The Super Bowl LIII Halftime Debacle: What Will Be the Fallout?

My how things have changed.

The Super Bowl halftime show used to feature marching bands and harmless American cheese such as Up with People. Then the show became a high-profile global stage for big-time musicians such as Beyoncé and Bruno Mars. This year, it’s a lightning rod for controversy and an embarrassment for the NFL. 

For the Super Bowl LIII halftime show occurring February 3 in Atlanta, the NFL has struggled to find performers to land a gig so prominent that stars are usually willing to perform essentially for free. That’s because a number of musicians have staged an unofficial boycott of the halftime show to express their solidarity with embattled NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

The Colin Kaepernick Factor

In 2016, Kaepernick triggered a national culture war and a public battle with NFL owners when he took a knee during pre-game national anthems to protest oppression of people of color. He became a free agent before the 2017 season, but no team signed him. In the wake of his not being signed, he filed a collusion suit against the NFL that is expected to move forward in 2019. 

Over the past two years, Kaepernick has become transformed from an NFL star into a social activist. His public profile received a major boost when a Nike ad in September 2018 positioned him as a leader who transcends sports. And now the NFL Super Bowl halftime show has done the same although certainly not by design.

The Rihanna Factor

Normally, artists jump at the chance to perform at the halftime show, and it’s easy to see why: since 2010, Super Bowl viewership has ranged from 103 million to 114 million, giving halftime show performers a gigantic stage to promote their music and elevate their personal brands. But when the NFL approached Rihanna to appear at Super Bowl LIII, she reportedly turned down the gig to support Kaepernick. And when someone with Rihanna’s clout acts, others follow. Musicians joining the unofficial boycott include, reportedly, Cardi B, Mary J. Blige, Usher, Lauryn Hill, and Nicki Minaj. The NFL finally confirmed Maroon 5 on January 13, and then Big Boi and Travis Scott agreed to join them. By contrast, the NFL confirmed Justin Timberlake, last year’s headliner, five months before the Super Bowl.

In the days leading up to Super Bowl LIII, Big Boi, Maroon 5 and Travis Scott have faced criticism on social media and from other artists. For example, Roger Waters has challenged Maroon 5 to take a knee onstage as Colin Kaepernick did before the national anthem. T.I. has called Travis Scott selfish for agreeing to perform. Black Twitter has spoken out as well. The show has now become a racially charged PR fiasco for the NFL, an especially embarrassing situation given Atlanta’s prominence as a burgeoning hip-hop center and its reputation as the black mecca of the United States. 

Two Big Questions

In the aftermath of the media storm surrounding the controversy, two questions remain:

  • Will all the drama hurt Big Boi, Maroon 5, and Travis Scott? Yes and no. They’ve lost credibility with other musicians for crossing the unofficial boycott line. But fans are another story. An artist has to try really hard to alienate their fans to the point where they stop buying their music. If anything, the media exposure will help Maroon 5 and Travis Scott sell more tickets for their tours, which are in progress. Big Boi just released two new songs in advance of the Super Bowl. He’s banking on the controversy to help him.
  • Will the NFL be affected? Not on Super Bowl Sunday. Fans are not going to boycott the game because of the halftime show. But it says something that musicians were willing to skip a show that should have been a no-brainer decision to do. The NFL can be wounded (especially when Rihanna wields the sword). The unofficial boycott has called attention to Colin Kaepernick and the national anthem controversy just when it seemed as though the issue had become dormant. The NFL would prefer that the Super Bowl buzz focus on football, not on racial injustice. But the artists have stolen the narrative. They have collective power that they could exercise in other ways in the future, such as turning down Super Bowl ad spots.

Meanwhile, the halftime show mess has probably helped the man at the center of the boycott, Colin Kaepernick, by keeping his name in circulation as his grievance against the NFL goes to trial. The graphic below shows the volume of searches for Colin Kaepernick in the United States within the past month. Searches for his name spiked on January 16 when a story broke about Travis Scott reportedly meeting with Kaepernick before Scott joined the halftime show lineup. Interest is climbing again on the eve of the Super Bowl.

I doubt that Colin Kaepernick’s protests have had any impact on NFL viewership. NFL fans, like music fans, are very good at compartmentalizing. Viewership ratings have dipped and then increased over the past few years, and the quality of the play on the field has made the difference. But Colin Kaepernick never said he was protesting the NFL when he took a knee. He was, and is, calling attention to oppression of people of color in the United States. He has succeeded. Musicians have helped him keep the conversation about racial injustice in the public eye. And this conversation is bigger than the Super Bowl.

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