Last night, in the second game of a conference championship weekend for the ages, the Seattle Seahawks defeated the San Francisco 49ers, 23-17, to send themselves to the Super Bowl for the second time in franchise history and, for what it’s worth, the second time in the last decade. Seattle has been an undeniably fun team to watch in the last two years, and particularly this season. The Seahawks have lost at home only once in the Russell HUSTLE BUSTLE Wilson era, in a Week 16 matchup earlier this season to a surprisingly good Arizona Cardinals team, and some fans have even taken to adopting a Phish song as Wilson’s personal entrance music. It is only right that a fun team from the Pacific Northwest, from the city without an NBA franchise, should represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
Then, Richard Sherman happened.
Sherman, Seattle’s Pro Bowl cornerback who led the NFL in interceptions this season, made the play which sent the Seahawks to the Super Bowl. With the 49ers down 6 and in dangerous territory with under a minute to play, quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a shot at the end zone and at Michael Crabtree, one of his most effective receivers and a man who had already accumulated 4 receptions and 52 yards on the day. His defender, Sherman, cloaked him tightly on a fade route to the corner of the end zone, tipping the ball at just the right time into the hands of linebacker Malcolm Smith and ending the game.
Afterward, Sherman gave a remarkably candid interview to FOX Sports’ Erin Andrews:
People immediately took to Twitter. The reactions ran the gamut from highly supportive to blatantly racist. For what it’s worth, this was my personal favorite:
Most of the arguments, however, related to Sherman not being “classy,” whatever that means. In the theatre of American professional sports, people seem to think that it is acceptable only to be robotic in interviews. Candid, unprepared responses, which can send PR representatives running for the hills, are lauded only when someone like Peyton Manning expresses his desire to put a beer in his mouth. Manning has carried on a generally positive rapport with the media, while Sherman once said that he is better at life than Skip Bayless, which may or may not be absolutely true. In that discussion, by the way, Sherman maintains his composure in a professional setting. Some might look at his demeanor with Skip as classy, in fact.
Here are a few facts about Richard Sherman:
- Salutatorian at Compton (CA) Dominguez High School, a fact which apparently “still hurts.”
- Began as a wide receiver at Stanford, only to switch to defensive back due to team need.
- Stayed a fifth year at Stanford, beginning graduate school while playing football for the Cardinal.
- (Allegedly) sent out possibly the best email ever in response to student residence hall concerns.
- Achieved a degree in Communications, which some speculated was the reason he did not curse and also looked directly into the camera for the entirety of the Erin Andrews post-game interview.
- A fifth-round selection of the Seahawks in 2011, Sherman received his first-ever Pro Bowl selection this season.
- Had just finished playing a professional football game and was maybe, possibly fired up after making a season-saving play which sent his team to the Super Bowl.
Sherman is an outstanding individual and team player and a huge reason the Seahawks won the NFC Championship. He routinely locks down the opposing team’s best receiver, and until this season was the only real competition for Darrelle Revis in the discussion of “league’s best defensive back” (given Revis’ reeling season in Tampa Bay, of course, Sherman definitively is the best). He had only been targeted twice the entire game, which speaks to the massive amount of respect his former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh must have for him.
Sherman became America’s villain, tantamount to the staged hatred of WWE characters. The major dialogue on Twitter and other forms of social media following the game surrounded Sherman as the “unclassy” player for what he said about Michael Crabtree. Class as a concept in professional sports is ridiculous in the first place; SB Nation’s Spencer Hall covered the topic more thoroughly and eloquently than I can when discussing a Marcus Lattimore tribute that South Carolina Gamecocks head coach, and notorious rascal, Steve Spurrier made at a game against in-state rival Clemson. In that article, Hall makes the point that, “Calling someone ‘classy’ is by extension calling someone else ‘déclassé,’ or ‘reduced for fallen in status.’ it also makes you sound like a 75-year-old man, and not a particularly smart one. If you’re comfortable with that, then there you are.”
To perpetuate the idea that Sherman lacks class simply because he believes wholeheartedly in himself is lazy and misguided. On Monday, he published a response on SI.com’s Monday Morning Quarterback in which he made the assertion that Crabtree had spurned him after the play. A lot of the naysayers seemed to miss it, including myself as an avid Sherman supporter, but replays did, in fact, show that Sherman had tried to shake Crabtree’s hand in a display of good sportsmanship, only to have Crabtree shove him in the face mask. Given Sherman’s penchant for taunting the opposition, it is as likely as not that he went for the handshake as a means of getting a rise out of Crabtree. We have no way of knowing his intent for certain. What we do know is that he did not make malicious physical contact with Crabtree. In the juvenile game of “but he did it first,” Crabtree was the perceived original instigator, and really, it’s amazing that Sherman did not immediately strike back in that moment.
It is positively foolish of us as a society to ask professional athletes, people who have been coddled from childhood simply because of their sporting prowess, to act emotionless at all times and under all circumstances aside from games. Being a professional athlete is probably the only profession in the world, unless you are a particularly divisive musician or comedian, in which you are constantly praised and scorned simultaneously. And then you are interviewed about it while cleaning up and changing out of work clothes.
The psychological trauma and hero worship have to play a much bigger role in daily attitudes than mere mortals like you or I can ever imagine. Yet, for 99% of post-game interviews, we hear the same things from the top players in every sport: “We just gotta get out there and play our own game.” “______ is a great player, and he is going to be tough competition.” “We just didn’t execute.” “It is an honor just to have made it this far, but we still have work to do.” “It’s a team game, and it is going to take every one of us to make it to the next level.”
And so on, and so forth. For every Manning or Sherman reaction in which the robotic prose of the modern athlete is broken in favor of the hero stooping down to mortality, there are thousands of words from trained, refined superstars like LeBron James or Derek Jeter, most of which are entirely meaningless and shed no light on the lifestyle these people lead. Which isn’t to say that Sherman leads a sporadic, excitable lifestyle, but it is always refreshing to see someone at his level speak out and be as candid as he was, the class discussion be damned.
Athletes have fun for a living, though they might not think so. To go from what is essentially a child’s pastime to a professional mentality in five minutes or less is a herculean task by any measure, and these people do it every day. The most emotion reporters can usually coax out of athletes come from the ones who end up on the shorter end of the stick, those who didn’t win.
A football player who spends the better part of seven-to-eight months preparing for a game he ultimately loses would be like a business manager devoting the same amount of time to a company pitch that fails. It would be understandable for the man in either position to cry after all the energy wasted, yet only the former has a microphone shoved in his face for public reaction immediately following his work.
Sherman’s interview will undoubtedly stand as the most memorable part of this championship weekend and, depending on how the Super Bowl goes, maybe the season, in terms of the media. Just ask Bart Scott, whose similarly energetic post-game reaction following a New York Jets victory over the New England Patriots in 2010 lives long after the team lost the very next weekend to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Perhaps interviews like Sherman’s and Scott’s will open a dialogue on the condition of the American athlete and its perception to the masses. It is not natural, not human, for a person to be so predisposed to non-opinions and filler speak. We should be grateful that someone like Sherman spoke out, even at the expense of Michael Crabtree, and allowed us into the class of “professional athlete,” if only for a moment.