It's time to stop lying about what football represents.
In Sunday's NFC Championship game, after Colin Kaepernick completed a 16 yard pass to Michael Crabtree to put the 49ers on the Seahawk's 29 yard line down six points with 0:55 seconds to play in the fourth quarter, I thought, the 49ers are going to pull this off. They were driving hard, looking dangerous, and had found pockets of space in the incredible Seattle secondary that was protecting against the deep ball. You probably know what happened on the next play. A glorified deep fade route into the corner of the end zone; a perfectly thrown ball to Crabtree; a spectacular play made by the best corner in the NFL, tipping the ball back to his linebacker for an interception, effectively ending the game. It was acrobatic, majestic, and only one or two men in football can make it: one of them is Richard Sherman. With any other cornerback outside of Darelle Revis playing man to man on Crabtree, we'd be talking about San Francisco playing Denver in Met Life Stadium on February 2nd.
You also probably know what happened next. Sherman slapped Crabtree's ass, mimed a choke, and, after a few knees from Russell Wilson, got pumped up on national television in an interview with Erin Andrews. It was the kind of immediate post game interview that networks dream of, and most everyone (especially 49ers fans) took to their nearest bridge, climbed under it, and proceeded to break the internet with some trolling and racial epithets.
Most of the non-sports fans I talk to don't feel as if the reaction to Richard Sherman's interview is a big deal - after all, the internet is full of ignorant racists, and that is on display every single day. I don't share this viewpoint. I get that Twitter, along with blog commentary, is the cesspool of humanity. I am mostly numb to the homophobic, racist scum that hide under their veil of virtual anonymity because I experience it almost everyday on my travels to various sports/news sites and blogs. However, I am not fine with pundits who get paid to analyze these situations intelligently labeling Sherman a "thug" for showing some honest emotion after making the play he's worked his entire life for, all the while attacking his character with borderline and not so borderline racist language. I don't want to get completely into this because it's not the main point of this article, but there is rampant inequality in sports journalism (especially in football) that results in athletes of color being demonized for the same actions that white athletes are given a pass for. Want a few examples? See the reactions to Peyton Manning sideline rants vs. Dez Bryant sideline rants, and the adjectives used to describe athletes of color vs. their white teammates/opponents. I'll step off that particular soapbox now.
The main thing I want to talk about here is sportsmanship, and how we view football through that lens. Richard Sherman said in the now infamous 20 second interview that he is the best corner in the NFL, Michael Crabtree is a mediocre receiver, and this is the result when those two opposing forces collide. Though he said it brashly, and while I give Crabtree more credit than the mediocre tag (Sherman would following the game on Sunday as well), Sherman was right. He is the best. He's also not afraid to say it. If he wasn't the best, that pass to Crabtree is most likely a touchdown and the Seahawks wouldn't be going to the Super Bowl. That fact should never be in question. So, given that, the issue must be the presentation of that excellence off the field. It was his pompous trash talking post game that has him so reviled by the mainstream media and twittersphere (if that word is wrong, I don't care).
There is, I believe, a commonly held but largely subconscious concept that sportsmanship resides in a liminal space between civilization (the outside world) and barbarism (the playing field). For almost all sports, this is a no-brainer: you play hard, you play to win the game, but afterwards you shake the hand of the man on the other team and act within the civil bounds society has laid out. That's good sportsmanship; that's class. We applaud guys that "play the game the right way", and we vilify those that don't, even if they are exceptionally talented and at the top of their field. Richard Sherman is one of those villains, and most people hate him for it. A small minority love him for it. Sherman explains this dichotomy in this interview, which is worth watching in its entirety for his thoughtful critique of life as a football player:
Sherman, whether he is fully intending to or not, is casting doubt on that concept of sportsmanship we're discussing because it is trying to reside in and around a game that involves hyper athletic men trying to hit each other as hard as possible. I'm not saying that football is or should be exempt from on the field sportsmanship; I would even go so far as to say that a baseline understanding of sportsmanship (as well as the presence of officials, rules, and fines/suspensions) is what keeps the sport from devolving into games of Rollerball on a regular basis. Watching the NFC Championship game, you can plainly see how much the players care for one another regardless of the team they're on, as evidenced by the reaction of all players following the Bowman knee injury. This could be better understood as human altruism, but you get the point. These guys do care about each others well-being, it's just that care often stands in opposition to the goal of the game. It is hard to separate those competing ideas completely. The crux of my argument about sportsmanship, then, is not so much about the players and one another as it is a misunderstanding by the fans of what they should expect from the sport.
In truth, I've come back to football in the past two years after a long layoff. I don't have a favorite team (though I might side with Ricky Automatic and become a Browns fan - they need all the help they can get), but I find it incredibly entertaining. It's fast, athletic, nerve wracking; in short, it's everything we want sports to be. But it's time to cut through the bullshit that the NFL and media feeds us about the sport. Football is not a place for role models, empathy, or even children. We need to be cognizant of the incredibly dark side of watching the game - that we are actively supporting the early deaths of the men who play. We as a country seem to be totally ok with these men shortening their lives for our entertainment every Sunday, but we still hide behind the glossy veneer that we have constructed to keep ourselves from confronting the terrible repercussions of our fandom. What I found most incredible last Sunday was FOX showing 7 or 8 replays of the bottom half of NaVorro Bowman's leg breaking off from the top half while the announcers simply said "Is he down? That should be San Francisco's ball".
This is why football fans that expect that violence and brutal energy to be contained solely on the playing field are delusional. We are past that point. It is obvious that a game of this nature has caused the ferocity and callousness of its culture to spill outside of the games and practice facilities. We have given up the right to that pristine off the field sportsmanship as fans by knowingly supporting a game of this nature. This is football, and anything goes. I think most fans know that deep down. As you heard Richard Sherman explain in the video above, there is a switch that is flipped by football players to become focused, brutal, and angry on the field. You can tell it pains him a little bit as an intelligent person trying to find the right words to describe it. And it also makes perfect sense as the key to excelling in a violent sport.
Knowing all of that, how do we expect every individual player to be able to fully turn that switch off when we cheer more loudly the harder someone gets hit? How are humans raised in that environment since they were children expected to fully leave that on the field without even basic mental health resources during or after their career?
Those that have placed on Richard Sherman labels normally reserved for the most violent people in our society seem to have a selective memory. Maybe they have forgotten Aldon Smith, defensive lineman for the 49ers, who was charged with DUI and multiple felony possession of assault weapons charges for having a cache of assault rifles and ammunition this season. He missed five games to go rehab and then quietly slipped back into service. Maybe they have forgotten Aaron Hernandez, who has been charged with one murder and will most likely be charged for many more. By my count, there were 48 arrests of NFL players in 2013, many on violent crime charges.
To say this isn't a systemic problem tied up in the nature of the sport is naive. The NFL does absolutely nothing to reverse the culture, and we as fans have to live with the fact that we support that with our wallets. Instead of talking about the pervasive violence revolving around football, how the guardians of the sport do nothing to help stop it, and how it's almost certainly informed by the very plays we cheer loudest for, we are talking about Richard Sherman yelling into a microphone for 20 seconds after the biggest play of his life. How stupid are we?
There are a few role models in the NFL, I'll give you that. There is this one player that has never been arrested. His mom made deals with gangs in his neighborhood in Compton to keep him out of that life while he was growing up. He had a 4.2 GPA in a high school district that has a 57% graduation rate. He then went on to graduate from Stanford, and now he's now one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. Hell, just last Sunday he intentionally tipped a would-be game winning touchdown pass into his teammate's hands to send his team to the Super Bowl, and 3-4 minutes later had a microphone stuck in his face to ask him about how he felt.
How the hell would you feel?