By: Judson L. Jeffries, PhD
Richard Sherman plays cornerback for the NFC champion Seattle Seahawks. At 6’3”, 200 lbs., Sherman is the prototypical NFL defensive back. Known for his playmaking ability, he’s a stout run defender and often plays press coverage at the line of scrimmage. If Sherman has a shortcoming, it is his speed clocking in at 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash. A Deion Sanders, Darrell Green or Dominique Rodger-Cromartie he is not. Still, what Sherman lacks in that department he makes up for in intelligence, physicality and athleticism.
On Sunday with time winding down and the game on the line, Sherman thwarted the 49ers comeback when he batted away a Colin Kaepernick pass that was intended for Michael Crabtree on a fade route in the corner of the end zone. The play was the kind that pro bowl cornerbacks (which Sherman surely is) are expected to make, but don’t always do, especially in crunch time. The play was the kind that can define a player’s career; that cultivates legacies; that gets replayed over and over by NFL films. Think Lynn Swann catching a pass from Terry Bradshaw in Super Bowl X while tumbling to the ground with Dallas’ Mark Washington draped all over him or Dwight Clark’s leaping grab (aka The Catch) over Everson Walls in the 1982 NFC championship game propelling the 49ers to the Super Bowl that year where they bested the Cincinnati Bengals for the first of the franchise’s five Lombardi Trophies.
Anyway Pro Bowl corners who consistently make the kind of play that Sherman made are typically rewarded with a bust in Canton, Ohio long after their careers have ended. Seconds after the play, Sherman trotted towards Crabtree who was heading to his team’s sideline. After catching up to him Sherman patted Crabtree on the backside, uttered something and extended his hand, displaying an act of sportsmanship. But Crabtree would have none of that; understandably so. Crabtree’s response: he placed his hand on Sherman’s helmet and pushed him away as if to say “Get the f_ _k outta here with that.” A short while later ESPN reporter Erin Andrews attempted to interview Sherman and what she got was raw unadulterated emotion. Said Sherman, “Don’t ever talk about me, you open your mouth . . . I’ll shut it real quick” exclaimed Sherman. How dare the 49ers throw the ball to a “sorry receiver” like Crabtree and expect to burn me Sherman lamented . . . “I’m the best DB in the gaaaaaaame.”
The best corner in the game . . . well that’s debatable. Among the games’ top five defensive backs, yes, but the best? Until someone shows me otherwise that distinction belongs to Tampa Bay’s Darrelle Revis. Andrews, seemingly flummoxed asked Sherman, rather innocuously if not naively, “who was talking about you?” “Crabtree” yelled Sherman. Sherman’s remarks to Ed Werder, a more seasoned reporter were equally spirited. There’s, undoubtedly, a back story between Sherman and Crabtree to which neither Andrews and Werder nor the viewing public is privy. Despite Sherman’s protestations, however, Crabtree is not a “sorry receiver” or as Sherman exhorted later a “mediocre receiver at best.” What Crabtree is, is a good receiver with a tremendous upside who has yet to live up to the hype that came with being the tenth player taken in the 2009 NFL draft. Crabtree was considered the best wideout among a deep class that included Jeremy Maclin, Percy Harvin, Hakeem Nicks, Kenny Britt and Mike Wallace. Few students of football would dispute this, and Sherman was reminding everyone of that.
Beefs among wide receivers and defensive backs are not new. One of the most famous involved George Atkinson of the Oakland Raiders and Lynn Swann of the Pittsburgh Steelers. In the mid 1970s Atkinson repeatedly used the word soft when referencing Swann during interviews. In 1976 Atkinson clobbered an unsuspecting Swann in the back of the head with a forearm knocking the star receiver of out the game. Atkinson had treated him similarly the previous year in the AFC Championship game. The Atkinson-Swann tiff not withstanding; there are few instances when a receiver or defender goes public with a feud. Sherman went public with it; and did so in WWE fashion, looking like a combination of WWE’s Booker T. Huffman, rapper Busta Rhymes and actor/comedian Doug E. Doug as he stared menacingly into the camera.
Much has been made of Sherman’s outburst. Comments range from “he showed no class” to “his behavior was unnecessary” to “he needs to show more humility.” What is missing though is that we don’t know the extent of the beef. What’s more, emotions were running high and Sherman was undoubtedly operating on adrenaline. In football parlance, he was geeked. For more details about what it’s like to be geeked on the gridiron ask Dr. Kevin L. Brooks whom, while at the University of Cincinnati, benefited from the coaching of John Harbaugh, now head coach of the Baltimore Ravens or Renford Reese, whom played free safety in the vaunted SEC. Ask Reese (one of the Supplement’s regular contributors) what it was like to stop Emmitt Smith from getting a key first down in a highly anticipated match up against Florida in the late 1980s. He’ll tell you he was geeked. He may have yelled some things at Emmitt that he normally would have kept to himself, who knows.
There is, however a larger issue here to which few will admit. There are certain sectors of society that have always abhorred boisterous Black athletes, hence the reason Muhammad Ali was vilified for much of his career while Floyd Patterson was lauded. As gargantuan, gruff and anti-social as Sonny Liston was many whites still preferred him over Ali, because he kept his mouth shut while Ali’s braggadocio ways made him come across as a blowhard, braggart. When his conversion to Islam was made public, the disdain on the part of many whites only increased. And the more he bragged the more vitriol was spat upon him I’m told.
Society prefers Blacks athletes who are quiet and unassuming. Derek Jeter, Barry Sanders, David Robinson, Donovan McNabb, and dare I say, O.J. Simpson are several examples. The same goes for Black coaches. Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith are two such examples. Those who comport themselves in a quiet and assuming manner while entertaining the viewing public are often characterized as class acts. The same people who consider Dungy and Smith class acts would probably not bestow upon Denny Green, formerly head coach of the Minnesota Vikings and Arizona Cardinals the same compliment. Class acts are also often perceived as nonthreatening. In other words, they don’t act in a way that would suggest they are accusatory, disgruntled or dissatisfied with “the system” in any way, shape or form. Whether or not they actually are is beside the point. As long as they appear that way in the field of play is what’s important to some.
Of course there are Black athletes who are quiet, but no one would accuse them of being unassuming. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Jim Brown and Curt Flood are several examples of athletes who were quiet while on the field of play, but of course, had lots to say away from it about any number of issues they believed impacted Black people’s well being. Their silence within the field of play, however, was so deafening, so ominous that it was interpreted by some as militant, and rightly so. Abdul-Jabbar, Russell, Brown and Flood are four of the most socially conscious Black athletes of the past fifty years, which may in part explain why they were not as beloved as some of their happy-go lucky contemporaries.
On Sunday Sherman came across angry and forceful, which made Erin Andrews cringe, and it was noticeable, which in turn probably made some white males uncomfortable. At that moment, in the deep recesses of some people’s minds Sherman may have represented the Big Black Buck, a savage from which white women must be protected by their male counterparts whom, ironically, history has revealed has done more to consign them to an inferior position in American society than any Black man could ever dream of doing. On this subject is a ton of literature, none of which will be rehashed here. In the end, Sherman did not behave in accordance with societal norms where race is concerned. He was brash, loud and full of bravado, maybe even full of himself. When you’re Black and you brag, but you back it up you’re despised, and on some perverse level, envied. When you’re Black and you brag, but fall flat on your face you become a laughingstock and are soon ignored.
Did Sherman get carried away? Yes. Was his behavior in poor taste? Probably. Belittling Crabtree and taunting San Francisco’s quarterback by flashing the choke sign was no doubt unnecessary. At the same time, was more made of Sherman’s histrionics than was merited? Absolutely—no crime was committed. There’s no evidence that Sherman spat on or tried to physically injure an opposing player. Moreover, nowhere in Sherman’s diatribe did I detect the slightest hint of vulgarity nor did he toss about any words that needed to be bleeped out.
Unfortunately what Sherman may have succeeded in doing is giving a certain fan base a convenient excuse to couch him as a villain, which may or may not adversely impact his earning power, both on and off the field. The backlash that Sherman has suffered as a result of the theatre that unfolded on Sunday with him in the lead role is but a microcosm of American society. If nothing else Sherman may do well to keep this in the forefront of his mind as he attempts to cement his reputation as being universally recognized as the best DB in the game, rather than the self-proclaimed best DB in the gaaaaaaame.