Know this. Professional sports and bravado are related constructs, if not synonyms. There’s a whole lot of reasons for that, starting with the fact that it takes a whole lot of ego to honestly believe you’re the best in the world at anything, much less something that typically involves direct physical conflict. For example, it’s probably tough to be the world’s leading Proust scholar, to steal from Little Miss Sunshine. And not a whole lot of people know Proust. Imagine believing you can run down the street faster than anyone else. That’s a whole lot of self-confidence behind that blazing speed, which is why watching the promenade towards the starting blocks of the Olympic 100 meter final is like watching peacocks show their feathers. At some point, you better believe it if it’s going to be true.
Richard Sherman believes. He believes he is in fact the greatest cornerback in the game of football, which coincidentally is America’s most popular sport. He also believes that his direct competitor for the lion’s share of last week’s NFC Championship game Michael Crabtree isn’t so great. He called the San Francisco wide receiver mediocre, which is a fairly bold statement about one of the league’s more gifted athletes at one of the game’s most athletic positions. Even though football is a team game, athletes engage in far more interpersonal conflict, matched up against someone from the opposing team almost each and every play. A noseguard knows a center, for example. Same thing’s true in basketball, where point guards and centers lock horns all game, at times oblivious to the athletic world around them. Win your own matchup, and good things will happen for the team, or so it goes.
As most of America has heard by now, Sherman’s statement wasn’t simply bold. It was bombastic. It sounded more like Ric Flair, or maybe Clubber Lang on the steps of the Philly museum in Rocky III. Whomever it sounds like, It didn’t sound like the boilerplate post game text we hear from media coached professional athletes, where they laud the competition and thank their teammate, and otherwise talk more like they’re running for political office than celebrating the joys of victory and testosterone. For example, I don’t think Peyton Manning has ever raised his voice, much less shouted at the camera. That’s a likely product of years in the spotlight and growing up with an NFL quarterback for a father. Richard Sherman, while Stanford educated and plenty articulate, hasn’t benefited by that grounding.
What Richard Sherman also is that Peyton Manning isn’t is black. And he sports long dreadlocks. And when he took to the airwaves like Hulk Hogan after the game, the largely white twitter narrative didn’t speak only of his rhetoric, but also of his personal character. Sherman was labeled a punk, a thug, an idiot, and pretty much any incendiary term that links his bravado to a darker narrative of illicit activity. He couldn’t simple be a jerk, or excited, or perhaps outspoken – he had to be a gangster as well.
The racial stereotypes are easily decoded here. No one called John McEnroe a thug, even as they labeled Serena Williams for similar outbursts. And I’ve never heard anyone call a New York stock trader a thug, even though they might speak in raised tones with ugly diction. It’s unfortunately reminiscent of athletic eras gone by, when Muhammad Ali was spoken of in similar terms of that time.
And it’s also easy to see that in games like football, where we demand intensity in hand-to-hand combat, emotions run high. Very high. Putting a microphone in front of someone at that emotional apex might invite a more raw response than expected. But honestly, anything else seems almost ingenuine, coached even, as most athletes are in this regard.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is this. Professional sports aren’t simply games. They’re performances, with actors in roles we love to see. And people like Richard Sherman play their parts for the better part of three hours, a story that reached a remarkable climax in the closing moments of Sunday’s game. Richard Sherman’s closing statement was part of that act, commanding the same self-confidence that made the play so wonderful throughout. Extrapolating his remarks, volatile as they seemed, to the outside world would be like hating Jack Nicholson for playing the Joker.
Of course, no one would do that. Doing that would be, as Richard Sherman might put it, truly mediocre.
Keith Strudler is chair of the communication department at Marist College and director for the Marist College Center for Sports Communication.
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