Unparalleled Fascination With Richard Sherman
Flying home from Denver on Monday, I was fascinated at the burgeoning controversy of the Richard Sherman story. I wondered why it got so big, and why America was so magnetized and polarized by it. I will get to that in a moment, but first, a measure of your fascination with the story.
Wednesday will be the six-month anniversary of The MMQB’s launch. In that time, we’ve had lots of stories that generated traditional-media and social-media buzz: the Sam Hurd drug story, the story of what it’s like to be cut from a team, a three-part series entailing one week embedded with an officiating crew, the inside view of an ACL surgery, a former teammate's side of the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin saga, etc. But in the first three hours of Sherman’s column explaining why he flipped out as the NFC Championship Game climaxed, that column smashed every measure of web traffic we have. Without getting into specifics:
- It was our most read post ever, by far.
- It was the highest trafficked day since launch, with four times the typical readership for a Monday.
- The Twitter referral rate—the amount of readers who came to the site from Twitter—was nearly 18 times more than the previous Monday.
- The Facebook referral rate was almost 523 times more than the previous Monday.
So I decided that since so many of you were so passionate about the story, I thought it would be smart to seek out a couple of professionals to ask why it exploded … and then allow you to vent through your email reactions. And so that’s what the column is this morning, along with the second portion of the Q&A I did over the weekend with co-counsel Christopher Seeger, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys in the NFL’s head-trauma case.
Emily Kaplan of The MMQB reached out and found two experts in sports and fan behavior. She asked why America got so caught up in the story in the 12 hours or so after Seattle beat San Francisco for the NFC championship, and Sherman went off on Niners receiver Michael Crabtree because he doesn’t respect Crabtree as a player or person.
“I think this story has really caught on because everyone loves a villain,’’ said Dr. Annemarie Farrell, a professor of sports management and media at Ithaca College. She is an expert in fan behavior. “There’s not a ton of villains on either of these teams that people can talk about. We can’t all talk about Peyton Manning every day all the time. That’s boring. Sherman, on the other hand, put himself out there, and America really latched on. That’s why it became a bigger story than the game.
"There’s a lot of different storylines with Richard and reasons for why this blew up, but I think a really important one here is race. This seethes into this narrative of race in America and race logic. Think about who Richard Sherman is. He’s a kid from Compton who graduated second in his class and went to Stanford to earn a degree in Communications. He’s at a critical point in his football career, makes a huge play, then a reporter sticks a mike in his face. What does he do? He not only speaks, he shouts. And now you have an angry, almost violent black man, in a very passionate moment, yelling on national television.’’
"There aren’t many Disney movies about sports that end with the winning team going on TV and shouting the way Richard Sherman did," Dr. End said.
Said Dr. Christian End, an associate professor of psychology at Xavier University: “What Richard Sherman did was he violated the script of good sportsmanship. He not only deviated from that norm, but he almost violated it. After a hard fought game, good sportspersons are supposed to compliment the opponent. That is what is expected of them. Of course, that’s what leads to many boring and scripted post-game interviews, but it’s what we as sports fans expect. We know that typically those who violate norms are often ostracized … There aren’t many Disney movies about sports that end with the winning team going on TV and shouting the way Richard Sherman did.’’
I like this theory, too, from End: “There are fans of 30 other NFL teams who are completely envious of the Broncos and the Seahawks right now. So there’s some sort of negativity or jealous aspect. Richard Sherman voluntarily offered the ammunition for these fans to say, ‘Well, they’re not worthy of the Super Bowl.’ Those fans can maybe reframe things and justify it as, ‘Well, we may not be in the Super Bowl but at least we don’t have a team full of guys like that.’ ”
My take is an amalgam of that. I think more of this is sportsmanship-driven than race-driven. People detest sore, cocky winners in a team game like football. If Sherman were a normal athlete without a Stanford degree and true greatness at his position—say, if he were an average player of average skill—the narrative would be simple. It’d be easy for a coach to get him back in line and say, “Shut up. Adhere to the program, which is saying next to nothing.” But the Seahawks know who Richard Sherman is. They wish he was another bland team-only guy, but he’ll never be that. And because he’s so good, and he made the play that sent the team to the Super Bowl, the Seahawks have to say, “Well, we’ll just have to manage Sherman the best way we can.”
The Seahawks also know that deep down, Sherman is a generous person with good intent. But on the field, he’s as competitive and nasty as they come. Most guys can handle a mike stuck in their face coming off the field; they can cool down and launch into cliché-speak. And I think Sherman normally can. But not this time. Not with Crabtree. Not in the biggest game of his life, after making the play of his life.
Now let’s hear what you think.
CHILD ON THE WAY. My wife and I are expecting a boy and we've been talking about how she does not want him to play football. We watched the constant flow of injuries during the NFC Championship Game and she's already in the process of putting her foot down. Then, Richard Sherman goes on his taunt of Crabtree, taunt of Kaepernick, and the interview rant. My wife looks mortified. Why do we want our son to experience that? We already know that football is declining as a youth sport. Do you think it's going to be any better when we have a bunch of kids acting like Sherman running around a field?
I empathize with you. I hate the woofing. I hate the trash talk. But it’s there, and I’m sure lots of youth coaches are dealing with young players who emulate what they see on TV. It didn’t start with Sherman, but he’s very good at it. The Niners do it, the Panthers do it ... Heck, almost every team does it. I would just say that youth sports (including football) are fantastic for teaching kids good life lessons about teamwork. No reason your boy can’t play something else.
HE LIKES WHAT HE SAW SUNDAY. I’m a white male around your age and I think Richard Sherman is great. He’s thoughtful, articulate, hard-working and, best of all, he doesn’t sanitize his thoughts with PR-speak or put them through a “how will it play in middle-aged white America” filter. Maybe he regrets the heat of his post-game rant, maybe not, but his words pale next to the fury of the racist tweeters who condemn him. Sad to say, these tweeters look for any excuse to justify their slurs. Anyway, I think Richard Sherman’s a great addition to your outstanding MMQB coverage.
MEMO TO RICHARD SHERMAN. Hi Richard. I hope you read this and understand. You're a great NFL cornerback; you've proven that with your play on the field. You're a very smart man; you've proven that with your achievements in schooling. You're a good influence off the field; you've shown that with your off-field work. The problem is that you have consistently proven that you are classless on the field. You are constantly talking trash, getting in players faces and disrespecting everyone you play against. Your lack of class is so loud that it drowns out the fact that you are smart and that you are a good influence off the field. Nobody will care about who you are off the field until you act with class on the field. If you really want to make a difference and show everyone that you are a good person, stop acting like a man child on the field and show some class.
Consider the message passed.
JAMES IS NOT CONVINCED SHERMAN IS ALTRUISTIC. You said to let Sherman speak for himself and he did. His explanation came up woefully short in his behavior both on the field and off. It is a disgrace whenever a player makes a ‘choking’ or throat-slash at another player or team. Furthermore, the explanation of ‘it was adrenaline talking’ to Erin Andrews is woefully lacking. Coaches are always on their players to play under control and don't let the moment get the better of you. Leave your dislikes of the other players on the field and have some class.
Agreed that the throat-slash gesture was totally bush league. I hate that, and it’s a terrible message to send.
THERE’S A CONNECTION. I feel like Richard Sherman and his supporters are overlooking the connection between his consistent unsportsmanlike behavior and the unsportsmanlike actions of the fans who threw popcorn at an injured Bowman. When you cultivate an environment that celebrates arrogance, trash talking and disrespect for your opponent, how can you be disappointed when your fans feel empowered to act the same way? As for those who responded to Richard's antics with racist taunting, if you want the man to conduct himself with more class perhaps you should start by showing some class yourself.
I see the connection, but there’s no excuse for a fan to throw anything on the field, regardless what the men on the field are doing.
SHERMAN’S OKAY. I would like to take a minute to apologize to Mr. Sherman. While watching that interview I thought, ‘How stupid of him.’ But after reading his article and the thought provoking statements he made about judging him by his entire body of work versus just those few seconds changed my mind. I applaud him not only for his play on the field, but also for making me look at myself and how quickly I judged him. I was wrong.
Consider the message passed.
A READER IS DISAPPOINTED WITH ME. I am an avid fan of your column and The MMQB website. After reading your column today, I was disappointed in your response to the Richard Sherman’s “woof” on national television. Peter, you have advocated for sportsmanship in your columns many, many times over the years. You, among others have decried the lack of morals and character in the NFL on how it continues to degrade. Yet you provide a forum for these types of individuals on your website, especially Richard Sherman who has a history of this type of behavior. I guess that a double standard exists even with you. The bottom line must be website hits. You could have sent a strong message, reached out to the many young people who follow your column and provided a great example of what sportsmanship is about or what it should be about in today’s sports. Instead, you gave what I consider a lame response and what-the-hell attitude. I lost a little respect for The MMQB today.
And that is your right. Lots of people feel the way you do, and I understand. I struggled with opening my eyes and allowing Sherman to say whatever he wanted to say, because I do not like what he did on the field, particularly in the taunting and the throat-slash gesture, and the rage he showed in the interview with Andrews. I appreciated him telling what he saw as the truth to Andrews, but I also didn’t like his tone. But it was real, and that’s the other thing I struggled with here: We ask players to be real, and if you watch football, you see this kind of behavior all the time. So now we’ve seen it up close and personal in front of 56 million views (that was the peak rating of the Seattle-San Francisco game), and we don’t like what we saw. I don’t have a what-the-hell attitude about it. I don’t like it. But the fact is, I’m not the journalism police. I can have an opinion, which I gave, but then, I also want others who feel differently to be allowed to give their opinions too.
ANOTHER READER IS DISAPPOINTED IN ME. I think you made some poor choices in addressing the Richard Sherman situation, and I think you’ve let yourself off the enabler’s hook a bit too easily. Contrary to what you suggest in your column, I wouldn’t expect you to fire Richard Sherman, or even to muzzle him in this case, but I would have expected you to provide the young man with some guidance based on your role as his editor-in-chief at MMQB, and as a mature 56-year-old man who has clearly developed a relationship with Mr. Sherman. Perhaps there was some notion of journalistic principle that I’m unable to divine that caused you to publish Sherman’s column as you did, but whatever the reason, I think it was a bad call. But this letter is really about you Peter, not Mr. Sherman. I read his column today. The one that you, his editor-in-chief, ostensibly approved for publication. The column was mostly a continuation of the same childish, chest-pounding, name-calling drivel that he barked at Erin Andrews. Granted, he threw in some self-serving claims to being misunderstood, and a dash of ostensible concern for the treatment of NaVorro Bowman. In the context of the overall piece, even that last bit came across as a clumsy attempt to establish his humanitarian bona fides. What I did not see in Mr. Sherman’s column was anything meaningful in the journalistic sense. No thoughtful reflection or introspection. Which is why I circle back to you, his editor. What were your thoughts when you approved his column for publication? What did you make of an opportunity to help a young man grow up, using the demands of quality journalism, along with your position as his editor and (I am assuming) respected friend, to help him? It appears very little. Instead, you provided him a respectable journalistic pedestal from which to release more infantile idiocy. That, my friend, is what they in the science call “enabling.” In one bold stroke you’ve managed to both legitimize Sherman’s ranting and debase your own journalistic edifice.
—Stephen Van Doren
Understood. But columns are by their definitions a person’s opinion. Should I say to Sherman, “I don’t like your opinion; change it? Soften it?’’ It is up to Sherman to write the interpretation of events as he sees them. It is up to me to decide whether to publish them. He is a newsmaker with strong opinions, which is why I asked him to do a column for us in the first place. His job is convey the opinions the way he wants. My job is to decide whether to run it. Your job is to decide whether to read it, and then to decide whether you hate him or love him or somewhere in between
HE HATES SHERMAN. You should be ashamed for letting such a ruthless thug like Richard Sherman contribute to your website. He is a poor sport, and he proved it on the last play of last night’s game. His continued contributions will ensure a loss of this reader.
Thanks for writing.
SHERMAN IS BOORISH, I’M AN ENABLER. When I saw Sherman’s childish rant last night, one of the first things I thought was, “Can’t wait to see how Peter rakes him over the coals for that display”. Imagine my surprise when I read you almost sticking up for and apologizing for him. I don’t care if he does write for you. I’ve been following football passionately since I was about eight years old (I’m 56 now). During this time I’ve witnessed the unfortunate growth of trash talking and foolish behavior but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything as boorish and unsportsmanlike as what Sherman was spewing last night. I love your column. I read it religiously every Monday and will to continue to do so but you’ll never get me to agree with your call on this one.
Thanks for writing, and I understand your feelings and the scores of those whose opinions I didn’t run here. All of you have given me a lot to think about.
Now for part two of the interview with Christopher Seeger, the attorney for the 4,500 players and estates who settled with the NFL over the issue of head trauma and concussions in the NFL. (You can find part one here.)
The MMQB: You’ve had a lot of criticism from players since the settlement came down. Did you expect it?
Seeger: I have spoken to hundreds of players—at least a couple hundred players. The more I have spoken with them, and the more we have communicated about the deal, the more positive the reaction is. So let’s take a typical complaint. It’s somebody who assesses that he’s asymptomatic today, or not that seriously damaged today. And he says, ‘There’s no check in this for me.’ … But once we take them through the fact that this was the risk of the litigation … the negotiation resulted in us being able to secure monetary benefits for the most severely injured for many reasons … They need this money now and their family needs it. And then the next level of benefits that we were able to provide was this baseline assessment program—which will tell you definitively today where you stand and how you are. And if you are moderately neuro-cognitively impaired, there will be substantial benefits for you right now to prevent the problem. But God forbid that you should progress into that more severe category, this fund will be there for you. And then on top of that, once we explain that this is not the NFL’s disability programs—this is run by the plaintiffs. These administrators were selected by the plaintiffs’ lawyers. They’re the best of the best. They’ve worked on other deals. So the NFL doesn’t have input. And then on top of all of that, if you qualify for the NFL’s medical benefits under the 88 plan—the 2011 neuro-cognitive plan—you get them in addition to everything that’s going on … If you believe that you are moderately impaired, but you’re not in the realm of dementia, thank God, you can take your baseline tests and go apply to the 2011 neuro-cog program. And if you qualify there you’ll get anywhere from $1,500 to $3,000 a month from the NFL’s established plan. So this is all interwoven.’’
The MMQB: You were accused by ESPN of trying to accept a 10 percent kickback for one player in the case, 79-year-old Billy Kinard. What was your reaction?
Seeger: “I’m still really upset and really troubled by that, because that’s an example of where—I’m sorry because it’s your profession, but I can criticize my profession too—that’s a case where a reporter got their teeth into a story and didn’t care about the facts. I’m probably going to upset that reporter. You know, we told him exactly what happened. The settlement was announced so quickly, and nobody in my office knew about it except for Dave Buchanan, my partner … Luckily, a partner of mine, who is very smart, overseeing it and never really had a chance to consult with me said, ‘Well, we just announced the settlement, so if people still want to retain us, put a sliding scale in there. Put that if the case settles, we’re going to reduce our contingent fee to 10%, and if the settlement doesn’t go forward, then we’re going to go back to one-third. When it got to my attention, I said, ‘No, no, no—we’re not doing that. Call the people you sent retainers to, and tell them that we’re going to represent them for free.’ Because we promised people that we were going to walk them through the settlement. So the bottom line was that we explained to the reporter that Seeger Weiss is not representing anybody, after this settlement was announced, for a contingent fee. Because we’re class counsel, we’re going help them, and if people contact us individually, we’re going to represent them for nothing.’’
The MMQB: The 10 percent thing was long before the settlement then?
Seeger: “No, the 10 percent actually happened. Just to be clear. A partner of mine, without consulting me, in his own head said, ‘Well we just announced that there’s going to be a settlement, so we’re not going to charge them the full one-third contingent fee. We’re going to reduce it to 10 percent.’ So they sent a retainer out to Kinard. When I found out about it … I said to the lawyers in my firm, ‘Write a letter and call these people. Tell them we are not charging 10 percent. That was like three or four cases where that happened … It was fixed before anyone made a complaint, and we said we’d represent them for free. We are not representing anyone after the settlement for a fee.’’