The Shermanation of Sport
For those of you who have been under a rock for the last week or are unfamiliar with the NFL world, Seattle Seahawks Pro-Bowl cornerback, Richard Sherman, had a post-game rant for the ages. In a nutshell, he questioned the talent of Michael Crabtree (a wide receiver for the San Francisco 49ers, whom he was covering) and called himself the best in the game. In fairness, this rant is in response to a feud between the two players, likely in-game trash talking, and post game antics which featured a stiff-arm to the face of Sherman when he attempted to shake hands with Crabtree following the final whistle of the game where Sherman's Seahawks defeated the 49ers to advance to the Superbowl.
It is distracting, sends out negative vibes in the clubhouse, it is damaging to team moral, and worst of all...it sells tickets
My knee-jerk reaction, like most of North America, was to condemn the actions of an athlete who was clearly an egotistical, self-centred pre-madonna. Having played elite level sports of various kinds, I have had the pleasure (?) of playing with athletes who thought they were the second coming of Jesus, and let me tell you, it's not fun. It is distracting, sends out negative vibes in the clubhouse, it is damaging to team moral, and worst of all...it sells tickets. Who wants to see a self-rightous, cocky bully get smashed in the mouth with Karma? I do. And very likely, so do you.
Sport is war
Before delving deeper into what I will call the Shermanation of sport (for current relevance - though others of much greater stature have come before; Muhammad Ali, Gary Peyton, even Ty Cobb), I want to illustrate what kind of people both Michael Crabtree and Richard Sherman are: they are both educated, hard-working (you can't be a top athlete at the professional ranks without hard work), well-liked by teammates, active in their communities (both have charities in their names), and both give 100% on the field. By all accounts, they are stand-up human-beings, phenomenal athletes, and role-model material. But nobody wants to see nice-guys be nice. Sport is war. More specifically, football is war; quite literally. Two sides, wearing different uniforms, generals on the sidelines, plans of attack, hell, there's even trenches (the offensive and defensive lines). As an observer, it is not only incumbent upon you to pick a side, it's engrained in you. We are, in the end, pack animals that want to win, because our survival depends on it; thus, we follow the strongest leaders - who we hope is our home team! And if there is anything we have learned from being animals (or more likely from watching the nature channel, now that we are all soft and dulled of sense from centuries of loafing), it is that the biggest, baddest, loudest and most robust alpha usually wins.
My initial reaction to Richard Sherman was dislike. I didn't know much about the man, other than he was a good cornerback in the NFL (the greatest, actually, so he tells me) and that he played for as close to a home team as we can get in the NFL, living in Vancouver, Canada . I was even cheering for his team to win, so one would think my first reaction would be to defend his actions. After thinking before writing (this blog is 5 days after the fact), I have come to the conclusion that Richard Sherman is not to blame. He is a victim of emotion and circumstance, and while he makes no apologies for his actions, I have since forgiven him (I'm sure that will come as a great relief to Richard). The truth is that I am Richard Sherman and so are you. As fans, we have shaped these players over decades of competition to entertain us. Sure, they entertain us with astonishing feats of physicality, but also entertain us with character and the antics that are sure to follow. Boxers and mixed martial artists often get paid a percentage of gate (attendance) sales as part of their compensation, thus, it has always been a prerogative to "sell the fight", ie. create speculative interest in the event with the intent of driving ticket sales. Muhammad Ali was one of the pioneers (and the most poetic and impressive on this writers list). At the time, he was the target of ample amounts of ire; not only was he a black athlete in a time of serious racial tension, but he was confident, strong, good-looking, and eloquent. He was everything white America feared and easy to dislike if you weren't in his corner. He refused to back down and refused to apologize for who he was (sound familiar?). In the beginning, while Ali had fans who bought tickets to support him, even more people bought tickets to root against him. It didn't even matter who he was fighting, he was the rival and it was worth the price of admission if one got the chance to see him lose.
Rivalries permeate today's games as well. But how does a rivalry form? They say familiarity breeds contempt. I would argue that familiarity builds fondness and that contempt is manufactured.
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts
- William Shakespeare
To source past "trash talkers" of recent memory, one need not look outside the scope of NFL football. Receivers Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco would both be described by most fans (who aren't Dallas Cowboys fans) as entertaining and talented. Both are known for extravagant touchdown celebrations that are fun to watch, fine worthy, and, if you are cheering for the team opposing theirs, infuriating. Let's be perfectly honest, if the NFL wanted to stop this excessive celebrating, they would have given him more than a $7,500 fine and a 15 yard penalty (0.09% of his $8,000,000 salary for the year), but they didn't. Why? Because it is entertaining and it sells tickets. So does Richard Sherman. So when these athletes present a larger than life on-field persona, it is all too easy to get caught up in the hype of professional sports and cast judgment in the hopes of making your enemy a pariah.
If you don't like the man he is on the field and in interviews, that's too bad, because it's your fault that he's that guy
There have been reports of public and social media name calling, a myriad of judgment being passed and overt racism in reference to Sherman (let's be honest, the racists will always find an excuse). My initial response was to jump on the judgment jeep and criticize Sherman like I was appalled at the person he is, or thought he was. But in truth, Richard Sherman isn't even Richard Sherman. Richard Sherman the Seahawk is a brash, cocky, antagonist. He's good and he knows it. Moreover, he knows that you know it, and if you don't, he'll tell you. The reality is that only his friends and family know the real Richard Sherman, and it is only those who know him best who can be the real judge of his character. If you don't like the man he is on the field and in interviews, that's too bad, because it is your fault that he is that guy. You buy the tickets to yell at him, to see him lose and watch him fail, but you are still buying the ticket that is the foundation of his paycheque.
Society needs to understand that everything presented to them is to be taken with a grain of salt. Medical advice, TV news, the radio, advertising, sports are all there for three things 1) To entertain you, 2) To get your money, and 3) To get your money. Sports is entertainment. The reason professional athletes get away with taking performance enhancing drugs (and they do on a mass scale), the reason trash talking goes unpunished, and the reason they are paid millions of dollars to play a game is because you support them by watching games on TV, buying tickets and buying merchandise. So before you judge the next athlete who goes on a rant about being the greatest, know that you made them that way. And before you send a hate-tweet or slam them at the office water cooler, ask yourself if you have been entertained. If the answer is yes (and it is yes, because you are still talking about it), then know that he has done his job and that it doesn't concern him one bit what you think...because it's your problem, not his.