I tried. I really tried. Since last night I’ve tried to not engage in the discussion of Richard Sherman’s behavior and comments at the end of the game. I was disappointed in his actions. Then I started reading commentary on Twitter and the nonsense wouldn’t stop. I’m hopeful that this was mostly smart people commenting and responding to comments after too many adult beverages. Then this morning more nonsensical, short sighted “analysis” kept popping up. Then I read this piece defending Sherman and dismissing his critics. We need to think more complexly about many things and avoid the kind of either/or binary thinking that comes so easy in our self-righteousness and efforts to prove how smart we are by taking others down. The five myths and five facts may seem like they are about Sherman but they are mostly about the the criticism of him and the criticism of those critics. There is also a sixth fact about me.
Fact #1 Richard Sherman made a great play. He made a victory sealing, loss preventing, take my team to the Super Bowl play. Great play.
Myth #1 “He was just being loud and emotional.”
If only. After making this play and sealing the victory, he chased down the wide receiver, Michael Crabtree, who was walking away to slap him on his butt and yelled in his face something and then put his hands down clearly hoping to provoke a reaction and draw a penalty. Crabtree pushed Sherman’s face away and the officials called the penalty on Sherman anyway. Sherman then chased down one of the opponents offensive linemen and made a two handed choking gesture six inches from his face. Then in the post-game interviews he called Crabtree a “sorry receiver” and “mediocre at best.” This behavior is classless.
Fact #2 Race is at play in the analysis of this.
Words like “thug” and “ghetto” are coded racist terms. Honestly, they are not even really coded. I’ve not seen anyone use the terms “thug” or “ghetto,” although I am sure some have. [UDPATE here is a link to a series of awfully racist Tweets and a piece by Dave Zirin on race bating] We live in a racist society. Just because some criticism of Sherman is grounded in a racist context, that doesn’t nullify any and all criticism. For White people like me, that means not being silent out of fear of displaying our own racism. Race is clearly at play in my own analysis of Sherman. I’m trying to be aware of how it is at play as best as I can, AND I am sure it is at play in ways that I am not aware. I’d love other’s thoughts on how this might be playing out.
Myth # 2 “Seattle is classless.”
Many Seattle players and coaches behaved in an exemplary manner in victory. Sherman’s behavior doesn’t define the character of an entire team or an entire city. Similarly, John Harbaugh’s boorish behavior in this game and in others doesn’t define the entire 49ers team or the city of San Francisco.
Fact #3 “Trash talk is part of the game.”
But that’s not what we are talking about here. It is one thing to talk trash back and forth during the game. It is an entirely different thing to try and provoke your opponent after you have sealed a win. It is also entirely different to call your opponent “sorry” and “mediocre at best” in victory. It is entirely different to chase people down and make choking gestures 6 inches from their face after they have just lost the game.
Myth #3 “We want athletes to be authentic but when they are we crush them.”
This is a favorite among sportswriters. It’s true that athletes who say exactly what is on their mind make sportswriters jobs easier, especially if it is controversial or provocative. This does not mean that we need to affirm and excuse any comments. It also doesn’t mean that criticism is out of bounds. Sherman has a constitutional right to say what he said. Others have a constitutional right to criticize. Also, I believe that the genuine and authentic Richard Sherman has more to him than this. [UPDATE Richard Sherman seems to think so too]
Fact #4 Football is violent.
A player did obviously shatter his knee in this game. Other players were clearly concussed and several players will have life long repercussions as a result of the violence in this single 60 minute game. This deserves critique and analysis. Chris Klewe pointed this out via Twitter during the game and the response shows just how unwilling we are to examine this violence for the entertainment of millions and profit for a small few and it’s impact on players for the rest of their lives. AND this fact does not justify any and all behavior.
Myth 4 “It is just a game.”
Nope. Nope. Nope. When my friends get together and play football in the local park, that is just a game. This is a nationally televised event with tremendous influence on our culture (and not just children). We may wish the actions and comments of professional athletes didn’t influence our culture, but they do. Some of them may not want nor deserve to be role models, but they are. Sport is a powerful influencer in our culture, whether we like it or not. Sport has the ability to bring us together and divide us. Sport has the power to foster social change or move us backward. There is nothing magically good or bad about sport but their is good AND bad in sport and it’s influence on our culture.
Myth #5 “Sherman went to Stanford so he is smarter than you.”
I have no worldly idea how smart or not smart Sherman is. But to say that he went to and graduated from Stanford and that this mere fact is an accurate arbiter of intelligence is academic elitism.
Fact #5 This has nothing to do with Sherman’s intelligence.
He may indeed by incredibly intelligent and perhaps even thoughtful and compassionate. That doesn’t make him immune from responsibility for how he responded in victory in this incidence.
Bonus Fact #6 I’m disappointed in me.
I’m disappointed that on the day we celebrate Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s life and influence on this country and the world, that I have spent so much time reflecting on this. I’m also mindful that on this day I, as a White person spent so much time reflecting on the criticism of a Black man and the criticism of his critics. I’ll try and do better.
The statement about academic elitism is completely wrong. I know its hard to accept if you don want to agree with the admissions criteria that accompany the status of schools, but simply based on the ratio of applicants to admitted students the credibility of the faculty, and the academic requirements expected of the students, one can safely infer that graduates of Stanford are smarter than most people. To call that academic elitism is academic elitism in the form of jealousy.
Don’t be so tough on yourself, Keith (Bonus fact). What you did with this piece is what Dr. King was talking about in action. I think MLK considered kindness, compassion and the Golden Rule to trump race discussions. We all must hold each other to a higher standard if we want to rise above the darker sides of our natures, and I think that might be why examining this topic felt uncomfortable. Since when is there any excuse for such lack of empathy and grace delivered via poor sportsmanship. There’s truth in the fact that this is a violent sport so we ought to expect this behavior. In a way, it’s more hypocritical to support the violence of football, looking the other way at all of the negative and very real outcomes, cause we selfishly just don’t want to to let go of such a fun game and integral part of our American culture. Besides, if we question football, for God’s sake, what’s next? It’s more fun to have a beer and get caught up in the game than ruin it with realism. I appreciate your thoughts and the spirit.
Thanks Virginia. This reminds me of how easy it is for those of us with privilege to choose the path of least resistance. Just as in the Matrix, would you choose the blue pill or the red pill?
I appreciate the sentiments, but PLEASE have someone proof read your posts. The grammar and spelling is embarrassing.
Thanks for the reminder. I was indeed in a hurry to get this out and didn’t have a chance to have anyone else look it over. I made some changes along with updates with new links and articles since I first published this.
Keith, I want to second Virginia. I offer that these types of discussions — around masculinity, race, our expectations and prejudice against of men of color — are the exact types of conversations MLK, Jr. would want us to be having. To say that you don’t know why you are spending time thinking about it, is to point out the fact that by being a White male, you don’t have to think about it. You can choose to think about what the intersection may be between Sherman’s race and the critiques that have been shared in the past couple days.
I also want to address your idea of trash talk. Something that has frustrated me most in many of the critiques I have read is the idea that his comments are not acceptable trash talk. I think about the things I can see folks say during games, I could buy a round for the bars if I had a dollar for every four letter word we see but don’t hear in an NFL (and really any) game. Also, you say that during the game is fine, but after the game is not okay? What is your rational to that idea? Yes, we saw what appeared to be Sherman goading Crabtree, but are we certain? Sherman claims that Crabtree escalated their after game interactions. Three sides to every story.
And because I am curious, what makes Sherman’s moment different from other victory speeches? What makes him different from Ali’s remarks (which has been referenced by several folks online) about “being the greatest”, or Brandi Chastain taking off her jersey after her epic goal in 1999? In fact, what makes his remarks different from raucous fans cheering in bars? Whooping and hollering, waving goodbye to Niners fans as they leave? I would offer that if you feel these are okay, that they are in fact acceptable examples of “trash talking”, then our critique of Sherman is nothing but a reflection on America views Black men. We saw a Black man express aggression and passion on a tv screen, and we freaked.
Thanks for the comments Julie. To your 2 questions – for me there is a difference between trash talk in the game to gain an advantage either by pumping yourself up or getting in your opponents head. I’m also not bothered by cursing. It also isn’t about Sherman being loud or claiming he is the best cornerback in the game. He’s arguably right about that. For me, it crosses the boundary of winning with class to denigrate and belittle an opponent after you have won. The examples you gave were folks celebrating their victories, but they didn’t denigrate their opponents in victory. Brandi Chastain didn’t say the other team was terrible and didn’t deserve to be on the field with them. Ali regularly praised his opponents after the fight in victory and in defeat. That’s the difference for me.