If you didn't watch any playoff football this weekend, or didn't watch any ESPN highlights, or didn't watch or read news in general , here's a quick rundown of the biggest story in football (the upcoming Super Bowl has been relegated to #2), which sheds light on the great secret of sports pundits (and political pundits): their success is based primarily on offering different and non-conventional opinions, even if those opinions are really, really dumb.
Here's the case study:
On Sunday, moments after the Seattle Seahawks defeated the San Francisco 49ers, 23-17, to advance to the Super Bowl, Richard Sherman, the Seahawks' super-talented defensive back, was interviewed by FOX Sports reporter Erin Andrews. Sherman made a fantastic game-saving deflection on a pass intended for 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree in the endzone. Had Sherman not made the play (which was a very difficult one), Crabtree likely would have caught the pass, and San Francisco likely would have defeated Seattle.
DAVID RYDER / REUTERS
Here's the 30-second post-game interview, which you need to watch to understand why this is going viral:
This wasn't Sherman's only media highlight of the day. After he broke up the pass, Sherman gave the choking sign to 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, which he defended in a Monday column:
I threw a choking sign at 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Why? Because he decided he was going to try the guy he was avoiding all game, because, I don’t know, he’s probably not paying attention for the game-winning play. C’mon, you’re better than that.
He also patted Michael Crabtree on the butt, but thanks to this audio from the NFL, and an alternate camera shot, Sherman does not look nearly as bad as he did on Sunday, when the butt-slap looked like dancing on Crabtree's grave. After patting Crabtree's behind, Sherman said, "Good game, good game," and extended his hand to the 49ers receiver, who proceeded to shove his hand into Sherman's facemask, pushing him away.
Then came the interview.
The default, instinctive (i.e. Twitter) reaction to the interview was shock at what seemed to be Sherman's raw anger, and his lack of class and sportsmanship. Everything he did--from imitating a choke, to screaming into the camera--was in fact unsportsmanlike. Everything. And that's an easy judgment to make.
It doesn't require much critical thought to acknowledge that Sherman is in the wrong here. Just common sense.
Really, the choke-sign is worse than what he said on camera. Any athlete is expected to act, on the field, with a minimum degree of respect for the opposition. That standard is more difficult to uphold in football, particularly for defensive players, because in order to succeed they have to channel their energy, rage, and passion into pummeling the opposition.
NFL players need to have a functioning on/off switch, where they realize that they have to smash into the guy with the ball, while also helping him up off the ground, dropping to a knee when he's seriously injured, and (hopefully) shaking his hand after the game.
It's tough to do, but more often than not, it's done pretty well. And sometimes, players slip up and let their on-field emotion spill into the post-game interview, as Sherman did. It's not a huge offense. Really, Sherman's outburst gave fans--many of whom naively view football as a benign real-life version of chess--a window into the type of emotion required for many defensive players to succeed.
It was angry and mean-spirited, but so is football, so at least his tirade serves some useful purpose. As Bill Plashcke of The LA Times wrote:
A guy fights for three hours and winds up throwing the punch of his life in the most important professional moment of his life, and America expects him to immediately start blowing kisses?
Sherman said as much to CNN:
"If you catch me in the moment on the field when I am still in that zone, when I'm still as competitive as I can be and I'm trying to be in the place where I have to be to do everything I can to be successful ... and help my team win, then it's not going to come out as articulate, as smart, as charismatic -- because on the field I'm not all those things," he said.
That's fair, and understandable. During a game, adrenaline is used to run, jump, and hit. When it's still flowing after the game, uncontrolled, it will probably come out verbally, if the player doesn't concentrate on controlling it.
In a perfect world, events would have unfolded as follows: people quickly reach the correct conclusion--that Sherman is self-centered and arrogant. ESPN focuses on the biggest sports event of the year, the Super Bowl. And CNN focuses on news, instead of on things ESPN likes to cover.
In actual life, this is how events unfolded: Sherman was initially condemned by the Twitterverse, with some people lobbing unfair, insulting, and blatantly racist attacks at him. Pundits then used the occasion to bolster their own racial tolerance bonafides by condemning people who tweeted racist anti-Sherman things around MLK Day (Who knew that, of Twitter's 645 million users, there are a handful of racists and imbeciles?).
And then, the most interesting part of this whole story happened--really successful and intelligent writers and commentators defended Sherman's interview.
Tommy Tomlinson wrote a piece on Forbes with 22 brief thoughts about the Sherman interview. Here are two of those thoughts:
Sherman graduated second in his class in high school and also graduated from Stanford. So not only is he not a fool, odds are he’s smarter than you and me.
It seems to me that the only proper response to surviving something like that is to holler like a crazy person.
Why Sherman's intellectual credentials are part of this conversation is a bit perplexing. What, you can't be really intelligent and also arrogant and foolish? Sherman actually does come off as pretty intelligent and really well-spoken, at least when he wants to be.
And in terms of hollering "like a crazy person," there's nothing wrong with hollering like a crazy person after a game...just with being a jerk about it. Retired New York Jets linebacker Bart Scott is a good example of someone who hollered like a crazy person after a huge win, but did so while propping up his team, not himself. Watch below:
And this is not an isolated outburst by Sherman. In March, he personally attacked ESPN commentator and fellow obnoxious guy, Skip Bayless. He wasn't coming off a game-saving deflection and he wasn't on his way to the Super Bowl. It was the offseason, and he was still combative on camera. Watch the video below:
Sherman feeds off of the attention and access to the public that the camera gives him; He probably realizes that personal attacks and outbursts help build his brand and marketability (all attention is good attention); And he's also just not a nice guy when the camera is on.
But that's not really a story, and you can only replay his on-camera outbursts so many times, so because sports commentators need to fill space and airtime, they have to create a story, they have to give their own, unique, opinion.
And if it sounds good or reads well, it doesn't matter how counterintuitive, irrelevant, or yes, stupid, it is. It's different, and being different is how many pundits succeed, because the public doesn't want to listen to, or read, or watch a commentator that says what everyone else saying, even if it's true.
Will Leitch, of "Sports on Earth", fawned over Sherman:
Sherman has said he plans on being a commentator when he retires from the game. ("So I can keep talking.") He's going to be terrific at it: He's going to be different in a way the Erin Andrews' interview barely even touches on. We're going to see so many microphones in his face over the next fortnight, and I can't wait. He's smarter than we are. Maybe we can all learn something.
Greg Howard of Deadspin played the collective racial guilt card, and wrote:
All this is based on the common, very American belief that black males must know their place, and more tellingly, that their place is somewhere different than that of whites. It's been etched into our cultural fabric that to act as anything but a loud, yet harmless buffoon or an immensely powerful, yet humble servant is overstepping. It's uppity.
Dave Zirin of The Nation wrote:
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.
In trying to be different and unique, Leitch, Howard, and Zirin end up sounding like each other, boring and unoriginal. There are only so many ways to defend the Sherman brand, and the "original" pundits who do it end up occupying a more or less incoherent echo chamber.
The real hero in this is Slate's Seth Stevenson, who wrote a hilarious and, most importantly, true piece, outlining nine things regarding this that may be too obvious for most commentators to stumble upon. Here they are, courtesy of my new favorite writer:
1. When, after winning the game, Sherman made the choke sign in his losing opponent’s face, then called another losing opponent “sorry” and “mediocre,” he was being a dick.
2. Even though Sherman grew up underprivileged and beat the odds and now gives back with worthy charitable endeavors, he was still being a dick.
3. The fact that Sherman is very smart and attended Stanford and approaches his job in a scholarly manner doesn’t mean he wasn’t being a dick.
4. Whether or not Sherman’s behavior was calculated and self-aware and media-savvy and akin to the monologue of a pro wrestling heel, it was still dickish.
5. Many athletes play violent, hard-fought, emotional games and still manage to refrain from taunting their vanquished foes and giving dickish interviews.
6. It is possible to be an entertaining, eccentric, and even boastful interviewee without being a dick.
7. It turns out that Sherman and Crabtree have history—Sherman’s brother alleges that Crabtree tried to fight the Seahawks player at a charity event. Most of Sherman’s defenders haven’t bothered to mention the existing personal feud. But to be clear: While the prior beef adds some context, those two wrongs don’t make what Sherman did right—or, more precisely, not dickish.
8. Talking smack in the lead-up to a contest, or in the middle of it, is permissible. It falls into the hallowed tradition of gamesmanship. Dancing on graves after the battle has been won is dickish.
9. And this is the most delicate of these notions but needs to be addressed: Whatever archetypes may be conjured by the specter of white people tsk-tsking a black man who loudly brags alongside a blond woman, those uncomfortable overtones don’t change the fact that, in this case, in that moment, the man was being a dick.
When commentators frame their opinion with the core goal of sounding different, they end up sounding like every other commentator. It's the guys like Stevenson, who tell the obvious truth, but do it in their own witty and clever way, who really sound unique.