As part of our countdown to Super Bowl 50, SI.com is rolling out a series focusing on the overlooked, forgotten or just plain strange history of football's biggest game. From commercials to Super Bowl parties, we'll cover it all, with new stories published every week here.
They remember Justin Timberlake snatching away a swatch of Janet Jackson’s bustier and bra, then standing there for a moment, oaf-like, deserted by his customary savoir faire. They recall her covering her right breast with mortification that may or may not have been manufactured.
But people tend to forget that the contest eclipsed by Nipplegate was one of the most thrilling in the history of the Big Game. Super Bowl XXXVIII featured six scores in the fourth quarter, three in the final three minutes, with Adam Vinatieri’s 41-yard field goal with four seconds to play lifting the Patriots over the Panthers.
It is only dimly remembered, also, that the second-half kickoff was delayed by Mark Roberts, a serial streaker who had previously aired his wares at Wimbledon, the Tour de France, the Royal Ascot horse race (in full view of the Queen of England and the Prince of Wales) and—most daringly—the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain. Clad in a tear-away referee’s outfit, Roberts sneaked out of the stands at Houston’s Reliant Stadium, past security guards and onto the field, where he disrobed, then performed an Irish jig before being leveled by Patriots linebacker Matt Chatham. Magic Markered onto his back, below the words SUPER BOWEL, was the name of a gambling website, whose officials grumbled afterward that their guerilla marketing coup had been undercut by the surprise celebrity nudity immediately preceding it.
Widely forgotten is the fact that the offending boob—Jackson’s breast, not Timberlake—appeared on camera for just 9/16 of a second. While it was not completely apparent during that blink-and-you-missed-it moment, most of her areola was covered by a sun-shaped “nipple-embracer.” Neither that partial coverage nor the fleeting nature of its exposure to TV viewers (of whom there were upwards of 143 million that day) could prevent the cultural convulsions that ensued.
Likewise, many people have scant recollection of the undercard halftime scandal that preceded the Jackson-Timberlake main event. Before Timberlake’s bodice-ripping—which was supposed to remove the bustier but leave the red lace bra, a Jackson flack explained afterward—the duo was preceded on stage by, among others, Kid Rock, who treated the world to such timeless lyrics as “Bawitdaba da bang a dang diggy diggy diggy said the boogy” while clad in a kind of serape fashioned from an American flag.
Among the patriots displeased by this shoddy treatment of Old Glory was then-Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Peter Pace, a Marine Corps general who happened to be watching the show in the suite of NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue. So the commish was already out of sorts when Jim Steeg, the affable, mustachioed head of special events for the league, called to deliver the news that would make his boss’s bad day infinitely worse.
Gallery: The 10 best Super Bowl halftime shows
The 10 Best Super Bowl Halftime Shows
#10: Super Bowl XXXVIII (2004)
No one seems to recall that Jessica Simpson, Nelly, P. Diddy and Kid Rock also performed at this particular halftime show. That's because Super Bowl XXXVIII will always be remembered for Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction," when Justin Timberlake ripped off part of Jackson's outfit at the very end of "Rock Your Body" to reveal her bare breast. The incident, dubbed "Nipplegate," led to a widespread debate and a major crackdown on indecency in broadcasting. Consequently, MTV was banned from future halftime gigs and CBS absorbed a $550,000 fine.
#9: Super Bowl XXVII (1993)
The then-undisputed King of Pop moonwalked through smoke and blazing pyrotechnics, delivering a medley of hits: "Jam," "Billie Jean" and "Black or White." Surrounded by 3,500 local children (insert your own joke here), Jackson closed the set with "Heal the World." NBC aired the entire performance live, and never again would a network cut away from a halftime show.
#8: Super Bowl XXXIX (2005)
With as many famous songs as Paul McCartney has to choose from, it's pretty hard to see how this act could have gone wrong. McCartney rocked out with "Get Back" and "Live and Let Die" before bringing the entire crowd in on a sing-along for "Hey Jude." He made for a thoroughly uncontroversial and entertaining halftime show, exactly what the Super Bowl wanted after the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction of the year before.
#7: Super Bowl XL (2006)
Strutting across an enormous stage designed as a replica of the Stones' trademark tongue logo, Mick Jagger, at 62, proved that time is indeed on his side. ABC introduced a five-second delay in 2006, and censors cut lines from two of the three songs ("Start Me Up" and "Rough Justice"). "Here's one we could have done at Super Bowl I," Jagger wryly said in introducing "Satisfaction."
#6: Super Bowl XLIII (2009)
The Boss brought plenty of energy to the halftime stage and worked seamlessly between older hits like "Born to Run" and "Glory Days" and newer ones like "Working on a Dream." The great showman even gave a powerful knee slide across the stage, crashing into a cameraman. A little too much rock and roll never hurt anyone though.
#5: Super Bowl XXXV (2001)
The worlds of rock, pop and hip-hop collided in an MTV-produced extravaganza. Aerosmith headlined the show, which included Britney Spears, NSYNC, Nelly, Mary J. Blige, spectacular fireworks and constant strobe lights. The collaborative closing number ("Walk This Way") was memorable, as was Britney's silver football pants.
#4: Super Bowl XLVIII (2014)
Despite the Seahawks holding a commanding 22-0 lead at the half, a record 115.3 million viewers tuned in for Bruno Mars' performance. Mars chose three songs for his halftime show, belting out "Treasure," "Locked Out of Heaven" and "Just The Way You Are," with the Red Hot Chili Peppers joining him to perform their 1991 hit "Give It Away."
#3: Super Bowl XLVII (2013)
Mrs. Carter took the stage to perform a medley of current and past hits such as "Love on Top," "Single Ladies," and "Halo." Joining Beyoncé in her more than 12-minute set were former Destiny's Child groupmates Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams. The performance drew more than 110 million viewers, making Beyoncé's extravaganza the second-most watched Super Bowl halftime show in history (at the time).
#2: Super Bowl XLI (2007)
The artist currently known as Prince put on a royal performance. The 1980s icon launched into "Let's Go Crazy" and covered "Along The Watchtower," "Proud Mary" and the Foo Fighters' "Best Of You." Finally, he brought the house down with "Purple Rain" in a coincidental downpour. The phallic imagery caused a minor stir. It's just a guitar, people.
#1: Super Bowl XXXVI (2002)
Months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, U2 delivered a moving tribute to America and the victims of 9/11. The Irish rockers opened with "Beautiful Day," followed by the subdued "MLK" and a powerful rendition of "Where the Streets Have No Name." As the Edge played the hypnotic guitar part, the victims' names scrolled to the heavens on a towering backdrop. At the end, when Bono opened his jacket to reveal a stars-and-stripes lining, the whole stadium erupted.
Steeg, more than any other person, is the one who coaxed and dragged the Super Bowl halftime show from what it was (a saccharin, small-bore dinner theater-caliber operation; remember Up With People?) to what it is (a high-risk/high-reward 14 minutes built around a megastar who usually ends up headlining that year’s most-watched concert in the world).
It was Steeg who first sat down with Sandy Gallin, the manager of Michael Jackson, after the fiasco of the Super Bowl XXVI halftime show in 1992, a snoozefest at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome. That show, hosted by Dorothy Hamill and Brian Boitano and dubbed “Winter Magic,” got critically clobbered. In a masterstroke of counterprogramming, Fox had encouraged viewers to bail on CBS at halftime and surf over to its channel for a special edition of In Living Color. Millions did: CBS’s Nielsen rating plunged from a 42.1 to a 32.8 during that time slot. After that debacle, the league took halftime more seriously. Steeg, producer Don Mischer and others convinced the King of Pop to perform one year later at Super Bowl XXVII in Pasadena. Jackson crushed it. The final moments of that show were the most viewed in the history of television at the time.
In their different ways, points out David Hill, the former CEO of Fox Sports, two members of the same family demonstrated the vast potency and power of the Super Bowl halftime show. After Michael’s tour de force, “the entertainment world took notice,” says Hill. “All of a sudden, the managers of various acts saw that this could give them a worldwide platform unlike any other. It was an unparalleled opportunity.”
Eleven years later, the astonishing public furor over “a split-second glimpse of nipple” confirmed, Hill contends, the potency of what Americans had come to view as the nation’s “multi-generational entertainment for the year.”
Steeg, like most people watching, only saw the rogue boob upon further review. He was seated in the NFL control booth, the league’s nerve center and situation room, beside then-Director of Officiating Mike Pereira, who looked up at one point and asked, “Did you see what just happened?”
“What do you mean?” said Steeg. Pereira, who was Tivo-ing the game for replay purposes, ran back the video.
“So, probably 30 seconds after it happened, I saw the replay,” says Steeg. “The first thing I did was call down to Tagliabue”—who hadn’t seen the offending mammary; he was busy dealing with General Pace, who was still expressing his dissatisfaction with Kid Rock’s loose grasp of flag protocol.
“The next call I made was to MTV, down to their production truck,” Steeg remembers. “They hadn’t seen it. They were celebrating. In their minds, it was over, done. It went great.”
Steeg got Salli Frattini on the phone. She’d co-produced the show for MTV. Asked by Steeg if she or anyone in her crew had foreknowledge of the R-rated stunt, she replied, “Of course I didn’t.”
Jackson wasn’t around to answer questions: She was whisked away by car immediately after the show.
Frattini believes the plan was privately worked out between Timberlake, Jackson and Jackson’s wardrobe stylist. “I think Justin went along with it,” she said in 2014, “because. . . it went along with the lyrics.” Timberlake commenced with his bodice-ripping only after singing, “Better have you naked by the end of this song.”
“I don’t believe it was ever intended for her to expose anything,” adds Frattini. “I think it just didn’t work, because it wasn’t rehearsed.”
“I’m still waiting for my apology letter.”
Raymond Carver, the late American writer, famously built his short story “A Serious Talk” around a single snatch of an overheard argument: “That’s the last Christmas you’ll ever ruin for us!”
The NFL’s message to MTV in the immediate aftermath of Nipplegate: “That’s the last Super Bowl halftime you’ll ever ruin for us!”
Tagliabue was still hot under the collar five days after the game. “I didn’t like anything I saw,” he told SI. “I didn’t like the flag trashing.” The entire halftime show, in his view, had been “an outrage. It was way off the mark in terms of what we were expecting.”
He was already girding himself for his appearance, the following week, before a congressional committee intent on passing the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, designed to increase the fines and penalties for violating prohibitions against obscenity, indecency and profanity.
That’s just where we were a dozen years ago. While many Americans regarded Nipplegate as a tempest in a C-cup, others saw it as a high-profile example of the coarsening of American culture, the erosion of its morals. They were deeply offended and sought swift punishment. True, cable television already abounded with sex and profanity. But network TV remained, ideally, a redoubt safe for general audiences—so long as those audiences had no problem with frequent and graphic violence.
These defenders of decency found their champion in Michael Powell, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, who shared in a public statement that he had “gathered around the television with his family for a celebration,” only to be traumatized by this “classless, crass and deplorable stunt.”
A year earlier, Colin Powell had delivered to the United Nations Security Council a passionate—and later discredited—sales pitch for war in Iraq. Skeptics saw, in Michael Powell’s battle against naked bosoms on network television, a convenient distraction from an unpopular war going south in a hurry. (Michael Powell declined SI’s interview request). As Timberlake would later recall thinking during the post-Nipplegate maelstrom: “Wow. We still haven’t found the weapons of mass destruction, and everybody cares about this!”
Watchdog groups and morality police pointed to “the Great Uncupping,” as The New Yorker later dubbed the scandal, as proof that America was circling the drain. CBS was fined a record $550,000 by the FCC—a penalty later overturned by the less schoolmarmish Third Circuit Court of Appeals.
To ensure that no Super Bowl intermission would ever be similarly defiled, the NFL subsequently imported a series of safe and familiar old-fart ensembles, starting with Paul McCartney a year later, followed by the Rolling Stones, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen and The Who.
Of course the obscenely expensive advertisements used to move product during the game, and the cheerleaders plying their craft on the sideline, have never stopped being conspicuously boob-forward. But those breasts have never been quite so uncovered, or unscheduled, as the incident that made “Janet Jackson” the most-searched term in the history of the internet at that time, that led to the invention of YouTube, that gave rise to the expression “wardrobe malfunction.”
That phrase, now commonly applied to even the most garden variety nip-slip, was coined by Timberlake in an apology issued one week after the game. While accepting the Grammy for best male pop vocals, for “Cry Me A River,” he apologized for the Super Bowl halftime incident, describing what occurred as “unintentional.”
Jackson had also been scheduled to appear on those Grammys, as a presenter, but was uninvited by CBS, the network having been unwilling “to risk another boob-tube incident” by the “disgraced flashdancer,” according to a story on People.com. That write-up also described Timberlake as “ ‘the Teflon man,’ because the incident does not appear to be sticking to him.”
That appearance was correct. While Jackson’s career foundered in the aftermath of Nipplegate, Timberlake remained white hot. Part of that was due, no doubt, to his vast talents. And part of it was due, even he believes, to a double standard.
“I probably got 10% of the blame, and that says something about society,” he told MTV. “I think that America’s harsher on women. And I think that America is, you know, unfairly harsh on ethnic people.”