Unparalleled Fascination With Richard Sherman
The numbers don't lie: America is obsessed with the Seattle Seahawks loquacious cornerback. Opinions are passionate on both sides of the issue, but the one thing everyone can agree on: We can't wait to see what he does next
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.’’
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.