Opinion » Pique'n Yer Interest

Both Richard Sherman narratives miss the point



Maybe you watched an electrifying Seattle Seahawks squad win in thrilling fashion over their fierce rivals, the San Francisco 49ers earlier this month.

Maybe you saw one of the best cornerbacks in the game today cement his elite status by making a last-second play to preserve a close win and send his franchise to only their second Super Bowl appearance in nearly 40 years.

Maybe you caught the aforementioned corner deliver a boastful, off-the-cuff post-game interview directed at Niners' wide receiver Michael Crabtree.

Maybe you were appalled at the sheer brashness of this dreadlocked defensive stopper as he hurled insults at a felled opponent in a distinctly unsportsmanlike manner.

Maybe you were delighted to witness an athlete at the height of his abilities in a rare display of unbridled passion mere moments after making the biggest play in the biggest game of his life.

Maybe you think Richard Sherman is a tactless bully. Maybe you point to his many off-field accomplishments as a clear sign he's yet another young, rich black celebrity that's been unfairly labelled as a thug, or worse.

Whatever camp you belong to, the two opposing Richard Sherman narratives that sprung up in the aftermath of the NFC Championship game have largely missed the point.

The first, and probably most troubling on its face, was the instantaneous public outcry that painted Sherman at best as a "thug," or "classless." And just in case you didn't pick up on the racial connotations attached to those loaded words, a quick scan of Twitter in the hours after Sherman's electric interview with sideline reporter Erin Andrews revealed a much darker, more overtly racist public sentiment. The irony of using ignorant and derogatory epithets to denigrate Sherman for directing insulting language at a fellow player was evidently lost on the multitudes of Internet trolls who emerged from under their bridges after the game.

A wave of backlash came crashing down almost immediately, with an apologist (and largely white) sports media highlighting the brainy and brash Seahawks' star's 4.0 GPA at Stanford, his straight As at Compton's Dominguez High School, and his extensive charity work as a clear sign he couldn't possibly be the thug he appeared to be.

The obvious question to ask here is how would the media have spun this story if Sherman attended a less prestigious school? If he got just average grades from a historically black college, would his behaviour then somehow be less palatable to a predominantly white sports-watching public that has created the unofficial rules on how athletes are supposed to conduct themselves?

Looking at this situation as objectively as possible, one has to agree that what Sherman did after his game-saving deflection wasn't all that nice. It was a mean-spirited harangue — one that Sherman himself called "immature" after the fact — towards a player that he allegedly has a long history with.

Even before his post-game tirade, Sherman was flagged, and eventually fined by the league for making a choking gesture at 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, and jawing at Crabtree, which again, doesn't exactly set a shining example of sportsmanlike behaviour. Of course, trash talk is nothing new for the NFL, or any major sport for that matter, and the measly $7,875 fine Sherman was issued was nothing more than a slap on the wrist from a commissioner who I would imagine felt some outside pressure to take action.

But let's forget for a moment just how easily the sight of a large, black man from Compton screaming at a pretty white female reporter can stoke certain people's inherently racist fears. Instead, let's consider exactly what an athlete interview is "supposed" to be.

We're so used to hearing athletes spout worn-out clichés and affectless platitudes that hearing Sherman deliver one of the most electric 30 seconds of the year was as refreshing as it was jarring. We simply can't criticize our high-profile athletes for refusing to be genuine during the countless press conferences, media appearances and talking head segments they're obligated to participate in, and then recoil in horror when one of them has a real moment of emotion on national television.

Sports hold such a prominent place in our society's collective consciousness, largely because they are a distraction from the doldrums of our daily lives. We hold our athletes up to such a high moral standard because we have been clouded by the rose-tinted lens of nostalgia through which we view our most memorable sports figures. We expect them to play, talk and act in a certain way, because that's what the Gretzkys, the Jordans and the Namaths did before them. We need our athletes to fit a certain mold, because we need sports to mean something, or else the hours and hours we spend each season obsessing over our favourite teams and players would serve no purpose. Therein lies the problem.

Richard Sherman doesn't have to interview the way you want him to. He doesn't even have to play the way you want him to, and he damn sure doesn't have to carry himself as a man the way you want him to.

And we're all better off because of that.