In Richard Sherman Controversy, Race Matters

Today, we honor the birth of Dr. King. Since I began blogging, I have written an annual post designed (in a small but hopefully significant way) to further discussions about race. I had planned to write a piece about the Michigan affirmative action case, which will be decided by SCOTUS later this year.

But last night, Erin Andrews interviewed Richard Sherman at just the right (wrong?) time, and the country’s reaction has been irresistible to write about.

ESPN.com

Richard Sherman (photo from ESPN.com)

Sherman—a defensive back for the Seattle Seahawks—is perhaps the best player in the league at his position. In the final seconds of the NFC Championship Game, Sherman made an outstanding play, preventing the San Francisco 49ers from taking the lead, instead sealing a victory for the Seahawks. Moments after the play, Erin Andrews, a sideline reporter, caught up with Sherman.

This morning, I walked into an office and into the middle of a conversation between people who were upset about this interview. Phrases used to describe Sherman included, “profane,” “uneducated,” “crazy,” “classless,” and “dangerous.” Based on some of the reactions on social media,[1] I assume that similar conversations occurred around the country.

Read the transcript of the interview:

Fox’s Erin Andrews: “Take me through it (the interception) …”

Sherman (screaming): “Well, I’m the best corner in the game. When you try me with a sorry receiver like (Michael) Crabtree, that’s the result you are going to get. Don’t you ever talk about me.”

Andrews: “Who was talking about you?”

Sherman: “Crabtree. Don’t open your mouth about the best or I’m going to shut it for you real quick. LOB!” (That’s the abbreviation for “Legion of Boom,” the nickname of the Seahawks’ defense.)[2]

Did Sherman curse? Nope. Did he personally attack Crabtree? Sort of, but he was clearly referring to Crabtree’s playing ability. Sherman didn’t attack Crabtree’s personality, his mother, or his manhood. Did Sherman demonstrate a lack of education? No. Sanity? Not really. Sure, he was yelling. But let’s be honest, it was a bit loud in that stadium.

So, why exactly is Sherman such a “profane,” “uneducated,” “crazy,” “dangerous” villain? 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh was repeatedly shown screaming viciously at anyone and everyone in sight. Why isn’t Harbaugh the villain everyone is talking about?

Obviously race isn’t the only difference here, but is race a factor here? Absolutely. Before he even opens his mouth, Sherman looks, to some people, like someone who is “profane,” “uneducated,” “crazy,” “classless” and “dangerous.” But guess what. Sherman was second in his high school class and graduated from Stanford. He was a communications major.

Watch the clip again. He looks right into the camera and makes the point he wants to make in a pretty succinct manner, without uttering a single vulgarity.

Know what else? He said exactly what many people wanted him to say. The NFL and Fox would love a good story to drive up Super Bowl hype. They already have a hero. Peyton Manning runs what is probably the best passing offense in history. He’s in a billion likeable commercials, and he’s old (37) for a football player, which makes him a bit of an underdog (and a roll model to older fans?).

What the NFL and Fox needed was a villain. Sherman has a reputation for being outspoken, and he had just made a tremendous play to send his team to the Super Bowl. Erin Andrews wanted Sherman to say something contentious. Sherman didn’t disappoint. Now the story is set: great passing offense led by the beloved Manning vs. great passing defense led by the hated Sherman. Will good or evil prevail? It’s perfect. All the NFL and Fox have to do is rake in the money.

It just seems too easy for people to walk into their offices on a Monday morning and talk about how horrible of a person Sherman must be. Sherman’s words don’t fit into an office. But Sherman’s work environment is anything but an office. He works in the NFL. His job is to win games and put on a good show. And he did both of those things exceptionally last night.

But it’s hard for all of those office workers to understand the NFL culture that spurred that interview. Crabtree and Sherman probably spent the entire game trash-talking each other, and the conflict spilled over into Twitter afterwards. The game was brutal. And the trash-talking was part of that brutality.

Isn’t the brutality part of the reason so many people watch football? It wasn’t necessary for Fox to show the replay of Bowman shattering his knee about 753 times, but they kept showing it, because Fox knows its audience.

I’m not certain why the brutality is compelling. I suspect that, for those of us who work in offices, the raw/physical/competitive/unrestrained aspect innate in humanity is lacking in everyday life. Perhaps football can fill that human void deep inside of us. But regardless of the reason, people are drawn to the raw brutality of football.

The interview after the game was part of that brutality. Part of Sherman’s job is to physically and mentally dominate wide receivers so his team can win games. And he excels at it.

So, who are we to criticize Sherman because his comments don’t fit into our paradigm of what is “classy.” Who defines what is “classy” in the first place? Is Harbaugh classy?

I began this post talking about race. And I’m not trying to say that race is the only lens the Sherman controversy can be seen through. I’m saying that it is a lens, and it is an important one. We, as a country, should constantly be asking ourselves how we can continue to take steps forward on race, especially on MLK Day. I think that we could take a step forward simply by acknowledging that Sherman’s blackness and Harbaugh’s whiteness may affect our perceptions of those two men. When we initially perceive a black man as “profane,” “uneducated,” and “dangerous,” we should take a moment to consider whether we really saw a black man who fit that description or whether we just saw a black man.

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7 Responses to In Richard Sherman Controversy, Race Matters

  1. Pope says:

    I originally thought the public’s initial reaction to Richard Sherman’s interview was based on race. But I’ve changed my mind after some deliberation. I don’t think it’s because he’s black, but rather his look, skin color be damned. He has long dreads, a goatee, and lots of tattoos. Most of these people criticizing Sherman love Muhammad Ali, a clean-cut African American without tattoos, even though Ali said shit like this every damn day. Sherman looks like a “thug”, therefore his actions are “thuggish”. Ali looked like a normal guy, therefore his actions were just cocky.

    I think assertion about class in this regard goes beyond race. While race could almost certainly plays a part of some people’s perceptions in this case; I think the greater generalization is in terms of the overall “look” of each individual. Let’s ignore Sherman for a second and look at Harbaugh and his quarterback, Colin Kaepernick. Harbaugh looks like the over-competitive little league dad who is upset that the ump called his kid out. He wears $8 khakis from Wal-Mart and 34 layers of clothing in the cold. He’s an everyman. Meanwhile Kaepernick wears his hat backwards, has sleeve tattoos, and facial hair. He was portrayed by the media as “immature” for mocking Cam Newton’s TD celebration and wearing his hat backwards with headphones to a press conference.

    That being said, two of the top four searches on Google if you type in Colin Kaepernick are “Colin Kaepernick race” and “Colin Kaepernick ethnicity”.

  2. Brandon says:

    Great post. I also agree with Pope’s response.

    I thought the Sherman interview was fantastic. I liked the raw and authentic emotion being displayed after an intense competition. My problem was with the choke sign directed at the SF bench and the catching up to a dejected Crabtree to butt slap and faux handshake. That’s bush league and clearly poor sportsmanship.

  3. I don’t think the Muhammad Ali example is a particularly good one. A lot of people like Ali NOW. But many many people hated and feared him in the 60s.

    “When Cassius Marcellus Clay publicly and proudly shed his ‘slave name’ and became Muhammad Ali almost fifty years ago, Blacks had found their hero and racially-driven Whites, politicians and pundits their enemy. Even the TV talk-show host David Susskind, considered a liberal, labeled Ali in 1968 ‘a disgrace, a simplistic fool and a pawn.'” http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/the-trials-of-muhammad-ali

    It seems to me that your descriptions of Harbaugh and Kaepernick kind of drive my point home. As I understand your argument, you’re saying that people aren’t unconsciously inclined to think negative thoughts about Harbaugh because he is a member of the majority group, i.e. there are tons of other people in the US who look like him, so people are used to that look. But people are unconsciously inclined to think negative thoughts about Kaepernick and to a greater extent Sherman because they look like “thugs.”

    What is a “thug”? Is it a young, unshaven black man? I’m a youngish man with a goatee who likes to speak his mind. Does that make me a thug? Is the underlying point people are making by using the word “thug” that they think that young black men should dress and look as much like a stereotypical white person as possible?

    I know that “thug” isn’t your word, so I’m not trying to pin its negative consequences on you. But I think the “thug” concept itself is part of the problem I was trying to identify. I think it’s fair to say that a) “thug” has a negative connotation and b) non-blacks are rarely referred to as “thugs.” So, I don’t think there’s a huge difference between saying that people reacted the way they did because Sherman looks like a “thug” and that people reacted the way they did partially because Sherman is black.

  4. Pope says:

    I think, in regards to Ali, people feared his Muslim persona, as he often associated with more militant blacks like Malcolm X. They didn’t have a problem with his brash demeanor, but rather with his militant friends of color.

    You’re right. I was agreeing with you on the Harbaugh/Kaepernick example. I know. It’s shocking.

    You do have a goatee. You are also a 120 pound lawyer sans tattoos. And incredibly white. No one would mistake you for a thug. Yes, I think the underlying point people are making is they expect young black men to dress/act like stereotypical young white men. Look at Russell Wilson the black QB for the Seahawks in this popular meme/link being passed around the Interweb in the aftermath of Sunday’s game. http://imgur.com/KAW6hk2?desktop=1

    The point of that comparison is to praise/criticize the respective personalities of each QB. Wilson is lauded and Kaepernick is condemned. One personifies the image of a stereotypical white man who takes time to help others while the other is a thuggish, self-promoting, materialistic, black dude.

    “Thug” is not my word. It’s just one I chose from the plethora of negativity in the media/public surrounding Sherman after the interview. I could also have chosen punk, asshole, clown, nigger, etc. Again, these are not my words but I felt “thug” encapsulated the implied image the best. And you’re correct again. They’re all negative and mostly used to describe blacks, moreso young black men. But I will disagree that the public/media reaction was mostly because he is black. I’ll concede that race played a part (No one cares when Tom Brady runs down and trash talks a DB) but the overall look is much more of a factor. Going back to the Wilson/Kaepernick example. What if Kaepernick hit the pass over Sherman and the 49ers won the game, prompting a similar interview with him after the game? I think, unequivocally yes. What about if Wilson said this after the game? I don’t think there would have been nearly as much negativity.

  5. Brandon: To me, it actually looks like Sherman was the one trying to be a decent sport to Crabtree after the game. It’s hard to say, but the handshake offer kind of looked to be an actual offer. http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2014/01/23/265269180/the-bit-of-sportsmanship-that-led-to-richard-shermans-rant?ft=1&f=1001&utm_content=socialflow&utm_campaign=nprnews&utm_source=npr&utm_medium=twitter

  6. Brandon says:

    I’m not buying. There’s a reason it drew a flag. You don’t go sprint to a guy immediately after a play in an ongoing game, who’s trying to leave the field, then pat him and offer your hand. Did he really think Crabtree was in the mood at that moment to stop and have a conversation? He’s a smart guy. He was attempting to communicate an “in your face” while masking it to others as a friendly gesture. It might be more believable if it wasn’t already well known that they don’t like each other and had an off season altercation. I think all of this makes for great sports entertainment though!

  7. Pingback: The Supreme Court’s Michigan Affirmative Action Decision Boiled Down to a Coffee House Conversation | more than twenty cents

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