The outspoken Seahawks cornerback is taking lots of heat for his post-game comments, but the real problem is the way sports fans consume their storylines.
Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman set the social media world on fire with the way he conducted himself after Sunday’s NFC Championship victory over the San Francisco 49ers. The reactions raise some interesting questions about how we evaluate the celebrations of our professional athletes.
Sherman has never been shy, making headlines for taunting Tom Brady and for putting ESPN blowhard Skip Bayless in his place. So, when Sherman tipped a last-minute pass to a teammate for the game-sealing interception, it wasn’t surprising to see him chasing after receiver Michael Crabtree to give him an earful of ‘Boast Mode’. Naturally, a meaningless penalty flag ensued after Crabtree shoved Sherman out of his face.
Sherman might have been forgiven for these indiscretions, but what really seemed to fire up our collective hackles was his post-game ‘interview’ with sideline reporter Erin Andrews. Sherman was asked to walk the viewers through the pivotal last play, and instead launched into a brief but intense reminder that he is The Best. And much of it seemed focused on his defeated opponent Michael Crabtree and comments that Crabtree apparently made.
To many, the interview came off as disrespectful and more fitting of a professional wrestling venue than an NFL conference championship. It was uncomfortable, because he seemed almost to be yelling at a reporter who had simply asked a question. That the reporter was a smaller, blonde, Caucasian woman may be significant in the reaction.
Naturally, the Racists came out in full force, as they are wont to do when a situation would seem on some level to justify their agenda. But this one was interesting, because the Apologists also came out—arguing that you can’t judge a man by his spur-of-the-moment reaction, and – by God – this man is no idiot- he has a Stanford degree!
And it’s true, Sherman is no idiot. He has written pieces about his profession that indicate true thoughtfulness and intellect. But this only loops the circuitous flowchart of the discussion back to the starting box: If he’s so smart, then this bravado must be calculated. An act. But NFL fans tend to equate this mentality more with the Cortland Finnegans of the world: Players who are aware of their physical limitations, and who compensate with Jedi Mind Tricks. Why would a man who is intelligent and playing at the top of his game need to lower the discourse to gain an edge? And from a practical standpoint, a war of words with Crabtree made sense when the division rivals knew they would likely see one another in the postseason. But after Sunday’s game, these two will not play again this year- there is no edge to be gained. None of it quite makes sense.
Cynics suggest Sherman is marketing himself. But he’s going about it in a strange way if so. An old maxim of sports is that it’s OK to talk trash as long as you can back it up on the field. But if you can’t back it up, you have crossed a line that we as a society are not OK with. Furthermore, our most marketable athletes have always been those who show intensity on the field, but who are polite and respectful when the dust has settled.
Michael Jordan and Peyton Manning come to mind on the Marketable side. Whether PR was behind it all or not, their images have been so carefully cultivated that even fans who despised their teams couldn’t help but kind of like them. And as a result, they were everywhere.
Then there’s the case of a great champion from a different sport- Serena Williams. Arguably the greatest women’s tennis player in history, she has struggled to maintain a positive image. She has come off in post-match interviews as aloof and ungracious, and that is the biggest sin we seem to ascribe to athletes. Of course, actual racism and smokescreen allegations of racism entered the discussion with her as well. It’s true that there is racism, and it’s also true that we simply want people to seem polite.
But lack of graciousness or humility is the current cardinal sin in pro sports. Our athletes can do terrible things off the field, or show terrible sportsmanship throughout the entire game or match, as long as they are willing to bow at the Media Altar and show what we perceive as acceptable contrition. Did they apologize? Did they seem sincere enough? These are the questions we need answered, and we are relentless until they have been answered to our satisfaction. There is never a legitimate thought about the need to prevent such behavior. Because these are grown men and women! (Sorta kinda.) We are only going to punish them if they haven’t taken Steps A, B and C as we expect to see them laid out for our consumption.
This would seem to me to get to the very heart of sports and why we like it so much as a culture. We need closure. The closure of a final score, a winner and a loser. This is why soccer will only make it so far in this country. Minimal scoring? Happy about a nil-nil tie?? Truly un-American, these concepts. When we don’t get the closure we expect, we seek to justify it through our pre-existing belief construct. If you’re a racist, you are going to blame the culture. If you’re a super-tolerant treehugger, you are going to blame the media cycle and its two-dimensional court of public opinion. Any suggestion that things are more complicated than either of these ends of the spectrum simply does not compute with the sports-going public in any meaningful way. When these topics get explored, you start to hear eyeballs roll and people begin to make it clear that things like politics and social issues are NOT the reason they get interested in sports. They are looking for a diversion, and when circumstances become less-than-diversionary, it’s a problem. But maybe Sherman is just not fully developed, socially. Maybe he’s a narcissist. Maybe he’s fully aware but just doesn’t care what we think.
Back to the pro wrestling metaphor, those campy narratives simply exploited what we seek in our entertainment: a storyline that is simple enough to have a winner and a loser, a good guy and a bad guy. The original king of self-promotion, Muhammad Ali, generated this type of discussion nearly fifty years ago. Some saw him as not knowing his place, and others saw him as a groundbreaker who was challenging a ruling class that happened to be a different color. I remember in the 1980s when NY Jets linebacker Mark Gastineau was alienating everyone who wasn’t a Jets fan with his “sack dance”. It was so annoying that the NFL outlawed it. Gastineau was white, and racists didn’t like that he seemed not to be carrying himself like they felt a white person should. But the reason everyone ultimately hated him was that he just came off like a jerk, he mocked his opponents and he only seemed interested in himself. When he left the league, allegations of steroid use became his legacy as his records faded.
There are anti-Sherman stories out there today, and there are a few defenses of Sherman out there today. But this incident will fade soon enough. If you think the media is quick to jump on Richard Sherman now, just wait until his level of play drops and he starts to get burned on the field. Love him or hate him, it’s hard to deny that this man has chosen to put a media target on his back. That rarely ends well for those who have made the Icarus challenge of flaunting their refusal to indulge us in our bowtie endings.
— Photo- Elaine Thompson/AP