To review: Down by a touchdown and with 30 seconds to go in the fourth quarter of last week’s NFC championship game, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick received the shotgun snap and immediately felt heat from his right side. He looked only one place, down the sideline and in the end zone to wideout Michael Crabtree. Trouble was, Crabtree was covered by the Seattle Seahawks’ Richard Sherman, who — at least since Darrelle Revis phased out his first set of cruciate ligaments — is the best cornerback in the NFL. So when Kaepernick uncorked a decently placed ball a split second before Seattle defensive end Cliff Avril reached him, downfield Sherman anticipated the pass, came off Crabtree, leaped, and tipped it high into the air and eventually into the hands of ’Hawks linebacker Malcolm Smith.
Great play. Seahawks to the Super Bowl.
Of course, all anybody is talking about is what happened next when Fox’s Erin Andrews approached an adrenalized Sherman for a postgame interview.
First Takes Are Usually Bad Takes
Along with what seemed to be approximately one-third of the developed world, I took to Twitter to kvetch about Sherman immediately after I saw the interview. We were not kind, and justifiably so. What we saw on TV was Sherman’s grade-school taunting of vanquished foes, and his use of the national stage to self-aggrandize and take a shot at Crabtree’s livelihood. What the hell was his problem? And why was he yelling at poor Erin Andrews?
What we didn’t know as we vented to the Instant Outrage Machine 140 characters at a time is that what Sherman said to Crabtree (both players were mic’d) was an innocent enough “Hell of a game! Hell of a game!” For this Sherman got a straight left hand to the facemask.
(Nor did we know that Andrews, who sure looked put off in the moment, was later photographed hugging it out with Sherman, and took to Twitter to say she loved his emotion.)
Sherman later issued a boilerplate apology that felt perfunctory. But more interestingly, in a subsequent Sports Illustrated post he provided additional context for what produced the moment — including a beef with Crabtree that Sherman says dates back months, to some unspecified slander against his name. While it stopped short of full-on remorse (and so felt more authentic), it was slightly ameliorative.
No, Sherman Is Not a ‘Thug’
According to Sherman, his Twitter feed was clogged with “bullying language” and tweets calling him “a thug or worse,” including “racial slurs.” This one should be easy. There’s a case, maybe, for calling a thug the guy who just got arrested for drinking and drag-racing in a Lamborghini on the streets of Miami. But not the guy who went overboard tweaking an opponent in a highly competitive environment. And the fact that the first guy is a 140-pound Canadian with a blowout and that the second guy is a 200-pound son of Compton, Calif., with dreadlocks changes nothing.
But Neither Was the Sherman-Hate the Product of ‘White Supremacy’
In a press conference last Wednesday, Sherman was asked the “thug” question. “The reason it bothers me is because it seems like it’s an accepted way of calling somebody the N-word now,” he said.
In the account provided by Ryan Wilson at CBSSports.com, Sherman went on:
“What’s the definition of a thug? Really? Can a guy on a football field just talking to people [be a thug]? . . . There was a hockey game where they didn’t even play hockey! [Laughter from the media] They just threw the puck aside and started fighting. I saw that and said, ‘Ah, man, I’m the thug? What’s going on here?’” [More laughter from the media] “So I’m really disappointed in being called a thug,” he said.
Later, Sherman explained that the term was especially troubling given that it’s something he’s endured his whole life.
“I know some ‘thugs,’ and they know I’m the furthest thing from a thug,” Sherman said. “I’ve fought that my whole life, just coming from where I’m coming from. Just because you hear Compton [Calif.], you hear Watts, you hear cities like that, you just think ‘thug, he’s a gangster, he’s this, that, and the other,’ and then you hear Stanford, and they’re like, ‘Oh man, that doesn’t even make sense, that’s an oxymoron.’”
Sherman’s points are all well taken. And indeed, it looks like the word “thug” was uttered on TV more times in the days after the Sherman incident than it had been at any point in the last three years. But it would be a mistake to read too much into that — in part because both Sherman’s raising the issue himself and sports media’s love of navel-gazing ensure that many (or even most) of those mentions were embedded in “meta”-debates about whether the word was used appropriately. And it would be an even bigger mistake to try to divine how many “thug” utterers are in fact racists or to infer some readymade lesson about race in America.
In other words, it would be a mistake to read it the way Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic did.
After a rehearsal of the facts and some details of Sherman’s impressive personal and educational biography, Coates writes, rather affectedly:
And then there is the racism from onlookers, who are incapable of perceiving in Sherman an individual, and instead see the sum of all American fears — monkey, thug, terrorist, n*****.
And then there is us, ashamed at our own nakedness, at our humanity. Racism is a kind of fatalism, so seductive, that it enthralls even its victims. But we will not get out of this by being on our best behavior — sometimes it has taken our worse. There’s never been a single thing wrong with black people that the total destruction of white supremacy would not fix.
If you think there must have been some coherent train of thought that leads Coates from rehashing the basics of the Sherman backlash to his breathtaking overkill of a conclusion, I encourage you to click over and read the whole post. Because I assure you, there is no such train of thought.
Coates alludes to the fact that at least 17 of Twitter’s 250 million users directed racial slurs at Sherman, but the great sweep of his prophetic call to action isn’t limited to the avowed racists, or even to those he assumes used “thug” as code. No, Coates imagines that all of America, that American-ness per se, sees the Richard Shermans of the world as “monkeys,” “thugs,” and, for some reason I know not what, “terrorists.”
Unfortunately, casually proceeding from fairly mundane premises to revolutionary conclusions is something Coates does with regularity. Just a few weeks ago, in retaliatory fire over media critic Dylan Byers’s perfectly innocent questioning of Coates’s eminently questionable crowning of Melissa Harris-Perry as the country’s foremost public intellectual, Coates wrote this:
Here is the machinery of racism — the privilege of being oblivious to questions, of never having to grapple with the everywhere; the right of false naming; the right to claim that the lakes, trees, and mountains of our world do not exist; the right to insult our intelligence with your ignorance. The machinery of racism requires no bigotry from Dylan Byers. It merely requires that Dylan Byers sit still.
Coates’s writing has always had an admirable poetry, but again, if you think there’s something in his interaction with Byers (who essentially argued “What about Noam Chomsky?”) that could ground non sequiturs about “the right to false naming,” I encourage you to investigate and report back with your results.
Notice that Byers’s bigotry requires that he merely sit still and that the “white supremacy” Coates targets for destruction is both endemic and indelible, invisible and staring us right in the face — ascribable to any white man currently seated and intrinsic to the idea of America itself.
The most depressing part of this vision is that if it is true, it’s hard to see what could ever be done about it. If racism doesn’t even require agency, it is not clear that it can be solved by agency. And if it is so totally and essentially American, then it is hard to discern what Coates is asking us to do, exactly, besides despair.
Winning Well Still Matters
But back to Sherman. In my little corner of the world — the conservative commentariat, where, I don’t think Coates would protest too loudly, greater concentrations of racial angst are purported to exist — I was surprised by how thoroughly mixed the reaction to Sherman was. There were those who shared my annoyance at Sherman’s want of grace but also plenty who were quick to remind that the NFL is about entertainment, or to assert their preference for raw emotion over tired sports clichés, or to see the lament over Sherman’s comments as evidence of American pansification (the black conservative pundit Jerome Hudson was among those to voice this last view).
I agree with that sentiment as far as it goes, and I have written in this space about the NFL as an institutional outlet for the sublimated warrior instincts of a nation of gentle accountants, one that is “ritualized, highly choreographed, and controlled [with] . . . elaborate rules and a heritable culture that prevent it from spilling into pure gladiatorial combat.” But I think the “Sherman haters are just whiners” misses the point. One of the unwritten rules of the NFL, and of sportsmanship in general, is that it’s at least open to debate whether trash talk is permissible before or during a game, but it is never done after a game — much less a win.
There are those who think talking trash ahead of a tough game can get you inside your opponent’s head, though many of the greats have believed the opposite to be true, that trash talk motivates opponents. Bill Belichick is of that school and has a zero-tolerance policy with his players. But wherever you come down on that, there can be little competitive advantage to trash-talking enemies who have already been crushed. Football is perhaps the most martial of the major American sports, and it imports from American military culture — or at least it used to — our conviction that even the bitterest of enemies, once pacified, should be treated with dignity. Even William T. Sherman, America’s most infamous practitioner of total war, understood this distinction. And that’s what General Sherman’s namesake missed.
Winning well is important, if for no other reason than because it prepares us for losing well. Richard Sherman is the greatest cornerback in the NFL. But he won’t always be. He made the game-saving play last week. But one day — and, given that it’s the NFL (“Not For Long”), that day will be here soon enough — age and miles will ensure that he comes up short in a big game. And on that day Sherman’s boasts will sound an awful lot like those of Shelley’s Ozymandias.
— Daniel Foster is a political consultant and former news editor of National Review Online.
editor’s note: This article has been amended since its initial publication.