Raised Middle Finger Often in Middle of Controversy

A football player from the University of Tennessee raised a pair of middle fingers to the University of Alabama student section a week ago Saturday. A Michigan player offered the same twin salute to the Penn State crowd on the same night.

Their double-digit discourtesies were sophomoric in tone but historic in nature: The middle finger predates the Middle Ages. Diogenes raised his to Demosthenes in ancient Greece. The Romans had a name for the obscene insult: digitus impudicus — impudent finger.

So the finger form for F-you goes back two millennia and more. Ah, but the first known photograph of someone flipping the bird comes from American sports. That means Tennessee’s Rashaan Gaulden and Michigan’s Lavert Hill are the latest exemplars of an uncivil sporting tradition begun at least as far back as 1886 by workhorse pitcher Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn.

On opening day at New York’s Polo Grounds that year, Radbourn’s Boston Beaneaters met their National League rival New York Giants. Take a careful look at the joint team photo taken that day. There’s Radbourn in the back row, far left, with his middle finger slyly extended. It’s hard to notice at first — and then there it is. Once seen, it can’t be unseen: Old Hoss giving the ol’ middle finger to the Giants, or maybe the world, a timeless insult frozen in time.

“If Old Hoss can appear in a photograph from the 19th century,” Robert Thompson tells USA TODAY Sports, “that’s enough tradition for me to say that the middle finger is a part of the great American pastime.”

Thompson is founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University — and one of the great moments of sports TV history intersects with one of the great moments of middle finger history.

The Oakland Raiders were pummeling the Houston Oilers 34-0 at the Astrodome on Monday Night Football in 1972 when cameras panning the crowd found an unhappy Oilers fan who offered a middle-fingered hello. Color analyst Don Meredith delivered a colorful riposte: He thinks his team “is No. 1.”

“That belongs in the middle finger Hall of Fame,” Thompson says. “And we know what the trophy will look like.”

Old Hoss is in the Baseball Hall of Fame. He won a record 59 games for the Providence Grays in 1884, a couple of seasons before his hide-in-plain-sight middle finger photo. Lest you think the placement of his digit could have been some sort of benign accident, Radbourn went rogue again in 1887, when he appeared on a baseball card with hand on hip, middle finger extended.

Radbourn biographer Edward Achorn chose that image for the cover of his book Fifty-Nine in ’84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had. “He’s got this innocent expression on his face, and then he’s doing that on the side,” he says. “They airbrushed out the finger from some of the cards that were released, but the image survived.”

Achorn, editorial page editor of The Providence Journal, says Radbourn was known for a sense of humor and a taste for drink: “One of his relatives claimed he drank up to a quart of whiskey a day at the height of his career.” Now Old Hoss is sometimes better known for a single finger on his left hand than for winning 59 games in a single season with his right.

NIGHT OF SO MANY FINGERS On the same night that the Tennessee and Michigan players delivered double-barreled salutes, Kevin Durant flashed a single finger at the Memphis crowd in the closing seconds of Golden State’s loss to the Grizzlies. At first, observers saw it as a middle finger but — upon further review — it turned out he’d actually extended his ring finger, apparently as a way of saying he and his Warriors have NBA championship rings and the Grizzlies don’t.

“It’s not the middle finger,” Thompson says, “but it’s middle-finger adjacent.”

Also on the same Saturday — the night of so many fingers — Josh Jackson of the Phoenix Suns got into trouble by responding to a Los Angeles Clippers fan who’d been heckling him. Jackson appeared to aim an imaginary weapon — not a handgun, but a hand gun — at the heckler. His explanation is a classic. He hadn’t meant to simulate a gun at all.

“I kind of wanted to put up the middle finger to him,” he said, “but I didn’t do that because I felt like I was really being watched so I kind of halfway did it.”

Jackson got fined $35,000 for making “a menacing gesture” and for “inappropriate language,” since he’d also mouthed a profanity, the one so often associated with the middle finger.

The gesture, like the profanity, is obscene. Still, these days the gesture is common enough to have lost much of its original meaning. Thompson says when a middle schooler sneaks a middle finger into a photo (shades of Old Hoss) it’s meant as trickster stunt — naughtier than G-rated bunny ears but not necessarily X-rated in intent.

MIDDLE FINGER TODAY,

APOLOGY TOMORROW

Old Hoss Radbourn, top left, flips the bird in a pregame photo from 1886. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, CORBIS/VCG, VIA GETTY IMAGES

Diogenes is the Greek philosopher — and middle finger flipper — who, according to legend, carried a lamp in daylight as he searched in vain for an honest man. He wouldn’t need his lamp to find fellow flippers in the world of sports. The Internet is awash with them.

Award extra points to those who flip off their own fans. New Orleans Saints coach Mike Ditka did it at a game in 1999. New York Yankees pitcher Jack McDowell did it at a game in 1995 — and the tabloids dubbed him “The Yankee Flipper.”

Rex Ryan gave a one-finger salute to Miami Dolphins fans at a mixed martial arts event in South Florida in 2010. The New York Post gleefully ran the photo on its front page under the headline: REX-RATED.

Dolphins running backs Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in August 1972. Csonka is seated on his helmet under a goal post with a middle finger extended on his sock above the ankle. (Old Hoss would have approved.) Bad karma did not follow: That year the Dolphins went on to the only undefeated season in NFL history.

Players are by no means the only transgressors. Fans have been known to flip off opposing players, and each other. (Yes, we’re looking at you, Raiders fans.)

Double birds bedevil the Buffalo Bills. Dolphins linebacker Bryan Cox unleashed a pair before a 1993 game in Buffalo; he got fined $10,000, apparently establishing a price of $5,000 per finger. The late Bud Adams, then owner of the Tennessee Titans, aimed a pair at the Bills sideline during a 2009 game in Nashville; he got fined $250,000, or $125,000 per digit, which is a fair amount of inflation.

You might think Adams should have known better. He owned the Oilers when Dandy Dan got off his “No. 1” one-liner on Monday Night Football. Adams apologized, said he’d gotten carried away. That’s often the arc of these things: Middle finger today, apology tomorrow.

Sure enough, last week the Tennessee and Michigan college football players offered apologies for flipping off opposing crowds in anger. That raises a question: Which emotion — anger or apology — is the honest one?

We’ll leave that to Diogenes.

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