A post-game interview with the brash NFL cornerback Richard Sherman dominated the country’s attention. His answer to Erin Andrews’ question was only 29 seconds long. No profanity, no slurs, it was just loud, self-indulgent and passionate. It was the bravado of a young man sure that he proved some football point to his foe and helped his team clinch a Super Bowl berth. Diva receiver and cocky corner battles go way back and quite often they are screamers, so this was nothing new. But within minutes critics were questioning his credibility and social media was batting around words like “classless” and “thug” to describe Sherman’s exuberant swat at the Niners’ Crabtree. Those tweets/posts descended into racist junk but that’s a different story.
Two specific issues related to the Richard Sherman rant are the most upsetting:
- The questions and quest to validate his Stanford career, and
- The immediate labeling of black males as thug.
“Is Richard Sherman embarrassing Stanford?” That question posed by a Bay Area news outlet was particularly unsettling. There seems to be a disconnect for much of the country. It’s hard for them to reconcile the dark, loc’ed, loud young brother with their image of a smiling suburbanite, the latter being the deserving Stanford student. Nerds can’t come in all shapes and colors and personalities, can they? When Tom Brady went on a few sideline rants this past season, folks didn’t bring up the impact on Michigan’s reputation. Immediately, questions about Sherman’s class attendance and academic eligibility popped up. When the Eagles’ Riley Cooper was caught on video hurling nasty racial slurs, the country didn’t demand transcripts and SAT scores. Heck, does anyone know where he went to school or did they suggest that he brought shame on the whole institution? They discussed the incident in and of itself, the expected punishment, and fell on whatever side of the argument but they didn’t begin to deconstruct his academic life.
Sherman’s former Stanford Head Coach David Shaw, his writing instructor and even his high school coach weighed in on news shows and blogs to explain to the world that Richard really is an intelligent fellow with a big heart. That less than a half-a-minute response made it necessary for his supporters to explain that Richard-the-student was deserving of the big Stanford envelope. Never mind that he earned a degree – something that more than half of all African-American players don’t do in other bowl bound schools – and is working on an advanced degree. Never mind that many credentialed, professional fans of losing teams were throwing things at the TV and cursing opposing fans at bars across the country and blaming it on beer and adrenaline, but never questioning their own intelligence. How ironic!
Two seasons ago, head coaches Jim Schwartz and John Harbaugh had a heated exchange over a handshake. It made the news and prompted discussions on proper protocol, coach etiquette and the post-game shake. The NY Times led with a question about the coach’s reaction, but the tone was completely different: Was Schwartz Justified in Being Upset With Harbaugh? The assumption was that most likely something happened to elicit a response. Schwartz’s reaction couldn’t have been out of the blue, right? Why, then, wasn’t Sherman given the same consideration? Because Sherman is from Compton. Most announcers hopped on the handshake story but neither coach was called a thug or a goon. Schwartz wasn’t called “heated’ when he ran Harbaugh down to confront him. The writers described the antics, not the person.
Position battles happen all over the gridiron. They give both sides targets and locker fodder to get hyped for the games. When it comes to corners and receivers, the talk – like their play – is often over the top. But according to Coach Shaw, you want it that way. In an interview on the Mike & Mike show, Coach Shaw discussed his mentor Bill Walsh’s view on corners:
“Every once in a while somebody’s got to go on an island out there and cover Jerry Rice … Somebody’s got to go on an island out there and cover Randy Moss. And that’s not going to be the nicest, clean cut guy, that guy better be living on the edge, playing on the edge. … He better have supreme confidence in his ability.” Coach David Shaw on Mike & Mike 1/21
Shaw then stressed the importance of the delayed interview. Reporter Erin Andrews was thrilled to get the immediate, guttural reaction of an NFL star versus the canned PR-ready response. One sports reporter tried to say that Sherman scared Andrews, a rip at both Erin and Richard. Erin laughed at the notion; there was nothing scary about it. All that height, hair and confidence just added to her score. Instead, the “thug” word began being tossed about. Shaw didn’t call the criticism unfair but he did wholeheartedly object to the label.
“He is the farthest thing from a thug you can imagine. Thugs don’t volunteer to help out at Special Olympics when they’re in high school. But the flip side is a guy who’s ultracompetitive. You put him in that environment, where the game is very personal, and when the gauntlet’s thrown down. He’s ready.” – Coach David Shaw, Stanford University
Disagree with his antics if you will, but thug?
Detractors labeled him a thug which is defined as “brutal ruffian, gangster” and the word doesn’t apply to the kid. The Straight Outta Compton album could have been a soundtrack to most articles which referred to the city over and over, adding color to Sherman’s 29-second rant. Words have weight and the word “Compton” made it easy for readers/listeners to visualize a character consistent with profiling. The same way that Sherman’s words and delivery carried a message, so did the words of reporters and bloggers.
If this only happened to big stars in big games, maybe we could let it ride. But what about the overreactions to kids walking through communities or stores? Just days ago, two young brothers were suspended from their high school because of a goofy picture in the local paper. The school superintendent said that the boys, all smiles dressed in basketball uniforms, looked threatening and scary when they made the three-point sign, emulating their hardwood heroes. The photographer took the photos and selected a funny pic. Then there was the community jump from goofy teen to possible “gang” member.
The kids didn’t actually “do” anything worthy of suspension but in order to appease some parents who said that they now felt “unsafe” they suspended the kids. The ACLU is stepping in because the accusations are ridiculous and these kids were punished even when there was no crime.
The media must be more responsible when making these automatic jumps. It has a responsibility and must realize that some ill-tempered, angry watchers take these words and use them to justify harm. Some may think that that jump from discussion of Sherman coverage to murder may be too big. It’s no quicker than the jump from exuberant cornerback to thug. A CNN article talked about the horrific suggestions: ”Richard Sherman deserves to get shot in the (expletive) head. Disrespectful (N-word),” said one, expressing a common refrain. [CNN Sherman Response]
Some people will dig their heels in and hate him because of the rant. That’s fine. That’s football. Fans find reasons to dislike other teams and players, excusing the same behavior in their favorites, placing them on pedestals. But labeling the guy a thug, calling him embarrassment and questioning his intelligence require an unjustified leap that’s made too often when young black boys didn’t fit into the acceptable mold. The words used to describe brash, unapologetic black men can’t always descend so quickly into attacks on their worth. Now let’s get back to football.
SIDE NOTE: I’m speaking to myself here, too. When searching for images, I looked first at the images that soften him, like those in his bow ties or Polo shirt. Then I thought, NO! Show him in all of that masculine, muscular strength that made him top corner because that should be seen as smart, too! Brilliance and boldness are not incompatible. Celebrate it all!