Why Infamous 2004 Super Bowl Halftime Show Damaged NFL in China

The Chinese were offended by something that had nothing to do with Janet Jackson

Why the Infamous 2004 Super Bowl Halftime Show Ruined the NFL in China
ESPY host Justin Timberlake stands in front of a video of himself and Janet Jackson (Kevin Winter/Getty)
Getty Images

In America, the sight of Janet Jackson’s exposed breast during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show led to outrage, sanctions and the creation of YouTube.

Though it was likely overlooked by nearly everyone in the U.S., there was another image which was broadcast during that show that offended even more people: a photo of Tiananmen Square.

Beamed out to football fans around the world — including potentially as many as 300 million Chinese viewers watching on CCTV — the shot of a single individual standing in front of tanks leaving Tiananmen Square after the 1989 protests in Beijing was included in a minute-long montage aired that was meant to be a tribute to freedom, according to The Wall Street Journal

Since that image had been scrubbed from state-run media and television, it was shocking for Chinese audiences to see it and had the potential to be very damaging to the NFL’s reputation and presence in China. This was a full-blown international incident — just like what is happening now with the NBA — but it was never treated as such in the U.S. because the controversy about Jackson was dominating headlines.

Apologies were made, but CCTV dropped its NFL coverage anyway and football was carried by a separate broadcaster in Shanghai that had far less national reach.

Now, 15 years later, NFL games are widely available in China and some are shown on screens in Shanghai’s subway stations as well as available for streaming online. Were it not for the second-most controversial part of the ’04 Super Bowl show, the league would probably be much further along in what commissioner Roger Goodell recently said was a “priority market.”

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