It’s a gesture almost as old as the oldest profession.
The one-finger salute. The flip of the bird.
Somewhere every day, it rises from closed fists on crowded highways, or playgrounds, or even offices.
But when Johnny Manziel does it before a national audience on ESPN’s Monday Night Football, it’s as if the Browns’ rookie quarterback invented the obscene gesture.
It came with about two minutes left in the third quarter, and ESPN’s camera clearly caught it. The game was the network’s second highest-ever-watched preseason game and fans everywhere got the shot in an otherwise dismal performance by Manziel and the Browns.
“I should’ve been smarter. It was a Monday Night Football game. The cameras were probably solidly on me, so I just need to be smarter about that,” Manziel told reporters.
So it seems, Manziel’s finger was everywhere Tuesday. But he’s only the latest to make the gesture famous.
Indeed, some research suggests use of the middle finger dates back to ancient Greek times where a fictional character gives Socrates the finger. Its use is also noted in the times of the Roman Empire and remained in vogue with the Pilgrims’ visit to the U.S.
One of its earliest documented use in the United States came in an 1890 Boston Beaneaters team photo in which “Old Hoss” Radbourn subtly extends his finger. He did it again years later in a baseball card for Old Judge Tobacco.
Billy Martin, the ornery baseball manager, struck a similar pose in his 1972 Topps baseball card. In fact, a large number of athletes have been fined or suspended over the years for using the gesture toward rowdy fans or opposing players.
Nowadays, the middle finger is as common on social media as back-to-school photos of your neighbor’s kid or the latest video featuring the Ice Bucket Challenge.
In fact, Manziel’s flip isn’t even tops when it comes to the NFL.
That distinction belongs to the singer M.I.A., who gave a finger during her performance in the 2012 Super Bowl in Indianapolis.
The league is still seeking millions of dollars in restitution.
M.I.A. was criticized just as much for her lack of originality as she was for the obscene nature of her flip during a family-oriented TV event. It has become cliche for rock singers and Hollywood types to flip the bird during appearances or performances.
Popular memes showing young kids striking the pose have flooded Facebook pages for years. Of course, there’s a whole website devoted to the subject called TheMiddleFinger.com.
Former President George W. Bush once playfully gave the salute while preparing to record a statement as governor of Texas. Nelson Rockefeller made news in 1976 when he flipped the bird to hippie hecklers.
In Ohio, a man being executed in Lucasville for killing his three sons gave the finger to family members and other witnesses in the death house.
To some, the popularity of the gesture and its use in media is another example of the growing “culture of disrespect” that Dr. David Walsh, a psychologist who has studied popular media, coined more than a decade ago.
Still, all around social media, on websites everywhere, everyone Tuesday was focused on the glimpse of a finger a frustrated Manziel gave to the Washington Redskins’ heckling bench.
The #JohnnyMiddleFinger and other similar hashtags blew up on Twitter, some in defense of the Browns’ rock-star rookie. Some thought it funny, others shamed him for his breach of sportsmanship and etiquette in a barbaric game.
Many fans with a DVR rewound the broadcast and stopped on Manziel’s gesture. They then used their phones to snap a picture of the TV screen and instantly put it on Twitter and elsewhere.
A short time later during the game, a Browns PR person was seen speaking to Manziel on the sideline. Afterward, Manziel rubs his face in apparent angst in what many assumed was him learning of his finger’s fame.
On Tuesday, ESPN.com took a poll on the issue and almost 250,000 people responded. Only 32 percent thought it was a “big deal.” Others thought it small or not an issue at all.