Richard Sherman: The "Classy Thug"

by Elison Alcovendaz

Let’s get this out of the way now: I’m a diehard 49ers fan. I’ve been a fan since I was six years old, through the glory days and through the we’re-the-definition-of-mediocre (a title now held by the Cowboys) days, and so, yes, I despise Richard Sherman. As a player. He made one of the greatest defensive plays I’ve ever witnessed and this DB (defensive back, of course) singlehandedly pushed me into a state of depression for about two days. I hate Richard Sherman, the player. But Richard Sherman, the man? Well…

In case you haven’t surfed the internet, logged into Facebook or Twitter, or watched TV in the last few days, this happened:

So what did we just watch? Well, basically this: a pretty good black football player was interviewed after the game by a white female reporter, and said black football player, probably amped up on adrenaline and testosterone and also probably egotism and self-importance, bragged (very energetically) that he was the best DB in the league while putting down his opposing WR and simultaneously scaring said white female reporter, who fumbled to ask her second question and then abruptly “sent it back” to the lead reporting team because she had no idea what to say or do.

I bring up race because it has been the center of the national conversation on Richard Sherman, whether people know it or not. Do you think if the white reporter hadn’t flinched or looked so flustered it would’ve appeared so bad? Do you think if Ray Lewis had been the sideline reporter instead of Erin Andrews, it would’ve appeared so bad? Do you think anyone would’ve called Peyton Manning a “thug” if he was, say, calling Russell Wilson a “sorry quarterback”?

When a person, especially a black man, speaks in a way that we deem unacceptable, people (and not just white people) get uncomfortable. It’s called the Angry Black Man syndrome (not sure if that’s a thing, but if not, you’ll get the gist). One of the traditional narratives about black-man-ness is their supposed tendency to be angry and violent. Don’t think this is true? Look at these pictures that were used of Sherman as entry points to online articles:

In every picture he looks angry. Compare, instead, these pictures:

See how a “narrative” can affect the way we think?

It’s this type of media spin and our willingness to accept it that allows people to call Sherman a “thug” without knowing the guy. I’m pretty sure no one who has used the word “thug” in the last few days knows what it means. People act like Sherman killed somebody. Actually, no – he said he was the best at what he does and called Michael Crabtree “sorry." Wow, that’s just… violent talk. And yes, there’s a “thug life” subculture (the kind glorified by Tupac), but I’d argue that’s more rooted in socioeconomic status than it is race and either way – just because a few people ascribe to something, does that mean anyone who looks like them ascribe to the same thing?

The anti-Shermanites who weren’t throwing the “thug” word around instead used a softer word: class. “That wasn’t classy.” “Sherman was classless.” “He needs to learn to win with class.” Let’s try this honesty thing again. Have you ever, and I mean ever, saw someone with dreads on his head and thought, “Ooh, he’s classy”? And if your answer to that question is yes, make him a complete stranger, take the suit off of the dread-locked man, put him in baggy jeans and a baseball cap, or even a football uniform. Now? Likely not. The idea of having “class” (and it’s very obvious connection to social class) is also, if sometimes vaguely, a sort of racism. Does that mean everyone who said Sherman had no class is a racist? Of course not. What I’m saying is when we think of class, we generally think of a lighter-skinned man (probably in a suit) who speaks well when faced with adversity. Sounds absurd, but it's true. Sherman just missed out on the lighter-skinned part:

Interestingly, many of the online folks who called Sherman a thug and classless spit so much vitriol that they actually looked quite classless themselves. And this was days after a game they didn't even play in, much less a few seconds after a player in the actual game (who presumably didn't have time to calm down), was supposed to be classy on the spot. Um hmmm.

So that’s one side of the story. Let’s take a look at the other. You also might’ve heard this about Sherman: he grew up in Compton, got a 4.2 GPA in high school, and went to Stanford, where he graduated with a 3.9 GPA. This narrative has also been pushed by media who want the public to stop judging Sherman. What irks me about this is that what does any of this have to do with his behavior here:

Was Sherman “classy” in this situation or in his interview with Erin or when he ran off the field making the choke sign around his neck? Of course not. Back story isn’t some go-to get out of jail card when you screw up, it should be something that stays with you, informs the decisions you make, guides your behavior. So what he got a 4.2 GPA in high school? Is that impressive? Sure. Does this mean he can act however he wants? Nope. 

And here's a question that people ask all the time: why does it always have to be about race? It's a legitimate question and while the common (and correct) answer has to do with minority groups having to constantly fight and speak so the public is conscious of things such as institutionalized racism, there are the idiot victims, too. These are the people who will call you a racist because you don't know Sherman's background but guess what? They don't know about your background either, so… who's the bigot? These are the people who will play the race (or gender or sexual orientation or other) card because they've heard someone else do it but don't have the ability to back it up. These folks don't help foster anything positive and can't think for themselves. While calling out people for ascribing to cultural stereotypes, they are actually doing the same thing.

So what did the Sherman incident tell us? Well…

1)  If you didn’t need reminding, the legacy of slavery still rears it's ugly head. The need to ascribe negative words to anyone, but especially black men, is rooted in our country’s history of ownership. The legal power is gone, but hey, we can still enforce our symbolic “ownership” with language from the anonymity of an internet comment board, right? We can still feel powerful, right?

2)  A lot of us, including myself, might still be subtly racist. And all of us see color. Someone who says they don't see color is either blind or a liar.

3)  The media drives stories however they want. You have Narrative A – the angry black man and Narrative B – the nearly perfect kid who overcame a ridiculous amount of obstacles and succeeded. Neither of them are actually correct.

4)  Sports rivalries are crazy… and awesome. Go Broncos.

Oh, right, Richard Sherman, the man. Honestly, I have no opinion on it. I don’t have enough information. And neither do you.

Now if only he would sign with the Niners…