Reading the racial coding at the Super Bowl

January 21, 2014

Get ready for the demonization of Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman.

GET READY for two weeks of stories that pit the polished Peyton Manning against his supposed antithesis, Richard Sherman. Get ready for two weeks of interesting coverage about how the best quarterback in the game and probable 2013 MVP takes on the best cornerback in the game and probable Defensive Player of the Year at the Super Bowl.

Also get ready for two weeks of utterly uninteresting coverage that paints Peyton as a Southern gentleman in shining armor who will hopefully slay Richard Sherman, Compton's "loudmouth" dread-locked dragon.

There will be more articles, tweets and commentaries from the media bemoaning Richard Sherman's lack of "class." There will be even more tweets from so-called fans that sound like press releases from a White Citizen's Council. There will be a running loop of Sherman's already "insta-classic" WWE-infused "promo" rant after Sunday's victory over the Seahawks' rival, the 49ers.

There will be more stomach-churning racial coding than an episode of Fox and Friends featuring Ann Coulter and Billy Packer. There will be right-wingers like John Podhoretz on Twitter, the very people who always whine that the culture is becoming "too soft," "too feminized" and "too PC," who are as aghast as plantation belles stumbling toward the fainting couch over Sherman's behavior.

Columnist: Dave Zirin

There will be less discussion about why so many of the chattering classes demand "class" from a game where people's legs are broken in half and then replayed endlessly for our entertainment. There will be less discussion about the hypocrisy of demanding that "perfect gentlemen" play a game so dangerous that its own players, and even the president, wouldn't want their own children on the field.

There will be far too many sportswriters not admitting what Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel tweeted: that Richard Sherman is a welcome relief from pre-programmed athletes who "play one game at a time, good lord willing, play one game at a time...good lord willing."

SHERMAN IS the embodiment of what sports writing legend Robert Lipsyte once said to me was his initial attraction to Muhammad Ali. "He made my job so incredibly easy," Lipsyte said. "I just had to write down what he said, and the copy was gold."

In fact, Sherman has pointed to Ali as an inspiration, saying, "[Ali] understood how to manipulate the world. When he said, 'The champ is here,' he probably wasn't that cocky. He created a persona. He was a leader, an entertainer, and he knew how to break people down in the ring. I didn't really care about boxing, but I wanted to be like Ali."

There will also be less discussion of who Richard Sherman actually is, and the genius of both his preparation and style of play. In fact, when it comes to smarts, skills and psychological gamesmanship, Sherman is in many respects the cornerback version of Peyton Manning.

Just as Manning treats every trip to the line of scrimmage like he's Hannibal Lecter trying to get into the head of Clarice Starling--OMAHA!--Sherman has a deeply cerebral method to his perceived madness. Read Lee Jenkins' profile of the Stanford graduate in the July 2013 issue of Sports Illustrated, titled Warning: Don't Take The Bait. As Jenkins writes, "Whether you think cornerback Richard Sherman of the (NFC champion?) Seahawks is a smack-talk poet laureate or just another loudmouth doesn't matter. He's a shrewd, dedicated lockdown defender who doesn't mind getting on his opponents' nerves--in fact, he prefers it that way."

The article reveals someone who has journeyed successfully from Compton, California, to Stanford, to fifth-round draft pick, to NFL star, which has a degree of difficulty somewhat higher than "son of quarterback becomes quarterback." As Sherman says in the piece (and this is one of my favorite quotes of all-time):

I'm an awkward guy. People used to tell me all the time: You're not from here. And that's the way I felt, like somebody took me from somewhere else and dropped me down into this place. I was strange because I went to class, did the work, read the books and was still pretty good at sports. If you're like me, people think you're weird. They pull you in different directions. But those people aren't going where you're going. I know the jock stereotype--cool guy, walking around with your friends, not caring about school, not caring about anything. I hate that stereotype. I want to destroy it. I want to kill it.

Richard Sherman is consciously an archetype that has been branded a threat as long as African Americans have played sports: the loud, deeply intelligent Black guy who uses this outsized cultural platform to be as bombastic as he wants to be. Whether the first African American heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson or Richard Sherman, they tend to be painted with only one dimension, which makes it easier for them to be denigrated and demonized.

Broncos fans should hope their team does not see Sherman as just some kind of loudmouth. If Peyton Manning's record-setting receiving corps does not see everything mentally and physically that Richard Sherman is bringing to the table, he will eat their lunch. As his teammate Kam Chancellor said, "I used to tell him to quiet down. Then I saw the results."

First published at

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