Disclaimer: I am not a sportsball fan. I don’t have any teams or affiliations, and I fall into that category of people who get excited for the Super Bowl because of the commercials and the concert. So it was by pure chance that I was at a birthday party on Sunday with the end of the football game between the Seahawks and the 49ers on that allowed me to hear Richard Sherman’s “rant heard round the world.” The room had stopped to watch the final moments of the game, so I watched the short clip in real-time, thought, “wow, what a jackass” and then went back to likely discussing something along the lines of NBC’s planned live production of Peter Pan next year.
Hours later, I checked back in to the world of social media to find that the discussion of Sherman’s short rant had exploded. The initial reaction seemed negative – some more strongly so than others – and then the pendulum began to swing back the other way with an aggressive defense of Sherman in response to the racist and pathetic vitriol from some across a multitude of Internet platforms.
In the days since, the conversation has moved into a much larger discussion of professional athlete conduct and expectations and race relations and the strong denigration or nearly saintly adoration of Mr. Sherman. It seems the reality, as ever, is somewhere in between.
There have been a great number of articles telling the incredible story of how Mr. Sherman went from excelling in a Compton high school to Stanford to the NFL to be a player whose skills are well-regarded and a man who can be admired for his personal conduct and carriage. This one from Isaac Paul was my first round of information from The Huffington Post. Those pieces are excellent material to fill out my perception of Sherman. However, they don’t change my initial “wow, what a jackass” reaction to the outburst; they simply allow me to now consider that the outburst was out of character. Many of the writers though, seem to imply “so you shouldn’t see it that way because he is an intelligent and articulate success story that should be seen as inspirational.” Paul goes so far to suggest that “most of America thought they were learning about the arrogance of another NFL player. But in reality, what Richard Sherman did was teach us about ourselves. He taught us that we’re still a country that isn’t ready for lower-class Americans from neighborhoods like Compton to succeed.” The inspiration story is impressive, and the evidence supports that there are those who judged Mr. Sherman for purely race-based reasons that should continue to be addressed, but to leap to the suggestion that anyone who saw it as arrogance is contributing to some kind suppression is reaching awfully far in the opposite direction. Sherman can be an exciting inspirational story, and still have been a jackass for a minute on Sunday. That additional context can’t inherently be wielded as a club against those of us who found his exclamations inappropriate or unacceptable.
There have been many, especially sports writers, who have defended the outburst with relief because so often they get the same old platitudes about “a good game” and “a good effort” and “one game at a time” as a reason it was a great moment. It’s not a defense, but it’s framed as one, because reporters love getting moments that are great television and easy reporting. I’m sorry for the world of 24 hours sports coverage with time to fill, but the fact that they got a great clip to run continuously doesn’t change my initial “wow, what a jackass” reaction either.
The response I find most interesting, that seems to be growing is the “we ask these athletes to engage in an activity that puts their life at risk for our amusement…” apology defense. This is another place where the discussion seems to be swinging into crazy territory. First, the athletes chose this, Sherman included. They chose to play this sport. They chose to pursue it to its highest level. They chose to accept ludicrously large amounts of money to play it professionally. They aren’t going to actual war even if they have to treat playing the game that way in order to be in the correct mindset to succeed. That is still their choice. They are responsible to their coaches and owners and then the fans. Of course the fans are important because it is their attention that makes it such a lucrative business which allows them to make as much money as they do. But this idea of the “poor little athletes, we ask so much of them” is evidence that this conversation surrounding this one outburst has reached truly hysterical proportions in looking to explain away a single outburst – on all sides. Some have gone all the way to “he shouldn’t have to apologize at all” like this well-articulated one courtesy of Think Progress which states in part that the ideas of “professionalism” and “class” set by fans and the media for athletes are essentially bogus.
The thing is, they aren’t bogus. We teach it to every kid who learns to play a sport from the very beginning of flag football or T-ball or soccer or whatever. Sportsmanship. After it’s over you say “good game” and you win and lose with grace and humility no matter how they other team reacts. We teach it to everyone. At the adult level it may be called “professionalism” or “class” but it’s still the same idea of being a good sport that every kid is taught. Sherman seems to be a great guy with an awe-inspiring story, but for a moment, his behavior was unsportsmanlike, even if it was honest and authentic and real. The reality of his personal experience and feelings in the moment can’t, and shouldn’t be challenged. His expression of them? Absolutely.
And really, that’s not just a sporting thing, it’s a human thing. If a defense attorney wins a case and then says at the press conference “it’s because I’m the best attorney in the city,” even if their case history supports it, many will with respond with, “wow, he’s a jackass.” If Meryl Streep accepted an Oscar and said “it’s because I’m the greatest actress alive.” While many consider that to be true, others would still think, “wow, what a jackass.” If you are the best at something, you don’t need to proclaim it, others will do it for you. Your actions speak louder than your words. Winning is strongest statement. Being the best is evidenced in countless metrics and accolades across every aspect of life and competition. Arrogance from the gifted, the talented or the excellent is often met with derision because it’s possible and preferable to be the best with humility. The goods to back up being an arrogant ass doesn’t make you less of an arrogant ass. Anyone who proclaims to be “a genius” or “the best” runs into a problem because those who disagree immediately begin to poke holes in the proclamation. Whether it’s Lady Gaga in one of her “art’s in pop culture in me” moments or Sherman’s brief declaration of superiority, the statement of one’s own genius invites criticism.
Pride in your work is important, the manner in which you express that pride contributes to the perception of your character. Singular episodes that don’t fit the overall perception can be dismissed as being exceptions to the rule. It seems with all of the other things that Richard Sherman is and does, this moment was an exception. Claiming it wasn’t a ridiculous and unsportsmanlike outburst because some people’s responses were racist which caused the entire episode to be larger than it should have been because it triggered another national moment in the important race relations discussion is like taking two plus two and saying it equals rainbows.
The discussion surrounding the horrible aspects of the overreactions is important, and in actuality more important than the sporting event that spawned the opportunity for the discussion. Continued conversations surrounding race relations, subtle racism, racist terminology and racial privilege and perception are important to our national dialogue. There is also room while addressing those substantive issues to acknowledge that many, myself included, found the outburst to simply be an unsportsmanlike moment from a normally articulate and obviously successful young athlete with an incredibly bright future in the his field. You can read Sherman’s own telling of the events, intelligently expressed here.
Sherman has made the rounds providing articulate and thoughtful explanations for the moment and an appropriate apology for addressing a singular beef in such a public manner that has provided a distraction from the success of the team as a whole that shows the kind of man he is off the field and demonstrates that it was an out-of-character moment. It’s absolutely possible, despite many defenders protestations to the opposite, to think some people’s reactions were terribly wrong and that Sherman himself was a little wrong at the same time. So, with the addition of all of the information and race discussion and Sherman’s journey I’ve adjusted my original reaction to “wow, what a jackass, but just in that moment” for a definitely impressive man and athlete.
And I’ll be honest, not being a span of sportsball, Sherman’s out-sized personality and antics do make me a little more excited to suffer through that game so many people look forward to watching before and after the upcoming Bruno Mars concert.