DECENCY BIAS - Sports Illustrated Vault |
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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 a flub that once would have 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, it 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. 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, 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 after Timberlake's appearance with Janet Jackson at Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004, which MICHAEL SILVER DOCUMENTED in this magazine. SI goes to press on Mondays, so Silver had no clue how much needless hell was about to rain down. 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.

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 a harlot. Viacom and its subsidiaries stopped playing her songs.

Nipplegate hastened the NFL's transformation into the No Fun League and restored censoriousness to corporate broadcast media. The incident proved fodder for right-wing provocateurs, whose condemnations were lent credence by then FCC commissioner Michael Powell. The FCC levied a $550,000 fine, then a record for TV, against CBS. Powell said then that 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! In 2014, Powell confessed to ESPN: "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."

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. Perhaps one day the parties responsible will find the—what's the word?—decency.