By now, I’m sure everyone is aware that the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos won their respective conference title games yesterday, and will be playing in the Super Bowl in two weeks time. During those two weeks, the Internet (and media in general) will be swamped with an overabundance of reporting on topics ranging from the use of “Omaha” in Peyton Manning’s cadences to the quest for the Seahawks’ first title in franchise history. Most people will be sick of this, yet will continue to click upon every link offered to them because…well, football. (You can also look ahead with relish and anticipation for my annual liveblog of the Super Bowl, because football.)
However, the topic on the minds of most sports-loving Americans with a pulse is the saga that unfolded at the immediate end of the NFC title game last night between the Seattle Legion of Boom and the San Francisco 49ers. Specifically, this interview:
I don’t usually write about the NFL, mostly because baseball is my passion, and for a myriad of other reasons (the concussions and injuries being particularly numbing – I don’t feel a need to report/comment upon a game where sheer brutality all too often seems to dominate, an exception that I’m making with this article). However, I had to weigh in on this once I saw that Twitter/Facebook/ESPN seemed to be blowing up with a wide variety of thoughts and opinions regarding the interview above. It basically boils down to four words:
I love Richard Sherman.
Many people (infinite, by my estimation) seem to feel differently. He’s been labeled classless, immature, a “thug” (racist), the “n word” (more racist), a self-promoter (and who isn’t these days? merely Tweeting that Richard Sherman’s sole purpose for giving that interview in the fashion he did is an example of self-promotion in and of itself – here is my opinion, here me roar), an idiot (not true), and unprofessional.
Let’s address these issues right here and now:
1. What had just happened prior to the interview (a.k.a. the Context) plays a huge role in how this transpired.
The final play of the 49ers season is one that quarterback Colin Kaepernick would loooooove to have back. (Sorry, 49ers fans, you might not find much enjoyment in this article) Driving for a touchdown that would (hopefully) grant the 49ers the lead and a win, Kaep lofted a pass towards the corner of the end zone, intended for Michael Crabtree. Sherman, playing tight coverage, leapt up and made an athletic tip that Malcolm Smith (related to Steve Smith, incidentally) caught for a game-sealing interception. Immediately afterwards, Sherman ran over to Crabtree, slapped him on the ass, and offered him a handshake with the textbook definition of a shit-eating grin on his face. Crabtree shoved Sherman in the facemask, and the rest you can read about elsewhere. (The choke gesture, the kneel-downs, the eerie similarity to the game-sealing play in the Super Bowl last year)
The point I’m trying to make is that the above play was the final play of a thrilling, violent, visceral game between two division rivals playing for the right to play in the Super Bowl. And the Seahawks had just won, thanks to the play by Richard Sherman.
Let me say that again: RICHARD SHERMAN HAD JUST MADE THE PLAY THAT SENT HIS TEAM TO THE SUPER BOWL.
I don’t know about you, but I’d be pretty hyped up at that moment.
This leads into…
1A: When you interview hyped up players immediately after a mind-numbingly physical game with massively raised stakes, you’re going to get some interesting answers.
Or, you would, if this was anything other than the No-Fun League. Most times, the player being interviewed will do the three following things, in no set order:
- Compliment the team that they just finished bloodying the crap out of for their “inspired performance/grit/determination/what-have-you”
- Claim that their team gave 110%
- Thank God/Jesus/the Flying Spaghetti Monster. (Just kidding, that might be too much fun, haha.)
It’s a fairly rote (i.e. boring as hell) script, but it serves well for exhausted players who might not have the energy to say much more, or who might be more interested in getting to the locker room, where massages and hot tub treatments await. Playing football nowadays is akin to a full-out gladiatorial brawn between grizzly bears and sabre-tooth cats – Joe Posnanski writes about Priest Holmes describing it as “becoming another person, like a warrior.” Such a heavy state of mental hypnosis is almost impossible to immediately shake off – it requires time and decompression, separating one’s self from the bedlam that descends upon an NFL field after a game concludes. Anyway, there’s a lot on player’s minds at the end of the game. It’s why they stick to the script.
Here’s the thing, though: anytime a player deviates from that script, the world cries foul. Why? Because it’s unprofessional? Because it’s not classy? Or because viewers want to keep the victorious athlete upheld as a beacon of virtue? In my opinion, it’s mostly the latter. We want to imagine these athletes as paragons of manhood, gracious in victory, humble in defeat. Never mind that American culture has taught us to praise immediate victory over anything else. Never mind that these players have been competing in the game of football for most of their natural born lives, taught to win, and to be the best at their position so as to ensure a living in the cutthroat world of the NFL. No, they must be gracious, not savage warriors who trash talk each other all throughout the game.
Richard’s Sherman’s ebullience at the end of the game struck me as a breath of fresh air. My immediate thoughts were “Wow, is this really happening?” followed closely by “Yes, this is really happening!” and concluded by “This is awesome!” Because he flipped the script. He spoke what he was feeling, as opposed to spinning off the same boring line about giving 110% that we’ve heard too many times to count.
It was particularly refreshing because…
2. If you think that receivers and cornerbacks aren’t saying things of this nature to each other on the field during the entire game, then you have no idea what you’re actually watching.
In the post Michael Irvin age, skill players (wide receivers, especially) are renowned for talking trash and for hyping themselves up. This has led to such spectacular on-field and off-field distractions such as Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Chad Johnson/Ochocinco/Johnson, and a bevy of others. While most of their ilk has flamed out, an element of trash talk has always been, and will always be, embedded within the game. It’s just what happens when hyper-competitive young men gather around one another with high stakes involved. (I’ll come back to this at the finish) Some players are even miked during games so that we might hear the kinds of things they’re saying to each other. To me, it only seems fair that quality defensive backs get to talk a little trash back after a while…provided they can walk the walk.
Which brings us to…
3. When Richard Sherman says that he’s the best corner in the league, he’s not pulling this out of thin air. He really is the best cornerback in the league.
I realize that I’m linking to Deadspin on this, but the research is true. When you break it down, Richard Sherman is one of the top (if not THE top) defensive backs in the league. Some of that comes from playing on a dominant defense, but a great deal of that comes from Sherman’s efforts to make sure that he walks the walk. Watch that NFL Films clip about how he breaks down game footage. The man knows what he’s doing.
Let me further add here about the “sorry receiver”, Michael Crabtree. Apparently, the two have something of a history together, dating back to a slight by Crabtree against Sherman earlier in 2013. The San Francisco wideout had done a fair bit of jawing leading up to the game, but was unable to back up his talk with anything closely resembling competence. (Well, I’m not going to get into a game analysis, but some shoddy refereeing had a little bit to do with a few plays as well, and that’s all I’m going to say about that.)
4. Richard Sherman is infinitely smarter than anyone’s giving him credit for…and prone to running his mouth.
He graduated high school with a 4.2 GPA, good enough for salutatorian. He graduated from Stanford University. (Funny, people bring that up about Andrew Luck all the damn time, but it seems to be forgotten about Sherman. Guess that’s what happens when you’re a 5th round pick.) He’s working on getting his Master’s Degree from Stanford. I don’t know about you, but if I applied for a master’s program at Stanford, I’m not so sure I’d get in. (This might be because I’m an overly opinionated lackadaisical, but I digress) In addition to being the top corner in the league this year, he’s been running a column on Peter King’s MMQB website all season long, including this relevant bit of information here. He’s also known to have designated himself Optimus Prime, to have called out Skip Bayless on national television, and to engage with opposing players on a regular basis. He wrote an open letter to the residents of Stanford’s dorms following a protest of a Valentine’s Day tradition. He can come off as a loud-mouthed braggart and a show-off.
So, why do I love him?
Because he’s entertaining as hell.
Because Hulk Hogan was a villain we all loved to hate. (And Richard Sherman is no villain, just the rare trash-talker who makes 100% sure that he backs up what he’s talking about.
But most importantly…
5. BECAUSE IT’S A FUCKING GAME
It’s the “game” of football. We’re watching a TV program not because we ourselves have personal stake in it, not because this will affect the outcome of our lives, but because we long for bread and circuses. We want to be entertained. We watch sports to have fun, to socialize, to share interests with our friends. Of late, it’s been hard for me because so many NFLers have only a tithing of personality, and the ones who do are often sullen, arrogant, and dangerous. The NFL has been washed over with the stain of concussions, of ‘roided up bodies (and don’t tell me any differently), of brutal injuries like the one suffered by Navarro Bowman that solidified my decision to prohibit my future children from playing football. When a cornerback makes a safe, legal play that doesn’t result in brain trauma or shredded knees and has the nerve to gloat about it afterwards as he rides the emotional roller coaster of his life? I love it.
People can say he acted unprofessionally all they want. Isn’t his job to entertain us? He certainly fulfills the defensive requirements. But I don’t watch the games to see 16-0 shutouts by faceless bodies. If I wanted that, I’d buy the Madden video games. No, I watch to see Richard Sherman try to shut down an opposing wideout so completely that they break down crying. (Insensitive? Maybe. Schadenfreude? Certainly. Fun? You betcha.) I used to hate Hines Ward, the ex-Steelers receiver, for being such a dirty, chippy player every time he played the Bengals. Now? I miss him. He gave me someone to hate. (Besides Andy Dalton) And he enjoyed the hell out of it, too. Richard Sherman gets this. Richard Sherman is enjoying the hell out of his short ride atop the NFL.
More Richard Sherman please.