Richard Sherman: Symbolism and Narrative

I can’t stop reading about a cornerback. You may have heard his name recently. Richard Sherman. You don’t often hear much about cornerbacks. If they’re really good, the football rarely makes its way in their direction. They are called “shutdown corners.” Only one ball made its way in this cornerback’s direction in the game that may define this cornerback’s life. Sherman made the game-deciding play, tipping an end-zone pass to his Seahawks teammate and saving the game and the season for Seattle fans, pushing them past the San Francisco 49ers and into the blinding glare that is the two-week hype-driven path to the Super Bowl. Richard Sherman timed his leap perfectly on the play. The timing could not have been better for what followed.

After the Seahawks victory over the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game, a game in which Richard Sherman’s post-game interview exploded the boundaries of what athletes, especially black male athletes, are supposed to say in those usually-meaningless final buzzer chats. While it’s fair to say Sherman’s outburst was surprising, even shocking, in its bravado and arrogance, as well as in his general unleashing of unfiltered words on the football grid-iron (not exactly a place we expect honest articulation from an athlete), the backlash against Sherman has been full of so much racist hatred for two reasons:

1) He was staring directly into the camera and shouting, exclaiming his superiority and dissing his opponent, receiver Michael Crabtree. The twenty-five second rant went viral, unleashing America’s fear of the “angry black man,” a sketch straight out of Key and Peele. Except this wasn’t satire. Two minutes after making the play of his life, Sherman told America that he was the best. Sherman has since apologized for verbally attacking Crabtree. They had been smack-talking throughout the game, which ended minutes before he let loose.

2) Because he was standing next to Erin Andrews, a tall, blonde female reporter who was understandably surprised by the interaction.

For someone interested in the way sport impacts society, Richard Sherman is a gift. A hyper-articulate, consciously arrogant while on the field, yet stereotype-demolishing athlete-human when off the field. Sherman understands the power of the media microscope on athletes and is spinning it in his own direction. It’s not surprising to read about how much he appreciated Mohammed Ali as a child. The gift of gab is a powerful and threatening thing. If you keep talking, eventually, people will either want to shut you up or they will stop listening. On the field, Sherman gets thoroughly into the minds of his opponents, as integral to his success as his strength and his long, disruptive arms is this psychological power.

Much like Gary Payton, his Seattle forerunner, and Kevin Garnett, his NBA equivalent, he backs up his words with dominant defense. The psychological advantage all three developed, both inside and outside of the lines, was/is integral to their performances. While Payton seemed less conscious of his smack talk, Garnett and Sherman seem to know exactly what they are doing. A lot like Larry Bird, one of the greatest trash talkers in NBA history.

Bird was white and he kept his quotes on the court, talking his smack with a deadpan delivery, so the vast majority of fans don’t think of Bird as defiantly arrogant. The media was never threatened by Larry Bird. In fact, the media adored Bird’s surliness, and loved the fact that he was the NBA’s white wonder in a league that was gradually losing its Caucasian population, especially before the European big-man infusion that came in the 1990’s.

Ted Williams seemed to view everyone and everything he came across as below him, whether condescending to a scrum of Boston reporters or opposing pitchers. Ted knew he was the best hitter in the game and he hated the fact that the game he played was open to the public and made him a celebrity. He wouldn’t have survived the modern sports media, his notorious temper would not have done well in this age of scrutiny. At the same time, he never would have been openly vilified, skewered on a national level, while outperforming every other hitter in the game. Like Bird, Williams’ ornery nature became a quirk. A by-product of an insanely competitive nature, bent on winning and thriving on adversity. Which brings us back to Sherman. Thriving on adversity. Chip nearly visible on the shoulder. Motivated by the boos and the sound of his own confidence.

Sportsmanship is a concept that I was taught as a child. It’s not about winning or losing. It’s how you play the game. The aphorism always felt hollow when you lost. Dealing with the pain of losing is one of the aspects of youth sports that makes it important in development. Learning how to sacrifice, how to share, how to play a part within something greater, these are also essential parts of the experience. But dealing with losing may be the most critical aspect. Life is a series of struggles, often about overcoming obstacles and maintaining an optimistic attitude in the face of difficult situations or gloomy prospects.

How you play the game. How you survive. How you keep going in spite of the surrounding distractions, temptations, pressures. How you use your individuality as a strength, when every other kid is trying desperately to conform to their peers. Richard Sherman grew up in Compton, California, with strong-willed parents who demanded he resist any of that conforming pressure, instead becoming a leader of his peers, focused on schoolwork and sports, insulating himself and his friends from the traps that befall so many children of Compton. Sherman chose Stanford over USC because it was Stanford.


To continue reading the piece on Splice Today, click here:


Melissa Harris-Perry’s roundtable on the Sherman controversy, with Jelani Cobb and others:

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