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Jason Whitlock's Criticism of Richard Sherman's Writing Is Off-Base [UPDATE]

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Let’s preface this column by saying that it isn’t meant to be a hit piece, or to borrow Jason Whitlock’s Wire analogy, to put him in a vacant. That being said, I strongly disagree with his opinions on Richard Sherman in the past few days on Twitter and on ESPN.com. I’m not concerned with Whitlock’s criticism of Sherman’s ideas so much as his opinions on whether or not Sherman should candidly express them in the first place.

As I read it, Richard Sherman and Jason Whitlock disagree a little bit less than Whitlock believes. Sherman wrote that “if it’s true the Eagles terminated [DeSean Jackson's] contract in part because they grew afraid of his alleged ‘gang ties,’ then they did something worse” than thinking that Jackson is a “bad person” without knowing him. Whitlock asserts that Philadelphia released the wide receiver because he was a “massive headache” and because “they realized a sensationalized media report tying together the diminutive receiver’s ‘gang ties’ would eviscerate Jackson’s trade value.”

There’s a distinct possibility that the Eagles had already realized that Jackson’s trade value was non-existent, and leaked their concern about his purported gang ties to NJ.com to give them PR cover for outright releasing their best receiver who just had a career year. In other words, the “gang ties” were an excuse rather than the primary reason, and the NFLPA is currently investigating whether the leak was a premeditated “smear”.

Update: NJ.com denies that the Eagles leaked the story:

The conspiracy theories surrounding the story are comical. NJ.com uncovered Jackson’s ties to alleged gang members through its own reporting. The Eagles played no part in NJ.com’s investigation. When asked about Jackson’s alleged gang ties, team officials said they were unaware of the ties and would not comment. The NFLPA says it will look into whether the Eagles engaged in a smear campaign. When a union official contacted NJ.com sports director Kevin Manahan, the official was told the Eagles provided no information on Jackson’s alleged gang ties.

The key words in Sherman’s introduction were “in part”. He may not have delved into the other reasons behind Jackson’s release, but it would be naive to suggest that he was ignorant of them. Whitlock is correct that the gang ties were a red herring, and that Sherman should’ve devoted more time into investigating the real reason the situation came to a head, but he glossed over the major the purpose of the MMQB column — Sherman’s discussion on public perceptions.

Whitlock tends to agree with the thrust of Sherman’s rebuttal to the idea that athletes should abandon friends who have criminal ties:

Let me be transparent. I have friends who are in gangs. If you search hard enough on Google, you can find pictures of me socializing with them. I’m friends with gang-affiliated gangsta rappers. I’ve gone to dinner with them. I’ve made it rain with them at the club. I’ve made music with them.

An important passage in Sherman’s post, however, which went unaddressed in Whitlock’s response, concerned the divergent media coverage of crime ties of a black athlete versus a white man in a suit:

Commit certain crimes in this league and be a certain color, and you get help, not scorn. Look at the way many in the media wrote about Jim Irsay after his DUI arrest. Nobody suggested the Colts owner had “ties” to drug trafficking, even though he was caught driving with controlled substances (prescription pills) and $29,000 in cash to do who-knows-what with. Instead, poor millionaire Mr. Irsay needs help, some wrote.

By the very nature of Irsay’s illegal possession of painkillers, he engaged in a transaction with criminal drug dealers. Does an NFL player caught with that much cash and drugs get the same measure of personal sympathy from people like MMQB head Peter King?

Nevertheless, where Whitlock really comes off poorly is not in his disagreement with Sherman’s ideas, but in his proclamation that the Seahawks cornerback shouldn’t express his honest opinions in writing:

Whitlock has constantly said to judge his columns as opposed to his tweets, but he expressed similar sentiment in his published writing:

Someone please tell Richard Sherman the Creator gave us two ears, two eyes and one mouth for a reason. We are supposed to do four times as much listening and observing as talking, especially when we are young. Our hearing and vision diminish as we age. We can always talk. Think about it.

Intended or otherwise, this idea comes off as condescending. Firstly, Sherman isn’t just writing his unfiltered stream-of-conscious on Twitter or his own WordPress blog. He’s getting professionally edited (SI declined our request for comment on the editorial process), and the finished product has consistently conveyed thoughtfulness. Shouldn’t we be encouraging more athletes to voice their sincere opinions that encourage further dialogue? Isn’t it much more intellectually stimulating to read a Richard Sherman column than watch a bland, cliché-filled Russell Wilson interview?

Sherman is 26 years old. He might be in the prime of his playing career, but he’s just getting started as a professional writer. He’s demonstrated an ability to think critically about the overarching athletic and media landscape, and he’d probably be very receptive to a phone call or podcast from Jason Whitlock that patiently imparts the wisdom of having spent more time on Earth hashing these types of things out. To suggest that Sherman should just shut up and listen would be to curtail the development of an extremely important voice.

[Photo by Joe Nicholson/USA Today]

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