• Justin Timberlake is returning to perform at the Super Bowl halftime show, which proves that time does heal all wounds (or wardrobe malfunctions).
By Jack Dickey
February 02, 2018

A version of this story appears in the Jan. 29-Feb. 5, 2018 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here.

The other night, while hosting Saturday Night Live, actor Sam Rockwell dropped a variant of a four-letter word—one of the bad ones, by four-letter word standards. It was the kind of flub that once upon a time would have scandalized the nation and sent the press into a spasm. But now that anchormen can't report on the President without dropping a variant of another four-letter word, Rockwell’s misdeed passed largely unnoticed. The following Sunday proved just another Sunday.

Super Bowl Sunday is in many ways the Sunday on the calendar least like the other Sundays. (When else are Americans excited to watch commercials and eat utility-grade pizza? ...OK, fair. When else do they throw parties to do that?) But one aspect that might have added to the hoopla has proven unexpectedly prosaic: Justin Timberlake is this year's halftime-show performer, and no one—no one with any cultural purchase, anyway—has sounded an alarm.

Six or seven years ago, at the NFL headquarters, the words “Justin Timberlake” and “Super Bowl halftime show” would have paired like “John Wilkes Booth” and “Ford’s Theatre,” so overwhelming was the uproar following the ex-Mouseketeer’s appearance with Janet Jackson at Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004. 

As Michael Silver wrote it in this magazine 14 years ago: “By halftime the Patriots led 14–10, and both the game and Jackson’s costume were up for grabs. When singing partner Justin Timberlake, in what appeared to be a planned ending to the intermission, yanked off part of Jackson's top at the conclusion of the song Rock Your Body, tens of millions of viewers saw one more body part than NFL or CBS executives would have preferred.”

SI goes to press on Mondays, so understandably Silver had no clue precisely how much needless hell was about to rain down on CBS, the NFL and all individuals involved. But the ending of that halftime show, wherein Jackson’s right breast, covered partially by a nipple shield, appeared for nine-sixteenths of a second, would prove just as indelible as Tom Brady’s performance in New England’s 32–29 win.

FROM 2016: How the aftermath of Janet Jackson’s Wardrobe Malfunction Changed the Super Bowl

For years thereafter America would live in the stupid shadow of that wardrobe malfunction, in a heyday of condemnation for so-called indecency. Jackson, as a woman, got the worst of it. She was branded as a harlot; Viacom and its subsidiaries stopped playing her songs and videos.

Nipplegate also hastened the NFL's transformation into the No Fun League and restored censoriousness to corporate broadcast media. Worse, the incident proved worthy fodder for right-wing political provocateurs like James Dobson, Brent Bozell, and Phyllis Schafly, whose airy condemnations were lent credence by then-FCC Commissioner Michael Powell. Against CBS Powell’s FCC would levy a record $550,000 fine (which was ultimately struck on appeal); he had said the Monday after the game that he and his family had “gathered around the television for a celebration. Instead, that celebration was tainted by a classless, crass and deplorable stunt.” The Super Bowl, crass and deplorable? Well, I never! 

His agency had received hundreds of thousands of complaints. But 10 years later Powell made a bracing, if ultimately unsurprising, confession to ESPN: “I think we’ve been removed from this long enough for me to tell you that I had to put my best version of outrage on that I could put on,” he said. (He went on to say that he had acted in part to protect Timberlake and Jackson from even more mob outrage, which is hard to imagine.) 

Give Powell this: He had the courage to admit it. Everyone else involved has hoped the passage of time and good-enough deeds (like inviting Timberlake back) will suffice, as far as penance goes. Jackson, though, deserves a proper apology. As, really, do we all. Perhaps one day the parties responsible will find the—what’s the word?—decency.

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