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.
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, 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.)
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.