, the homophobic and racist comments uttered by its players, the complete disregard for the health of players and the premature deaths that have resulted from same, and the raping of public entities ready to sacrifice public funds to attract teams”); see generally Ben Phillis, NFL Players’ Anti-Gay Comments Show a League in Need of Growth, BleacherReport.com (April 4, 2013), http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1592550-nfl-players-anti-gay-comments-show-a-league-in-need-of-growth (giving two examples of NFL players making homophobic remarks to opposing players); see generally Saints Bounty Scandal, ESPN.com (Feb. 26, 2013, 3:35 PM), http://espn.go.com/nfl/topics/_/page/new-orleans-saints-bounty-scandal (reporting that “the New Orleans Saints were found to have operated a bounty system in which players were paid bonuses for, among other things, hard hits and deliberately injuring opposing players”); see generally Sexual Assault & the NFL: When Will We Stop Defending Our Athletes?, http://www.nextdoor.org/sexual-assault-nfl-stop-defending-athletes/ (last visited Sept. 29, 2013), (giving numerous examples of sexual assault allegations faced by various NFL athletes); see generally Gregg Rosenthal, Aaron Hernandez Indicted on Murder Charge, NFL.com (Aug. 23, 2013, 1:42 PM), http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap1000000232711/article/aaron-hernandez-indicted-on-murder-charge (reporting that NFL player indicted on charge of first-degree murder).
 See id. (explaining that “only 222 of the 111.3 million viewers watching the 2012 Super Bowl cared enough to complain to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) about either the gesture or any other aspect of the broadcast”).
 See Sarah Spain, The Mysterious Middle Finger Lawsuit, ESPNW, (Sept. 25, 2013) http://espn.go.com/espnw/news-commentary/article/9720980/espnw-sarah-spain-mia-nfl-mysterious-middle-finger-lawsuit (reporting that “the [NFL] filed for breach of contract . . . seeking $1.5 million from M.I.A. for her ‘offensive gesture … in flagrant disregard for the values that form the cornerstone of the NFL brand and the Super Bowl’”).