Etiquette is a tourniquet. Applied lightly it can save your skin, too tightly it'll kill you, as Jim Harbaugh discovered Sunday, when the Niners coach overdid the postgame pleasantries with Lions coach Jim Schwartz and turned the handshake into a hostile act.
Indira Gandhi said you can't shake hands with a clenched fist, but that's what the handshake often is in sports, a screw-you posing as a howdy-do.
Such was the case in another postgame handshake line this month, when a high school football player in Ohio concealed a tack in his glove and pricked the palms of 27 opponents, all of whom required tetanus shots.
The same weekend, in the English Premier League, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger -- having just lost to archrival Tottenham Hotspur -- shook the hand of opposing manager Harry Redknapp, and the hand of Redknapp's assistant manager, but not the hand of a third coach, Clive Allen, who extended his in the manner of a man sticking up a bank teller. "He refused to shake my hand," Allen said afterward, to which Wenger replied: "I shook the hand of the manager and the assistant manager. How many hands do I have to shake? Is there a prescription?"
And he has a point. Even a politician on a rope line, or a churchgoer at the sign of peace, has to stop shaking hands at some point. But a football coach -- photographers backpedaling all around him -- can't leave his colleague hanging. He is required to have that shotgun hand-wedding at midfield, sometimes without breaking stride or making eye contact. Two people shaking hands at full stride without seeing one another is harder than it looks -- a remarkable bit of magic, really, the very definition of sleight-of-hand. Siegrifed & Roy have nothing on Belichick & Mangini.
Meant to express mutual respect, the handshake often serves as a deliberate provocation, an act of mutual disrespect. My father used to give me what he called "the Knuckle Floater," rolling my knuckles around in his palm as if they were a handful of Chinese stress balls. As with the concealed thumbtack, or the novelty joy buzzer, the knuckle floater was always more fun for the handshaker than the handshakee.
The same is true of the Harbaugh Handslap, as Harbaugh readily acknowledged. Slapping Schwartz's hand, then slapping Schwartz's back, was irrationally exuberant and violated a longstanding custom in sports, which requires the winning coach -- before shaking hands with his vanquished counterpart -- to abruptly recompose his face into a grim mask of sobriety.
But Harbaugh conscripting Schwartz into his celebration was at least more honest -- and less obsequious -- than the handshake common to basketball coaches. In college basketball, the victor places his left hand on the loser's right shoulder, then pumps his other hand for 20 seconds, as if it's attached to a slot machine full of silver dollars, while delivering a patronizing monologue about how hard your kids played and how well-prepared they were. The losing coach is required to nod appreciatively while gently and futilely trying to ease his hand from the bear trap.
It's all for show, of course, but then most public handshakes are. To that list of historic hand summits -- Arafat-Rabin, Reagan-Gorbachev, Noll-Coryell -- we must now add Harbaugh-Schwartz, which sounds like an act of Congress, and perhaps it should be, for no one knows better than a congressman how to shake hands without sincerity for the benefit of a camera.
Fullham manager Mark Hughes thought the frosty postgame handshake he received last February from Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini lacked "sincerity," adding: "I just didn't think Roberto acknowledged the efforts of my team and how well we'd done by the way he offered his hand."
Presumably, a firm handshake and solid eye contact would have conveyed the proper respect, except that the writer and radio quizmaster Clifton Fadiman believed that just the opposite was true. He wrote, "Experience teaches you that the man who looks you straight in the eye, particularly if he adds a firm handshake, is hiding something."
He too has a point, and that's the trouble with the handshake. A vise grip, a wet fish, a bear trap, a hand slap, eye contact, no eye contact, failing to break stride, lingering too long -- just about anything can ruin it. The handshake has become Goldilocks' bed: Too soft, too hard, seldom just right.
Nor is it healthy. What once conveyed civility now principally conveys germs. Only a man with a death wish or an ownership stake in Purell would shake the hand that shook the hand of P.T. Barnum and Charlie Chan.
Still, for all that, the handshake remains the best way we have of saying, "I may not like you, I may not trust you, but I'm willing to press my palm to yours in a meaningless expression of mutual palm-pressing." It's all that separates us from the beasts -- or those beasts without opposable thumbs.