I watched last week’s NFC Championship game between the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers. At the end of the 4th quarter, with his team down by 6 points, 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick drove his team down the field. But the 49ers’ comeback was thwarted when a pass thrown to wide receiver Michael Crabtree was tipped by Seahawks’ cornerback Richard Sherman to linebacker Malcolm Smith. Interception. At that point, as far as I was concerned, the game was over. “My” team was going to lose (23-17), so I changed the channel.
Later, when I was on Twitter, I began to see references to Richard Sherman’s post-game interview. (I remember the announcers discussing Sherman’s path from Compton-to Stanford University-to the NFL during a game earlier in the season, but, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t know him from Adam.) Some were attacking his so-called “classless” behavior, calling him a “thug,” an “ape,” and even a “nigger.” Others were being supportive of him. And I wondered, What on earth did he say? I imagined all manner of socially unacceptable language and behavior, but I decided not to investigate. I just wasn’t in the mood to be angry.
On Monday morning this story still had legs, so I reluctantly read an on-line article that was critical of Sherman’s in game antics–which included giving the 49ers’ quarterback the “choke” sign–and his post-game interview. I braced myself for something outrageous, but what I saw almost humorous. Perhaps I had only seen a clip of what had to be a longer interview. I couldn’t find any reason why people would be upset. Sherman was excited after the game, and he engaged in some very mild trash-talking. Come now, calling someone “sorry”? Well, I’ve heard worse trash-talk than that during a game of Spades. This was clearly “much ado about nothing.”
Yes, it was “much ado about nothing,” but this situation exposes the schizophrenic nature of how football is framed and the ugliness of racism. The NFL cultivates this “hard knocks” image of tough guys who hit hard. Players are sometimes referred to as soldiers, warriors, or gladiators, invoking the image of being engaged in a life-or-death struggle. They put their well-being on the line in a physical, brutal game where serious game-ending/season-ending/career-ending injuries can happen every week. At the same time, however, the league also attempts to cultivate a “family-friendly” image, especially when nearing “the big game,” the Super Bowl. (Janet Jackson, anyone?) Less “hard knocks” more Disneyland. So, Sherman was fined by the NFL and pilloried by others.
It’s clear to me that the league wants those raw, adrenaline-filled reactions in the post-game interviews. Otherwise, why not allow players to go to the locker room, shower, and field questions in the post-game press conference only?
“Much ado about nothing” except that in what is often described as a level playing field (sports), some people that earn their livelihood covering football (media) called Sherman a thug, even though he did nothing criminal. Sherman was boisterous; he may have even been annoying, but his behavior was certainly not outside the limits of “normal” football behavior. Yet, some fans, who consume the game for their entertainment, felt justified in using racial epithets to describe him.
If you ask me, we shouldn’t be debating Sherman’s words or actions, even if our attempt is to explain them or defend him. We should be discussing why people who consume the NFL for profit or entertainment saw fit to trot out tired tropes and negative stereotypes about blackness, to use vile racial epithets, or to use code words like thug, “as a substitute for the n-word,” to describe Sherman. That is what is classless.