Richard Sherman did a very Richard Sherman thing when followed one of the defining plays of the 2013 NFL season with an excited, adrenaline-fueled proclamation of his own greatness. His athletic touchdown-saving tip ended the NFC Championship, securing a Super Bowl berth for the Seahawks and ending the 49ers’ season. It was an incredible play that will be talked about for a long time, but any mention of it will no doubt be followed by a long debate about his post game interview.
The reaction to his interview was immediate, and complicated. Criticism poured in from all sides; football fans, ordinary people, fellow athletes and celebrities gave opinions on his rant, many of them on Twitter. Some were overtly racist, while others used colloquialisms (thug etc.) to assert codified racism without using the n-word. However, a study came out showing that the response was basically 50/50, and there were as many people on Twitter applauding the cornerback as there were criticizing him.
Sports blogs (and other sites not normally used to sports topics) were soon packed with posts, most of them defending Sherman and lambasting his attackers. Many posts addressed the issue of his race, and some went so far as to claim that the mere fact of his race made his success and subsequent celebration a subject of public derision. His defenders were quick to cite his upbringing in Compton, his GPA at school and at Stanford and his charity work as evidence that he was the farthest thing from a thug. Others said that his candor was refreshing, and we should not expect athletes playing a sport as violent as football to restrain themselves at all times.
As I watched the interview on Sunday, I felt no surprise at what I was hearing, but I was also annoyed. Lost in the discussion of Sherman’s off the field activities, past and race is the mere fact of what he said. Having an excited moment and proclaiming your greatness to the world isn’t wrong; it was the way he did it that I found obnoxious and, frankly, pathetic:
“I’m the best corner in the game, when you come try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that’s the result you going to get.”
This quote came immediately after he made a ‘choking’ gesture towards 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. It wasn’t his assumption of the title of greatest corner in the game -there are very few people who could challenge him on that point- as much as his compulsion to couch that claim in an insult that bothered me.
Richard Sherman has the right to say anything he wants when in front of a mic. Anyone who posted, tweeted or said anything racist about him should be absolutely ashamed of themselves. However, I still hold that many people, myself included, simply took issue with the insults. They felt wholly unnecessary, particularly after a play of that magnitude. As the aforementioned Emory study showed, there are plenty who disagree with me, and found his words thrilling and refreshing. I personally dislike almost all pre-and post-game interviews for the endless platitudes that they typically contain, and I can understand someone preferring Sherman’s breathless excitement.
I have been an athlete in some form for most of my life. I have, on occasion, beaten opponents with skill and luck, and, more often, I have myself been overpowered and come out the loser. Never in any sport I played would directly insulting a team or competitor I had just bested be considered ‘right’. I am certainly not alone in this. Anyone who has played any kind of sport, no matter how serious, is aware of this aspect of sportsmanship.
Many Seahawks fans compared Sherman to Muhammad Ali, who would often verbally jab at his opponents and detractors before and after fights. I can see the comparison on a superficial level, but it starts to lose legitimacy when you consider that the game on Sunday was the NFC Championship between the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers, not Sherman v. Crabtree. Sherman’s remarks, when compared with Ali’s greatest speeches, were reductive and did not acknowledge his or the other team, or the greater context of the game itself. Sherman admitted as much himself the next day.
The idea that his interview is somehow something we should rally around, that fans genuinely want more candor from athletes is ridiculous. Earlier this season, Jonathan Martin was candid and spoke his mind and was roundly criticized as ‘weak’ by many football fans. Equally ridiculous is the claim that we should feel okay with Sherman’s brazen insults because football is violent, and that a more open, verbal expression of this violence should be welcomed. Many defended Richie Incognito’s criminal harassment of Martin with a similar argument, stating that the violent nature of football made Incognito’s actions ‘necessary’. Maybe I am giving it too much credit, but part of the value of sportsmanship is to limit the ugly externalities of this violence. Discouraging insults both in front of the press and in the locker room prevents emotions from manifesting in ugly ways and keeps a football game from erupting in a dangerous brawl.
Since his arrival in the NFL, Sherman has gone out of his way to raise himself to the status of superstar. He has done this, first and foremost, by working to become arguably the best at his position. He has supplemented his work with a highly-cultivated persona, known for his propensity for speaking out. This was documented in Sports Illustrated earlier this year. He has reaped the benefits; he appeared in two different commercials which ran during the NFC Championship, one for Nike shoes and the other for Dr. Dre’s Beats headphones. An NFL cornerback is not a ‘hot’ position (indeed, part of why Sherman is so good is how little the receivers he guards are thrown to, meaning his actual in-game camera time is negligible), and outbursts like his post game interview on Sunday help his persona grow beyond this limitation. Obviously Sherman could not have calculated the level of controversy that would surround his words, nor imagined the shameful, racist attacks that would be directed at him, but it made him a household name. His rant, however genuine, was just one piece of a constructed persona, one which Sherman is largely benefitting from. All the responses and the responses to the responses have added to this.
Sherman’s persona is abrasive in the extreme, and his defensive style relies on physically harassing receivers. People have a right to dislike what Sherman said and the way he plays, and that dislike should not inherently viewed as racist or ignorant.