The word thug can mean many things to many people. To some people, it can be seen as a badge of honor, evidence of the struggles one has overcome and the requisite and/or resultant toughness. To others, it is something quite negative, an indicator of one’s violent or criminal nature.
Similarly, class means many things to many people. Most often, it refers to either a person’s economic standing in society or their adherence to broader social norms and expectations. These are generally conflated and reduced to the term “socioeconomic class”, largely because of the tendency for those with more money (and, thus, more power) to be the prime drivers of social norms and expectations. But it can also mean many other things and often reveals more about the speaker than the target at which it is directed.
How we define these words goes a long way towards evaluating the response to Richard Sherman’s postgame comments after last week’s NFC Championship game. For those who haven’t followed the saga, video can be seen here. Sherman has been called a thug, classless, stupid, selfish, and arrogant. He has been called brilliant and passionate. Some consider him everything wrong with modern athletes. Others argue he is an exemplar among his colleagues.
So what is the truth about Richard Sherman? Well, I think it is far more complicated than any of these arguments can encapsulate. And I think there is an angle here that has gone largely unexplored.
First, let’s make a few things clear. Sherman is not stupid. Not by a long shot. I haven’t found a verifiable report of his high school transcripts, but his high school GPA has been cited as high as 4.2 and as low as 3.9, his SAT scores as high as 1400 and as low as 1090 (on the old 1600 scale). He finished second in his graduating class, albeit at a struggling school in Compton. He completed his degree in communications from Stanford (with reports stating he was an honors student) and returned for graduate courses during his last year of eligibility. Depending on how you weigh all these factors, you may or may not consider him particularly intelligent, but it is hard to argue that this is the profile of someone fundamentally stupid. Now, what he did might have been stupid. But he is certainly not a stupid man.
Is he a thug? Using the traditional definition linked to above, he is certainly not. Let me be clear and say that nothing in the preceding paragraph disqualifies him from being a thug. Many have argued that he simply can’t be a thug because of his Stanford education and academic credentials. Stop. A gawdy academic transcript doesn’t preclude someone from violence or criminality. And arguments to the contrary severely miss the point. What does matter is that Sherman has no criminal record or history of off-field violence. Yes, he plays defense in the NFL and is known for a hard-nosed style, but that is not what anyone was referring to when they called him a thug. Plus such a definition would make the vast majority of NFLers thugs. Some folks may be happy declaring such but that similarly stretches the bounds of credibility given the context in which people lobbed their criticisms his way. And criticisms they were, eliminating the possibility that they were using the more positive sense of that term (which arguably fits Sherman to a T).
Is he classless? Or, more precisely, were his actions classless? Honestly, I’m not really comfortable answering this question. Because I don’t think anyone is actually talking about class as an economic or social indicator when they’re talking about a 30-second postgame interview. If we allow for the myriad of possible uses of that terms under its broadest possible definition, sure, we might be talking about class. But a better term would be sportsmanship. Sportsmanship encapsulates the norms we have for athletes while engaged in the business of sports. The problem here is that sportsmanship is even more of a Rorschach test than class is. There is far from an agreed upon expectation of what constitutes sportsmanship, even if you look within the various constituent groups that have standing on the matter (athletes, fans, coaches, team and league officials, the media). In this case, when people invoke class or even sportsmanship as a critique of Sherman, I think they are appealing less to a consistent standard of behavior and instead are trying to cloak a personal dislike of Sherman or his actions in something more objective. If people really cared about sportsmanship, enough to pen pieces about every instance of its violation, ESPN.com’s servers would melt. And we’d probably have a different perspective on Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. That none of these things have happened indicates to me most people care less about sportsmanship than they do about an athlete acting in a way they don’t like. As I see it, the question is less about whether Sherman’s actions were perfectly sportsmanly (the refs and Roger Goodel say they are not and I am inclined to agree) and whether we really care about sportsmanship. I think we don’t. Not nearly as much as the commentary would suggest.
But what if I told you that I think everyone is missing the boat on what Sherman did that night? What if I told you that why Sherman did what he did is more interesting than what he did? Because I’m pretty sure that, right now, all of us are eating out of Richard Sherman’s hands. And he is loving it.
Watch Sherman’s interview with Erin Andrews again. Does he appear out of control? Yes, he is yelling. Yes, he largely ignores Andrews’ initial question. But he also demonstrates a unique degree of composure. He does not stutter once or seem lost for words. He alternates between making eye contact with Andrews and looking directly into the camera. He responds immediately and on point to Andrews’ second question. He never curses or uses inappropriate language. Likewise with his far-less-discussed follow-up interview with Ed Werder. And he was downright Presidential during his postgame press conference.
Now watch Sherman’s just-released-but-previously-recorded commercial for Beats. Hmmm… a remarkable degree of prescience there, no?
Now look at Sherman’s history as a member of the media. He’s written for Peter King’s Monday Morning Quarterback. He’s appeared on First Take (where he thankfully eviscerated Skip Bayless in a similarly calculated media apperance) and been invited to participate in NFL studio shows. He demonstrates poise, thoughtfulness, and intelligence. He demonstrates a clear sense of how to work in front of both the camera and the keyboard. He demonstrates the skills and talent of a trained journalist. It’s almost like the guy is a trained journalist.
Oh wait… that’s exactly what he is. Remember above where we discussed Sherman’s academic history? And noted his degree from Stanford in communications? Well, Stanford doesn’t have an undergraduate journalism program. The communications department is the closest thing they have (and oversees their graduate program in journalism).
If you think this is a coincidence, think again. Richard Sherman knows exactly what he’s doing when a microphone is put in front of him. He is an intelligent man with strongly held opinions on a variety of subjects. He knows that even the longest NFL careers peter out by the time a player is in his late 30’s. Sherman is laying the groundwork for a post-NFL career in the media. He is demonstrating not only his competence with the spoken and written word, but a willingness to tackle difficult topics and engage in controversial conversations. He may not be right all the time, but what media member is? But what he is all the time is thoughtful and deliberate and considered. His postgame “rant” was not a rant at all; it was a carefully calculated move to make himself the focus of the most media saturated two weeks on the NFL schedule, a time when there is precious little actual football to talk about but plenty of football players to talk about. In a matter of seconds, Sherman vaulted himself to the forefront of the run up to the Super Bowl. He has managed to overtake Peyton Manning as the most talked about player in the game thus far. Peyton Manning! The guy who graces your television every 13 seconds and who just had the greatest season ever for a quarterback. Sherman wanted this controversy. And he got it.
People are going to think what they think about Richard Sherman for a variety of reasons. Maybe he’s a thug, maybe not. Maybe he’s lacking in class or a bad sport, maybe not. What is certainly is is a masterful manipulator of the media… because he has an intimate knowledge of how the media works. A careful parsing of Sherman’s history demonstrates more than meets the eye. Far from demonstrating his own thuggishness or classlessness, I’m convinced that he is exposing NFL fans and, perhaps more importantly, media members as the ones with no control over the situation.