Richard Sherman yelled after a football game. Erin Andrews attempted to interview him after the NFC Championship game. The Seahawks’ cornerback blustered the following:
“I’m the best corner in the game! When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that’s the result you’re going to get. Don’t you ever talk about me. Don’t you open your mouth about the best, or I’ll shut it for you real quick.”
This was a moment. Happening live on Twitter, it swiftly embroiled itself in the spin-cycle and became something more.
Debate occurred. Fuddy-duddies lamented Sherman’s lack of decorum. The younger and more social media-inclined applauded an athlete providing veritable entertainment. Both sides had a point. Arguments said more about the individuals making them than Sherman. Normal shelf-life: a couple hours, possible after-shock with it re-airing Monday morning. This wasn’t a normal time.
The NFL playoffs provide a deceptive media lull. Other leagues build to a crescendo in the post-season. The NFL slows down. Sixteen games with an underlying fantasy narrative becomes four games, then two, then one with a two-week buildup. Two NFL games do not sustain a week’s worth of coverage – “OMAHA” was a lead story for a week – and one over two weeks presents an absolute abyss. Natural response: panic, grasp at anything. Enter Richard Sherman.
TV news, sports or otherwise, ran with the footage. That was not surprising. It was jarring. It was free footage. It was the perfect length to sustain a segment. “People were talking about it online,” which, in 2014, makes it news.
The Internet, faster and well past the initial wave of shock, needed more narrative. Some expressed displeasure that Sherman did not show any “class.” This was, above all else, a case of imprecise diction. When critics meant “politeness” or “sportsmanship,” they used “class,” a far more loaded term. “Class” is not just a behavior standard. It distinguishes one from a lesser group. Class is behaving with style and sophistication, to avoid association with things that are boorish and poor.
From there, it’s not a great leap to race. “Rich” equates with “White.” “Poor” equates with “Black.” Sherman is from Compton. Twitter suffers little nuance. Criticism of Sherman’s behavior was conflated with racism. A race discussion must be grounded, with something. Enter straw man.
Targeted twitter searches from multiple outlets produced their desired outcome. Deadspin produced data showing that use of the code word “thug” spiked on television in the aftermath of the Sherman incident. Racism about Sherman became a thing people were doing. Though both detection methods missed essential context. How prevalent was this?
Ignorance exists. Racists exist. You can find them, with ease, on social media. But that says nothing about how prevalent they are within the general population (probably not very). Similarly, the use of “thug” spiked on television. We suspect that is no coincidence. But how prevalent was it overall? How does the differentiation in “thug” usage from average compare to the total number of times “Richard Sherman” was brought up?
“Thug” became a battle cry, with Twitteratti members chasing phantoms with baseball bats and battling to see who could agree more vehemently. That one-sided “debate” raged, despite little direct evidence of any media member calling Richard Sherman a thug. The one noted instance by Deadspin came from WEEI’s Dennis and Callahan in Boston, two hosts once suspended (and somehow not fired) for comparing an escaped gorilla to black students involved in the METCO busing program.
Race affects how stories are framed. That’s clear. But what was noteworthy with the Sherman story was how cognizant media members were about potential racial biases and implications. Many supported Sherman without qualification. Many critics felt compelled to differentiate themselves from coded language and from drawing broader ad hominem conclusions. The media, for the most part, handled this story with diligence and care, perhaps excessive care. But who wants to cover that angle?
As with any story in 2014, the Sherman “story” inevitably became the reaction to the event. Lost amidst a whole lot of wheel spinning were the play itself and the relative insignificance of the outburst. It first appeared to be a football player caught with emotions still feverish. More sober (and cynical) reflection suggests Sherman’s pattern of controversy creation has been the result of deliberate sculpting rather than stumbling.
Quite reasonably, Sherman has been promoting himself into more than a last name, a number and a helmet. If you’re not Brees, Brady or a Manning brother, that’s how you get endorsements. Truly cynical folks may note he coincidentally stoked the “thug” angle as his Beats commercial featuring media members calling him a thug debuted (now at 1.8 million YouTube views and counting).
TVs were watched. Websites were clicked. This desiccated story is, finally, winding down. Little was learned or accomplished. After a faint blip at media day and a rehash before a football game, the tapes will be erased. So it goes, until media outlets remember they can still dictate the discussion, instead of having it dictated to them.