I can only imagine that by now you’ve seen Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman’s post-game interview from Sunday’s NFC Championship, the one in which he called San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree “sorry” and proclaimed that he was the best defensive back in football. The interview earned him no shortage of backlash on Twitter, Facebook, and all the other conductors of insta-reaction/outrage, and it earned him plenty of criticism in the sports media too.
Sherman is a “classless” “thug” who forgot for 30 seconds Sunday night that athletes are supposed to stick to language that would make corporate PR executives swoon. That’s the case even for an athlete like Sherman, who had a microphone in his face mere minutes after making the biggest play of his life in the biggest game of his life. There’s a code in sports that says you can’t talk smack about your opponents even if it’s what you believe, because that’s “classless” and “thuggish,” or something like that. It’s a code of dishonesty, but it’s a code Richard Sherman violated. And so Monday, he apologized.
“I apologize for attacking an individual and taking the attention away from the fantastic game by my teammates … That was not my intent,” Sherman said Monday in a text message to ESPN’s Ed Werder.
Sherman also addressed his postgame comments in an interview Monday with ESPN Radio on the “SVP and Russillo” show.
“Obviously I could have worded things better and could obviously have had a better reaction and done things differently,” he said during the interview. “But it is what it is now, and people’s reactions are what they are.”
We’ve been led to believe that Sherman said something awful, but watch the clip again. He criticizes a wide receiver on a rival team that he’s been battling for 60 minutes and he claims to have a personal history with. He claims he’s the best defensive back in the game. Neither of those seem to be outlandish enough to warrant the outrage they generated, at least not from anyone whose name isn’t Michael Crabtree. And neither of those statements seem to necessitate an apology, at least not to anyone who isn’t Michael Crabtree. So what’s Sherman apologizing for? For becoming a distraction. And that’s even more amazing, because the idea that he was a distraction — that catch-all term we use to criticize athletes when they step outside the realm of what the sports world deems acceptable — is nonsense that ignores that this turned into a major story for no particularly legitimate reason.
Sherman is probably right that he could have worded his criticism of Crabtree, with whom he claims to have a bitter personal history, in a more artful manner. But it wasn’t Richard Sherman that blew this up by ignoring the context of the fact that this happened minutes after the game ended, in a stadium full of raucous supporting fans after a game he spent matching up with a wide receiver he apparently doesn’t like. It wasn’t Richard Sherman who failed to understand what it takes for men like him to play a game that might actually kill them and that, as Joe Posnanski wrote Monday, it might be a little unfair to expect anything less than raw, honest emotion right after that game is finished, even in the post-game news conference, where Sherman continued to rail on Crabtree. It wasn’t Richard Sherman who decided to make sweeping judgments about a man’s character for reacting emotionally in that situation. And it certainly wasn’t Richard Sherman’s fault that the sports media focused on the shiny object that was his post-game interview instead of the 60 minutes of brilliant football preceding it (just read this headline to see the narrative creation at work).
There are reasons why that happened, of course. Sherman didn’t live up to the ideals of “professionalism” and “class” sports fans and the media have set for athletes, and so he had to be blasted for it. Nevermind that those ideals are often contrived and dishonest, particularly in this situation, when they ask athletes who play a game predicated on emotional disconnection to provide empty, platitude-laced answers immediately after that game, even if those responses aren’t remotely true. Nevermind that those ideals depend on an odd expectation that Sherman and Crabtree have to like each other. Nevermind that those ideals — and the outrage at Sherman for failing to uphold them — at times has a lot to do with race. Some of the outrage toward Sherman was no doubt influenced by the fact that he was a large, black, dreadlocked man screaming WWE-style into a microphone held by an attractive, blonde sideline reporter, who many immediately said looked “fearful” even as she handled the interview professionally (Greg Howard and Ta-Nehisi Coates both wrote on the racial dynamics of this situation Monday).
Most of all, that desire for “professionalism” at all times ignores that these players are humans with emotions and feelings and opinions and that, at times, those emotions are going to come out, probably never more so than in the type of situation Sherman was in. It seems unreasonable that we’d expect athletes never to react the way he did in that situation. It seems hard to me, as both a journalist and a sports fan, to be outraged that Sherman was honest about his feelings in that moment. It’s absurd that so many want to judge his character through one interview he gave minutes after the biggest moment of his career. This should have been a non-story, a funny moment that we laugh about for years (like Bart Scott’s “can’t wait” decree) but that didn’t mean much beyond that. Instead, it’s become some sort of outrage story, and Richard Sherman is apologizing for shifting attention from an excellent football game. To whatever extent it is true that Richard Sherman was a distraction, though, it is only so because the sports world is so easily distracted by faux-controversies like this one.