Richard Sherman And Respectability Politics In Sports

By Arturo R. García

One of the worst things about the worst responses to Richard Sherman’s interview Sunday night with Erin Andrews might be this: he probably saw it coming, and has decades’ worth of history to back him in that response.

To bring non-sportsball readers up to speed: Sherman, a cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks, made the defensive play that finalized the team’s win over the San Francisco 49ers. Afterwards, correspondent Erin Andrews asked him, “Take me through that last play.” Sherman then slammed the 49ers’ Michael Crabtree, the intended receiver on that final play:

Sherman: Well, I’m the best corner in the game! When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that’s the result you gonna get! Don’t you EVER talk about me.
Andrews: Who was talking about you?
Sherman: Crabtree. Don’t you open your mouth about the best. Or I’m gonna shut it for you real quick. L-O-B.
[Note: "L-O-B" refers to the team's secondary, the "Legion of Boom."]

The interview was reportedly cut short at Fox Sports’ behest. Andrews has not commented on whether she felt uncomfortable during her interview with Sherman Sunday night. But a few things to note: Sherman, a Stanford University graduate and Sports Illustrated contributor, does not direct his anger towards her, does not denigrate the 49ers or San Francisco as a whole, and answers her follow-up question without hesitation.

But it’s not the degree doing the talking for him, either; that show of emotion is the kind of thing we as sports fans often say we want from a post-game interview. Sherman wasn’t “going off on Erin Andrews,” and he didn’t “holler like a crazy person.” Neither did Sherman single Andrews out; he continued to criticize Crabtree in several post-game interviews, including this one with ESPN. As SB Nation reported, Sherman’s beef with Crabtree and 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh seems to date back years. So it’s also likely that Andrews was at least aware of his general antipathy toward the team.

Nonetheless, it didn’t take long for people to start throwing trash talk of their own at Sherman, mostly of the heavily-racialized variety. In assessing some of the bile spewing online, Racialicious contributor and Feminist Wire associate editor David J. Leonard described how many observers succumb to respectability politics when comparing Sherman’s rhetoric to the way behavior by white college players like Johnny Manziel and Marhall Henderson is treated:

The differential responses are not just telling us about sporting cultures but the ways that privilege and power operate within a larger landscape. The reason Richard Sherman elicits panic and outrage is anchored by the same sort of ideologies that normalizes school suspension rates, that fosters racial profiling, and systemic inequality. Whereas at worst Henderson and Manziel are criticized for poor judgement, as INDIVIDUALS, Sherman becomes a moment where hegemonic tropes about blackness, about hip-hop, about black masculinity come circulated. He’s representative (and his post-game passion is imagined as indicative of some pathology and some problematic values) where at worst Manziel and Henderson are exceptions (their behavior is also exceptions to their CORE identity).

All too often, when white players engage in trash-talk, it’s coded as Being A Competitor, or Being Fearless. The legend of Peyton Manning, for instance, wasn’t derailed in 2003 when he went on live television and ripped “idiot kicker” and then-Indianapolis teammate Mike Vanderjagt during the Pro Bowl. Instead, SI just named him Sportsman of the Year, over LGBT sports trailblazers Jason Collins, Britney Griner, and Robbie Rogers.

It’s not like Manning is the only one getting a pass: New England’s Tom Brady yells at his teammates in public and NFL — excuse me, NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE — pundits trip over each other to tell you he’s Showing His Passion For The Game. Sherman actually pointed out on Fox Sports that, contrary to his squeaky-clean rep, Brady is an inveterate trash-talker in his own right; he just does it when the television cameras aren’t looking. Yet no one is appalled or distressed by this revelation.

Meanwhile, Dallas’ Dez Bryant argues with his quarterback and a network analyst tells him to “grow up.” White quarterbacks wear baseball caps backwards and it’s an everyday thing; San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick does it and a Buffalo newspaper’s NFL beat writer complains that he’s being unprofessional. Richie Incognito reportedly uses racist slurs in the course of bullying Miami teammate Jonathan Martin and it’s “locker room culture”; Martin leaves the squad and he’s “soft.”

As Brian Stuart pointed out after Sunday’s game, Sherman’s awareness of the coded language used against him also permeates this earphones commercial, in which we see a nearly all-white press corps’ attitude toward him shift during the course of a locker-room interview, leading up to one reporter asking, “What do you think of your reputation as a thug?”:

What will really be interesting will be seeing how Sherman’s image evolves over time. The trajectories of Keyshawn Johnson, Michael Irwin, Deion Sanders, and Shannon Sharpe suggests that football players derided as arrogant during their playing days are granted more leeway once they enter the league’s announcing ranks, where they’re no doubt encouraged to be outspoken. Time and public opinion has been kinder to lightning rods in other sports: Charles Barkley, once criticized for declaring, “I am not a role model,” is now loved for his blunt critiques as an NBA analyst. And Muhammad Ali, a notoriously cruel trash-talker who was practically depicted as a pariah for taking his outspokenness into the intersections of sports, religion and politics, won public “redemption” to the point that he was asked to light the Olympic torch.

The short-term implications of Sherman’s remarks, however, seem fairly obvious: several media outlets will frame the upcoming Denver/Seattle Super Bowl as a clash between Old School and New, with Manning championing Football Like It Should Be. Sherman, meanwhile, will no doubt be castigating for Talking Too Much and Not Taking The Game Seriously by being loud, confident and skilled. (Safe to say nobody will complain that Manning has more endorsement deals than Super Bowl appearances.) If Sherman plays well enough to win Most Valuable Player honors for the game, it will be framed as his Redemption. If he’s burned for a score, it will be Justice for daring to not be humble enough. And you can bet that next season, many of the people who mock Sherman’s long hair will rush to share the “funny names” comedians Key & Peele make up for their “East/West Bowl” sketches.

But not because of race, of course. Not that it would seem to matter to Sherman, who appears to be ready to win the last word for himself:

Update: Sherman addressed these issues in a follow-up column for SI Monday morning:

To those who would call me a thug or worse because I show passion on a football field—don’t judge a person’s character by what they do between the lines. Judge a man by what he does off the field, what he does for his community, what he does for his family.

But people find it easy to take shots on Twitter, and to use racial slurs and bullying language far worse than what you’ll see from me. It’s sad and somewhat unbelievable to me that the world is still this way, but it is. I can handle it.

  • sherifffruitfly

    It was an excellent opportunity to witness the fact that the difference between white “progressives”, and teabaggers, is not nearly so great as we might wish to believe. Their pearl-clutching was epic.

  • Kraas

    Now, I’m with Steve Smith, I would never pull for any team besides the Panthers, but this has made me a fan of Richard Sherman, if not the Seahawks themselves. The fact that he gets called out for standard trash talk while guys like Tom Brady (I can’t stand him or the Patriots) get a pass is BS.

  • Miles_Ellison

    The media is all about creating, perpetuating, and reinforcing negative stereotypes of non-white people. This is why Sherman’s postgame comments are representative of all black people and are a sign of the Apocalypse, while Jim Harbaugh’s childish tantrums aren’t even commented upon, let alone held up as a representative example of white behavior.

  • Kazzy

    And while all this is going on, the perpetually rude and standoffish Bill Belichick accuses Wes Welker of deliberately attempting to injure his player. Where is everyone calling him a classless thug for attacking an opposing player? What am I saying… this is a guy that gets idolized for wearing a hoodie, something for which black coach would surely be excoriated.

    http://espn.go.com/boston/nfl/story/_/id/10321911/2013-nfl-playoffs-bill-belichick-new-england-patriots-unhappy-wes-welker-hit-aqib-talib

  • Kazzy

    FWIW, Andrews has tweeted out that she wasn’t scared during the interview… “not even close”…

    http://twitchy.com/2014/01/19/candid-response-fox-sports-erin-andrews-offers-reaction-to-richard-sherman-sideline-interview/

    [Scroll to the update at the bottom]