For more than three hours Sunday, millions of Americans joyfully cheered a football game whose players are paid to be angry and callous.
But then, moments afterward, America was offended when one of those players spewed anger and callousness?
The national vilifying of the Seattle Seahawks’ Richard Sherman for his taunting televised postgame remarks Sunday after the Seahawks’ 23-17 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC championship game cuts to the heart of sports hypocrisy.
Everyone wants to watch their heroes make incredible plays under pressure, but few can stomach the depths of the emotion required to make those plays. After cornerback Sherman literally single-handedly sent the Seahawks to the Super Bowl by tipping a pass away from San Francisco’s Michael Crabtree in the end zone, he plumbed those depths.
“I’m the best corner in the game,” Sherman screamed at Fox Sports interviewer Erin Andrews as a stadium rocked around him in celebration. “When you try me with a sorry receiver like [Michael] Crabtree, that’s the result you’re gonna get. Don’t you ever talk about me.”
When Andrews asked who was talking about Sherman, he shouted, “Crabtree!” and then added, “Don’t you open your mouth about the best or I’m gonna shut it for you real quick.”
Throughout the country, mouths opened in shock. The reaction on social media was quick and decisive. Sherman was overwhelmingly ripped for being a loudmouth, a bad sport, and even a thug. Criticism mounted further when Sherman called Crabtree “mediocre” during a postgame news conference. He was also nationally ripped for giving the choke sign after the play, a taunt for which he was penalized.
On Monday, Sherman showed remorse for his actions in a text message to ESPN’s Ed Werder in which he wrote, “I apologize for attacking an individual and taking away from the fantastic game by my teammates … that was not my intention.”
But the damage has already been done. This bright and engaging kid who ranked second in his class at Compton Dominguez High before later graduating from Stanford is somehow America’s new sports villain. He is the main reason why many folks will be cheering for the Denver Broncos in the upcoming Super Bowl. He is the latest example of everything that is wrong with the modern professional football player.
Yet the truth is, he is the example of everything that is wrong with some modern professional football fans.
A guy fights for three hours and winds up throwing the punch of his life in the most important professional moment of his life, and America expects him to immediately start blowing kisses?
There is no defense for Sherman’s taunting of Crabtree after the play. He was a crude jerk. This was just another millstone in a career lacking in decorum. He was indeed a bad sport.
But in his comments later, he was simply the embodiment of his sport. He was a symbol of the mindless recklessness required to play a game that will likely scar him for life, and the dark motivation often necessary to summon that swagger.
If one scans the wording, it is obvious that some of the criticism of Sherman is rooted in blatant racism. But some of it also seems to stem from a subtle racism. When a white player talks trash, he is considered quirky and cool. But if that same smack comes from a black player with dreadlocks and a snarl, he is a cretin? Sherman didn’t say anything that hasn’t once been said by the likes of Larry Bird and John McEnroe, yet nobody ever called them a thug.
America would like all of its football players to embrace victory with the class of a Peyton Manning, but most of those players have different jobs than Peyton Manning. Most of those players don’t win games with their arms and brains, but their bodies and their fears. Most of those players have to summon up strength from places unimaginable, building on slights unknown, finding courage in corners both dark and remote. Richard Sherman is one of those players.
He saved that game for the Seahawks with the boldness that America demands of its football players. His mistake was in being honest about it.