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Sunday, January 26, 2014

Richard Sherman: Sportsmanship, Race and Image

We are now a week removed from the NFC Championship between Seattle and San Francisco.  The Seahawks won by a score of 23-17, but all anyone was talking about on Monday morning was Richard Sherman and his extraordinary post game "interview" with Erin Andrews.  I know that I'm a little late on writing a post about this.  However, unlike sideline reporters, I do not believe that instant reaction is the best reaction.

A quick recap.  The Seahawks beat the Forty Niners by a score of 23-17 to advance to the Super Bowl.  The win was sealed when Richard Sherman deflected a fade pass in the endzone away from Michael Crabtree and into the hands of his Seahawk teammate for an interception.  Sherman celebrated his great play by getting in Crabtree's face, patting Crabtree on the butt and flashing the choke sign at Colin Kaepernick.  Crabtree responded to all this with a shove to Sherman's face.  Moments later, FOX's Erin Andrews put a mic in Sherman's face.  A WWE-quality rant followed.

Actions speak louder than words.  Sherman was pretty loud in his chat with Erin Andrews, but that adage remains true in relation to the final moments of the NFC Championship game.  Sherman's words drew a lot of attention.  And understandably so.  They were surprising and unexpected, and they were easy for the mainstream media to latch onto.  They were the kind of thing that was easy for a casual fan to discuss at the water cooler on Monday even if they had not watched the game.  But, for most serious sports fans, Richard Sherman's rant was extremely entertaining and not at all offensive.  If you know anything at all about Richard Sherman then you know that he talks like this before, during and after almost every game.

What Sherman actually said on camera was not gracious, and it was not nice.  Sherman dislikes Michael Crabtree, and he told the whole world about his opinion of their relative skill sets.  But, Sherman did so without any profanity.  And he didn't engage in the kind of bizarre race-baiting that Ali engaged in against Frazier.  And, what Sherman said was nothing nearly as abhorrent as Mike Tyson's "eat your children" speech.  Sherman's rant in Erin Andrew's mic was adrenaline-driven, self-aggrandizement.  Nothing more.  And nothing unusual for Sherman.

What I disliked about Sherman's behavior at the end of the game was the way he treated his opponent.  The way that Sherman behaved towards Crabtree and especially towards Kaepernick showed a complete lack of class.  And, don't give me any word-mincing garbage about the words that Sherman actually uttered towards Crabtree.  Context is everything.  Sherman's antics were a terrible display of sportsmanship.  And, make no mistake about it, sportsmanship is not a racial issue.  When I think of sportsmanship and class on the field, the first two names that come to mind are Walter Payton and Emmett Smith ... both were African-Americans and both stood in stark contrast to the bombastic behavior of their Super Bowl-winning teammates.

Richard Sherman's image is no accident.  Richard Sherman is a very bright guy.  He was salutatorian of his high school class in 2006.  Then he chose to attend Stanford University rather than local power USC.  Sherman earned his undergraduate degree in communications from Stanford before his senior year and ultimately earned his masters degree.  The man can speak the king's English and has an impressive vocabulary.  And yet, Sherman has chosen to look like Lil Wayne and rant like a pro wrestler on the mic.  And, that image has served him well.  After all, clean cut, quiet guys like Russell Wilson don't get to be the star of Beats by Dre ads.

Lil Wayne ... pre hair cut
I wouldn't be afraid of sitting next to Richard Sherman on a subway any more than I'd be afraid to sit next to The Undertaker.  They both play characters.  Their real lives are likely very much divorced from the persona they have adopted in the public.  But, Sherman has chosen his image on purpose.  And it is entirely appropriate for football fans (and their parents) to dislike the image Richard Sherman has chosen and crafted.

Contrast makes sports great.  Part of the fun of being a sports fan is choosing sides.  And part of the fun of that choice is picking an image and ideal that you want to get behind.  That dichotomy is why the Miracle on Ice was so enjoyable for Americans.  It is also the reason that the 1987 Fiesta Bowl between Penn State and Miami is still worthy of discussion in books written twenty-five years later.  Rooting for Dale Junior is much more fun with a guy like Kyle Busch around taunting fans with a bow after his wins.  People were excited to see the upstart Arizona Diamondbacks knock off the New York Yankees in the 2011 World Series because it was a fun story to root for.

Sherman's angry celebration (Elaine Thompson/AP)
The list goes on and on.  But, these aren't frivolous and silly alignments.  These alignments are ways to vicariously identify ourselves with people on a big stage.  And our sports allegiances are a way to teach our children about real life values.  Children draw a lot of conclusions about life based on who their role models root for.  I know that I did.  I remember how my father reacted to Reggie Miller's choke sign in Madison Square Garden.  Class and sportsmanship mattered in my family.  And lest anyone think this is a race-driven issue for me, one of my earliest sports memories was my father and grandfather being outraged that the bombastic Fridge was allowed to score a touchdown in Super Bowl XX instead of allowing the long-suffering and classy Walter Payton to score in the big game.

Conclusion.  Richard Sherman is a worthy role model in many respects.  He escaped his horrific Compton roots.  He never broke the law.  He got a great education and earned a graduate degree at a prestigious university.  But, now that Sherman is on the biggest stage, he has purposely chosen the image of a brash and arrogant egotist.  Sherman is not a criminal.  He is not a thug.  But, on the field, he has chosen the image of the anti-hero.  And if some fans choose to dislike this image and the way that Sherman acted on the field after the NFC Championship game, those fans are not necessarily racist.  Those fans might be proponents of humility and sportsmanship.  The kind of humility and sportsmanship that many men of many colors in many sports have embodied before Richard Sherman had ever strapped on shoulder pads for the first time.

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