by Paul West
When sideline reporter Erin Andrews asked Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman about his game-saving defensive play at the end of tonight’s NFC Championship, his response added to his growing notoriety. Asked to “take me through that play,” Sherman instead shouted, “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 going to get…don’t you ever talk about me.” Andrews asked who was talking about him, and Sherman announced, “Crabtree.” Not content to stop there, he glared into the camera and yelled, “don’t you open your mouth about the best or I’m gonna shut it for you real quick. LOB.” Andrews, to her credit, took it in stride and passed the broadcast back to the studio. And “LOB”–my need to clarify this will soon become apparent–stands for the nickname of the Seahawks’ defense, “Legion of Boom.” Not a ‘hood, clique or anything else.
The reaction was immediate, on social media and around the football (and non football) world. Twitter blew a gasket, running the gamut from “stay classy” comments to “that was better than the usual canned responses” comments. My personal reaction was closer to the former: I think Sherman not only exhibited poor sports(person)ship, but a lack or professionalism as well as a lack of regard for an interviewer who had asked a pretty sound question. I tend to favor the “talk with your game” approach, and I understand that not everyone feels that way–but even if you don’t feel that way, it seems over the top at least and embarrassing at worst to blow a gasket at that moment. If Crabtree was talking trash, well, you just knocked the game-winning score out of his hands and into that of your teammate; how about breaking that down? To me, that’s as sweet as revenge gets in that situation. If you want to throw in a little verbal jab while you break down the play, so be it. Instead, Sherman’s rant made him seem like a poor sport, not to mention a little unhinged, and confirmed my impression of him as a loudmouth. Of course, these things unto themselves are bad enough, but many folks on social media went a sadly predictable route in their criticism of Sherman: labeling him a “thug,” which is not only silly and reductive, but something Sherman should have seen coming and walked gleefully into.
Dear mainstream America: not every brown-skinned man with a big mouth is a thug. Not every brown-skinned man with braids or dreadlocks is a thug. Not every brown-skinned man from the inner city and/or the ghetto is a thug. Richard Sherman was born in Compton, to a father who drove a garbage truck, and graduated from high school with ridiculous grades and excellent SAT scores. He went to Stanford University, studied communications and graduated with a 3.8 or 3.9 GPA, depending on whose reports you read. When he troubles himself as such, Sherman can be articulate, pensive and even charismatic on camera. None of these things are particularly thug-like. That Sherman’s over the top tirade–as well as his previous history of on-camera narcissism and poor sports(person)ship–have garnered him the ‘thug’ label in the eyes of so many is exactly why, as an educated and intelligent African-American man, his postgame actions are so disappointing. Because, even ‘in this day and age’ (to use an expression with generally causes me great consternation when used by people who can’t seem to digest how little many things have changed in our society), mainstream America’s casual assumptions about African-American males still lean toward insult and caricature. So as an educated, intelligent Stanford man, my irritation with Sherman’s rant was not just because he’s a loudmouth and a poor sport–but because I felt like, c’mon, man, you’re caricaturing not just yourself but all of us!
It saddens me that my position on this incident, and this article as well, will in many people’s eyes land me in the camp of the social conservative. Many folks will infer herein that I think Sherman, and others, should play the corporate robot game, give mainstream-friendly sound bites and do what society expects of them for the sake of image. This couldn’t be more wrong. I have over half a dozen tattoos. I grew up on, and avidly listen to, both heavy metal and ‘hardcore’ rap. Politically, I’m pretty far left of center, and I tend to dislike both authoritarians and conformists. My position here is not in favor of conformity, but rather social awareness and a reasonable sense of timing–not to mention being a good sport. The sad fact is, mainstream America does a very bad job of differentiating among brown folks. As such, brown folks who are just plain old loudmouths, knuckleheads and poor sports get lumped in the ‘thugs’ who have been embedded in the national consciousness by the PR tactics of the right wing (aaah, I digress, but you see my point). Brown folks have the right to be knuckleheads and loudmouths just like pink folks, beige folks or any other folks–but they also need to bear in mind that they aren’t perceived fairly, and when they play into the hands of those who label them unfairly, they help undermine the advancements and fair treatment of other brown folks who might, you know, want to go to Stanford someday. As for the matter of being a lousy sport, well, see above about my ‘talk with your game’ philosophy. I’m not saying there’s never room for any kind of trash talk, but I always favor timing and temperance over most other things–and Sherman, seriously, showed a complete lack of both timing and temperance after tonight’s game.
Really, it’s sad that I’m writing this article. It’s sad that being a brown guy with a big mouth gets you labeled a ‘thug.’ It’s sad that Richard Sherman doesn’t understand that he can keep his bombastic personality but pick his spots a little better. And this issue is far more complex than I can address in the roughly one thousand words of which this blog piece is comprised. But my humbly offered advice to Mr. Sherman would be that there’s some value in letting your game do the talking, and there’s some value in understanding the effect your words and actions have not just on yourself, but those like you who are always fighting uphill against reductive labeling and lack of opportunity. You’re a smart young man who strove his way to great grades at an excellent school, and has achieved great heights as arguably the best at his craft. You’re also opinionated, brash, competitive and don’t want to let people get away with badmouthing you. Fine. But these aspects of you aren’t mutually exclusive, and your intelligence and hard work don’t mean as much if you keep making it so easy for people to slap unfair labels on you. You wanna mouth off, fine. But pick your spots. Dr. King wanted us us to be judged by the content of our character, but we’re still judged by the color of our skin until further notice. Don’t make it so easy to mislabel you.
And to the folks calling Mr. Sherman a thug: there are more than one or two types of African Americans, including the ones from Compton. You can dislike him for being a blowhard, a poor sport and a loudmouth. But let’s leave the ethnic profiling out of it.