The mysterious middle finger lawsuit

M.I.A. on the lawsuit: "It’s a massive waste of time, a massive waste of money." Roger Kisby/Getty Images

In the fourth quarter of the Miami Dolphins' Week 1 win against the Cleveland Browns, Dolphins defensive tackle Randy Starks sacked Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden, turned to his own sideline and gave his team the finger.

Starks later apologized and said he was "joking around with [his] teammates." The NFL elected not to fine or punish him for the gesture, calling the incident a "team matter."

If only rapper M.I.A. had been wearing a league-issued uniform and playing in an official NFL game back when she flipped the bird in 2012; she might have gotten off just as easy. The controversial recording artist, who delivered the one-finger salute while performing with Madonna during last year's Super Bowl halftime show, claims she has been embroiled in a lawsuit with the NFL ever since.

According to records obtained by The Hollywood Reporter, the league filed for breach of contract a month after the performance, seeking $1.5 million from M.I.A. for her "offensive gesture ... in flagrant disregard for the values that form the cornerstone of the NFL brand and the Super Bowl."

According to ESPN's The File Blog, only 222 of the 111.3 million viewers watching the 2012 Super Bowl cared enough to complain to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) about either the gesture or any other aspect of the broadcast. Neither the FCC nor NBC, which televised the Super Bowl, cared to pursue legal action against M.I.A., who, as a guest of Madonna, was not paid for her part in the show, but did sign a contract with the NFL.

After months of private back-and-forth with the league, the British-Sri Lankan star decided to take the dispute public this week, arguing that her middle finger wasn't as offensive as the backup dancers in the very same halftime routine.

"They're scapegoating me into figuring out the goalposts on what is offensive in America," she said of the NFL in a YouTube video posted Monday. "Like, is my finger offensive, or is the underage black girl with her legs wide open more offensive to the family audience? That's basically what it comes down to.

"It's a massive waste of time, a massive waste of money, it's a massive display of powerful corporation d---shaking," she continued, while wearing a throwback Los Angeles Raiders sweatshirt. "They want me on my knees and say sorry so they can slap me on my wrist; basically, so they can say it's OK for me to promote being sexually exploited as a female [but not] to display female empowerment through being punk rock. That is what it boils down to, and I'm being sued for it."

Last year's one-finger salute wouldn't even make a Top 10 list of all-time controversial moves from the performer. She was denied a visa to enter the United States in 2006 after publicly supporting a militant group in Sri Lanka, and her 2010 music video, "Born Free," was yanked off of YouTube for graphic violence and full-frontal nudity.

More shocking than M.I.A.'s not-at-all-shocking middle finger is the NFL's assertion that her gesture negatively impacted "the tremendous public respect and reputation for wholesomeness enjoyed by the NFL."

M.I.A.'s lawyer, Howard King, was quick to point out the hypocrisy behind the lawsuit to The Hollywood Reporter:

"The NFL's claimed reputation for wholesomeness is hilarious," he said. "In light of the weekly felonies committed by its stars, the bounties placed by coaches on opposing players, the homophobic and racist comments uttered by its players, the complete disregard for the health of players and the premature deaths that have resulted from same, and the raping of public entities ready to sacrifice public funds to attract teams."

Just look at the past few days. On Sunday, 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith played against the Colts, just two days after being arrested for a DUI and marijuana possession. Early Monday morning, Ravens wideout Jacoby Jones was injured in a party bus incident with a champagne-bottle-wielding stripper. Around the same time, Bengals cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones was being given a disorderly conduct citation for drunkenly spewing offensive comments during a traffic stop in Cincinnati. Jones is still awaiting trial for a June charge of assaulting a woman at a nightclub.

Three high-profile NFL players were caught up in shameful situations, but the league is still focused on doing battle over a finger that was flipped some 19 months ago.

And who (besides NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, it would seem) even cares about the middle finger anymore?!

Anthropologist Desmond Morris told BBC News Magazine that giving the finger is "one of the most ancient insult gestures known" and it likely came over to the United States via Italian immigrants. (Whose descendants continue to champion its use on "The Real Housewives of New Jersey.") According to Morris the first person to be caught on camera flipping the bird was -- and this should come as no shock to sports fans -- a professional athlete. In 1886 the Boston Beaneaters' Charles "Old Hoss" Radbourn slyly directed the gesture at the rival New York Giants in a joint team photograph.

Some 127 years later, people are still worrying about the same ol' finger? C'mon, man.

A photo of Johnny Cash extending his middle finger during a San Quentin prison performance was later used as a "thank you" ad in Billboard Magazine after a 1996 Grammy Award. The iconic shot of Mike Ditka flipping the bird while walking off the field is a Chicago treasure. Heck, a 5-year-old giving the one-finger salute at a European soccer match is one of the most popular memes on the Internet.

No one cares about the middle finger anymore. It's only good for telling other drivers what you think of them when they can't hear your screams through two rolled-up windows.

And speaking of screams, if M.I.A. has her way, the NFL will be hearing a lot more of them. King told The Hollywood Reporter that the league has made the singer's life "miserable" and now they're coming out, fingers blazing.

"We encourage people to submit their examples of how the actions of the NFL, its stars, coaches, advertisers, broadcasters, team doctors and owners have damaged or destroyed any vestiges of any reputation for wholesomeness ever enjoyed by the NFL," King said.

Oh, if Old Hoss Radbourn could see us now.