Sports Nut

Richard Sherman, Bad Sport

Why is everyone celebrating the Seattle cornerback’s behavior?

Richard Sherman
Richard Sherman celebrates after he tipped the ball leading to an intereption to clinch the NFC title against the San Francisco 49ers on Jan. 19, 2014, in Seattle.

Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

In the waning moments of the NFC title game, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman made a heady play to send his team to the Super Bowl, tipping a pass into the air so his teammate could intercept it. A few seconds later, Sherman pantomimed a “choke” sign in the direction of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. He then razzed San Francisco receiver Michael Crabtree, patting his butt and offering a mocking handshake. (Crabtree responded with a frustrated shove to Sherman’s helmet.) Once the game was over, Sherman proclaimed to Fox sideline reporter Erin Andrews, “Well, I’m the best corner in the game! When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that’s the result you’re gonna get! Don’t you ever talk about me!”

In a subsequent interview on ESPN, Sherman reiterated that Crabtree is “mediocre at best.”

It took only a few seconds for Twitter to begin yelling back at Sherman. ESPN’s Mike Greenberg joined a slew of others who called the Seattle corner “classless.” Some cretins on Twitter used vile racial slurs, a disturbing window into how a certain segment of people view a large, black, dreadlocked man who yells boastfully in the vicinity of a blond, white woman. American studies theses could be written about those 20 seconds of national television and their aftermath.

Soon, a second wave of punditry emerged to right these initial wrongs. Forbes noted that Sherman had graduated second in his high school class and gone to Stanford, “So not only is he not a fool, odds are he’s smarter than you and me.” Will Leitch of Sports on Earth called him “self-aware” and “in on the joke” and claimed his interview with Andrews was a calculated “wrestling promo, delivered with impressive professionalism.” A YouTube video circulated in my Twitter feed like a piece of pro-Sherman agitprop, demonstrating Sherman’s intellectual approach to the game and the value he places on hard work and preparation.

Many praised Sherman for daring to be an interesting interviewee at a time when so many athletes are guarded and boring. BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti tweeted: “I love @RSherman_25’s passion & intelligence & he’s less arrogant than most startup execs I know :)”

Others focused on the racial dynamics. In a piece titled “Richard Sherman and the Plight of the Conquering Negro,” Deadspin’s Greg Howard argued that Sherman had become “a proxy for the black male id” and that condemnations of him were “based on the common, very American belief that black males must know their place.” The Nation’s Dave Zirin alluded to “stomach-churning racial coding” and described Sherman as “an archetype that has been branded a threat as long as African-Americans have played sports.”

I will gladly allow that the sight of middle-aged, white sportswriters evincing disgust at the brash behavior of a young, black athlete is depressingly familiar. I also shudder to align myself with the smarmy snobs who use a loaded term like “classless” in talking about a guy who grew up the son of a garbage man in Compton, Calif. But can I draw a line here?

Since we’ll be dealing with this for the next two weeks, as sports media fills up space during the wait for Sherman’s Seahawks to square off against the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, I’d like to request that we stipulate a few basic notions.

  1. When, after winning the game, Sherman made the choke sign in his losing opponent’s face, then called another losing opponent “sorry” and “mediocre,” he was being a dick.
  2. Even though Sherman grew up underprivileged and beat the odds and now gives back with worthy charitable endeavors, he was still being a dick.
  3. The fact that Sherman is very smart and attended Stanford and approaches his job in a scholarly manner doesn’t mean he wasn’t being a dick.
  4. Whether or not Sherman’s behavior was calculated and self-aware and media-savvy and akin to the monologue of a pro wrestling heel, it was still dickish.
  5. Many athletes play violent, hard-fought, emotional games and still manage to refrain from taunting their vanquished foes and giving dickish interviews.
  6. It is possible to be an entertaining, eccentric, and even boastful interviewee without being a dick.
  7. It turns out that Sherman and Crabtree have history—Sherman’s brother alleges that Crabtree tried to fight the Seahawks player at a charity event. Most of Sherman’s defenders haven’t bothered to mention the existing personal feud. But to be clear: While the prior beef adds some context, those two wrongs don’t make what Sherman did right—or, more precisely, not dickish.
  8. Talking smack in the lead-up to a contest, or in the middle of it, is permissible. It falls into the hallowed tradition of gamesmanship. Dancing on graves after the battle has been won is dickish.
  9. And this is the most delicate of these notions but needs to be addressed: Whatever archetypes may be conjured by the specter of white people tsk-tsking a black man who loudly brags alongside a blond woman, those uncomfortable overtones don’t change the fact that, in this case, in that moment, the man was being a dick.

I will certainly not judge Richard Sherman as a person based on his behavior in this one instance. He seems like a sharp, charismatic, fascinating guy with an extremely admirable backstory. A guy who does some great stuff for inner-city schools, to boot. Cheers to that guy.

I also recognize that the despicable, racist language being lobbed at Sherman needs to be shouted down, aggressively. But that doesn’t mean that Sherman was acting in a commendable manner when he wrapped his hands around his neck to signal that Colin Kaepernick choked. Or when he needlessly taunted Michael Crabtree. Why can’t we say that Sherman is probably a great guy who did not act like one in the moments after the NFC championship game?

Perhaps we’ve reached the point where defending sportsmanship is a #slatepitch. In that case, call me a contrarian. But even Richard Sherman seems to recognize his behavior was in bad form. First, without making any apologies, he explained it was “adrenaline talking.” Later, he did express regret, texting a reporter: “I apologize for attacking an individual and taking the attention away from the fantastic game by my teammates. … That was not my intent.”

So let’s glorify Sherman for what deserves glory: his amazing performance on the field, and his accomplishments off it. He doesn’t deserve to be virulently attacked for his actions at the tail end of the NFC title game, but please let’s not celebrate them. As Sherman wrote: “[I]t was in the moment, and it was just a small part of the person I am.” Yes—a small, dickish part of who he is.