What Richard Sherman Didn’t Teach Us About America

Isaac Saul has a great piece up on Huffington Post, What Richard Sherman Taught Us About America. In case you had any doubts from my previous coverage of the incident, I enjoyed Saul’s defense of the star cornerback. But I also want to defend America, which is why I take issue with two pieces of his analysis.

Here’s the first excerpt I want to talk about:

Last night, when Richard Sherman went on his rant to Erin Andrews, most of America thought they were learning about the arrogance of another NFL player. But in reality, what Richard Sherman did was teach us about ourselves. He taught us that we’re still a country that isn’t ready for lower-class Americans from neighborhoods like Compton to succeed. We’re still a country that can’t decipher a person’s character.

I realize that I just said Saul wrote an excellent piece, and here I am disagreeing with his conclusion. But there are two claims here I want to take issue with. The first is that America is a country that can’t decipher a person’s character. The second is that America is just too damn racist. I’ll respond to those allegations in that order, and since this piece is long, the short version is that one of Saul’s claims can be true, but it’s hard to argue for both of them at the same time.

First, to the extent that anyone took his outburst as an opportunity to evaluate Richard Sherman’s character as a whole, I think Saul is right: that was a silly thing to do — he is a complex human being, and trying to evaluate any one of those is difficult under any circumstances. But I’m not sure that’s what most of the uproar was about.

Consider the average NFL fan. He’s seen a handful of Seahawks games this season – maybe his team played them once or twice or three times – and also knows Sherm from some of his headlines – U MAD BRO?, PED appeal victory, Super Bowl week trolling in NOLA, etc. Maybe he saw Sherm’s featured spot by NFL Films or agrees (unlikely) that he is “the most interesting player in football.” It’s possible he’ll take the opportunity of this interview to pass judgment on Sherman’s character – but it’s more likely his reaction is just a visceral response to being yelled at through the TV when he was expecting something more along the lines of, “I’m going to Disneyland!”

And Saul knows it. That’s why he dedicates the bulk of his piece to describing the obstacles Sherman has overcome, and his amazing work ethic and dedication and intelligence. The reason Saul has to share this information is because, presumably, his readers aren’t already all that familiar RS25. Which is why his first allegation strikes me as particularly hollow. Saul just got done telling us all about Sherman’s upbringing in Compton, under the assumption that much of America didn’t already know the backstory. So how could it possibly be that America’s not ready for someone with that backstory?

So leaving aside America’s evaluative incapabilities, let’s consider Saul’s first allegation on its own. Imagine for a moment that everyone knows Sherman’s story. Is it true “that we’re still a country that isn’t ready for lower-class Americans from neighborhoods like Compton to succeed?” Maybe, as Greg Howard alleges over at Deadspin, America just can’t deal with someone who’s black, talented and arrogant. That’s probably true of the assholes and morons who wrote all those racist tweets. But does the Sherman incident condemn America as a whole? Color me skeptical: I think it’s entirely possible to have been taken aback by Sherman’s antics without having a racist bone in your body, and that’s coming from someone who died of laughter when he first watched the infamous interview. Here’s a piece of Howard’s evidence:

It’s why antics and soundbites from guys like Brett Favre, Johnny Football and Bryce Harper seem almost hyper-American, capable of capturing the country’s imagination, but black superstars like Sherman, Floyd Mayweather, and Cam Newton are seen as polarizing, as selfish, as glory boys, as distasteful and perhaps offensive. It’s why we recoil at Kanye West’s rants, like when West, one of the greatest musical minds of our generation, had the audacity to publicly declare himself a genius (was this up for debate?), and partly why, over the six years of Barack Obama’s presidency, a noisy, obstreperous wing of the GOP has seemed perpetually on the cusp of calling him “uppity.” Barry Bonds at his peak was black, talented, and arrogant; he was a problem for America. Joe Louis was black, talented, and at least outwardly humble; he was “a credit to his race, the human race,” as Jimmy Cannon once wrote.

I think, as a general matter, this analysis is wrong. For one thing, it completely ignores why some of those guys are reviled. People don’t hate Bonds because he’s black, they hate him because he used steroids. For another, Howard’s list also leaves off any number of African-American trash-talkers whose legacies seem to be perfectly healthy: Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Gary Payton, Deion Sanders, and so on. Hell, even Kevin Durant can act all unsportsmanlike and still be described – by Deadspin – as “the best Kevin Durant.” This list is one big cherry-picking festival.

So aside from the racists (whether they tweeted or not), I don’t think America’s general reaction had much to do with race. It’s possible that I’m totally wrong, but I prefer to give my country the benefit of the doubt. Maybe (definitely) they don’t really deserve it, but I honestly do think this particular outrage had a lot more to do with timing. The element of surprise. What the hell does “L-O-V” stand for? Richard Sherman the person – not the idea – really did just manage to rub America the wrong way. And that’s fine. He’s ours and you can’t have him anyway.

My second objection really has little to do with Sherman:

This past off-season, 31 NFL players were arrested for everything from gun charges and driving under the Influence to murder.

Last year, Kansas City Chiefs player Javon Belcher killed Kasandra Perkins, his girlfriend and the mother of his own child, before taking his own life.

I’m with you, Saul, for the first paragraph; Sherman’s like none of those guys. But contrasting him with Belcher was totally unnecessary. Obviously, what Belcher did to his girlfriend was horrendous, and I don’t mean to diminish the evil of murder. Nothing excuses murder-suicide, and the following advice definitely continues to apply under any and all circumstances:

That said, there are lawsuits pending against the NFL that might turn, to some degree, on whether signs of CTE are detected in Belcher’s recently-exhumed brain. WIRED has a good write-up of the litigation, published just yesterday. In other words, on the question of whether Belcher is just a criminal or also somewhat of a victim, the jury is still out — literally. Lumping him in with the 31 players who were arrested for crimes unlikely to be ever be traced to CTE might turn out to be deeply unfair.

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