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The problem with the Seahawks' Richard Sherman? The 12th Man

Forget Compton, Stanford and thuggery. The only thing wrong with the Seattle cornerback is his fans.
Richard Sherman

Richard Sherman Seahawks

The biggest story in football right now, probably the biggest in sports, goes something like this:

One of the best players on one of the best teams in the National Football League, was asked to describe the play that clinched his team’s victory in the playoffs. He replied, to distill his words, “I’m so much better than that other guy.”

He did not say anything revealing, original, controversial or even important. He was very brief. He did not curse.

In the millennia-long history of people losing their tempers, Seahawks star cornerback Richard Sherman’s jarring and awkward outburst seconds after the game ended was smaller than nothing. All indications are that he lost his temper, after a slight from an opponent, for the same reasons most of us lose our tempers: pride, insecurity, hurt feelings. He later apologized. (Getting far less attention is the choke gesture he directed at the opposing quarterback Colin Kaepernick at about the same time. The NFL fined him almost $8,000, not for the rant, but for the gesture.)

There was a backlash, then a backlash to the backlash, consisting mostly of writers who do not know Richard Sherman, telling readers that they don’t know Richard Sherman. The sports media factory went into maximum production, riffing on topics of race, female football reporters, life in Compton, Muhammad Ali, even Justin Bieber.

Sherman was the problem. He was also the solution. As if he could not be both brilliant and foolish, a Stanford grad and a blowhard, disciplined and careless, articulate and incomprehensible, possessing both love and demons, the product of a good home and a bad neighborhood. Usage of the words thug, Compton and Stanford hit all-time highs.

Here's the thing: The Sherman episode says more about us than about him; especially about our relationship, as fans, with major organized sports, and the layers of illusion central to our enjoyment of them.

That illusion is a three-way conspiracy. The influence of the sports entertainment industry, which feeds the illusion, is hard to overstate. It includes not just the teams and the athletes, but all of the companies that produce the material goods that benefit from the emotional capital created by all that winning and losing. It is shoes, and soft drinks, stadiums and pizza, cars and aftershave, and a thousand other things. Like the Beats headphones endorsed by Sherman in a commercial eerily reflective of actual events.

One of the most interesting conversations I’ve had about Sherman was with a sportswriter from Chicago, who postulated that perhaps Beats Electronics and Sherman colluded to stage the on-camera spectacle, in the event the Seahawks won, to juice the ad campaign. The theory does not stretch the imagination very much.

The second conspirator in the illusion is the sports media, which, instead of acting as adversary and watchdog, acts largely in concert with the industry. Media outlets that make money by broadcasting sports events are essentially business partners of the teams.

What we call sports journalism is mostly the marketing, through stories, of the industry and its employees. Read most sports features and you’ll read reports stripped of nuance, built with extrapolated clichés, predictable themes and cardboard characters. 

If the job of the sports industry is to leverage the illusion to sell products, the media’s job should be to analyze those motives, and challenge the illusion for the public interest.

Which is where we arrive at the third conspirator in the illusion: Fans. Because the public’s interest is also to preserve the illusion, which supposes a meaningful connection exists between player and fan. In Seattle this is known as the “12th man” — the narcissistic delusion that you, the fan, are a participant on the field. Consider the hubris behind the “12” flags flying all over town.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Jan 28, 11:10 p.m. Inappropriate

You know why those other cities just care about winning? Because they have done it before. Seattle's last major championship was in 1979.

Also, don't sell the effect of the fans short. When the other team has to entirely change a game plan to compensate for the noise and seismic activity, there's something there. Vegas shifts the home field line for Seattle more than any other city.

AgentJ

Posted Wed, Jan 29, 6:11 a.m. Inappropriate

I grew up in the Seattle area and have been a Seahawks fan since the beginning (and hope they win Sunday), but I am SO ready for this season to be over. You're right, Hugo, in that the sycophantic media have been complicit in the overhyping of this team...try watching a local newscast and waiting ten minutes to get to the news. And the 12th Man? Seattle may rank first among NFL cities in fans who cheer for themselves at least as much as they cheer for their team.

Hurry Sunday.

Posted Wed, Jan 29, 8:35 a.m. Inappropriate

Tell it. I'd like to see this article on the front page of every SPORTS section in America.

gmgd

Posted Wed, Jan 29, 10:50 a.m. Inappropriate

Tempest in a teapot. Sherman was incredibly stoked with adrenalin after making a stupendous play, stuffing a guy that had apparently insulted him six months prior PLUS clinched his team going to the Super Bowl. It doesn't get better than that. Who would not want to shout "YEAH!" at the top of their lungs. I did just that as a spectator and would not begrudge the guy that actually made the play the same expression of emotion. Wow!

Ten minutes later, after the adrenalin cleared, Sherman's comments would have likely been a bit more considered.

slame

Posted Wed, Jan 29, 5:19 p.m. Inappropriate

Ask every other team in the league if the 12th man is a "participant on the field" and see what they tell you. Make it multiple choice, grab a large sample size, and put it in a pie chart.

You'll need a lot of one color, and not very much of the other.

nullbull

Posted Fri, Jan 31, 1:31 p.m. Inappropriate

From my original post on Grantland:

I am guilty of this same thing and I am sorry.

Please indulge me the long story: I saw the first beats commercial with Kevin Garnet and by the end of it I was in tears (I'm such a girl!) and I wanted to run right out and buy beats noise canceling headphones! I love Kevin Garnet!

Then I saw the second beats commercial with Colin Kaepernick and I was torn--I think Kap looks like a thug and I said that out loud to my husband. [To me, thug doesn't mean the n word--it means a gangster who stands out on the street corner selling drugs to children--that could be a white guy, a hispanic guy, black guy and so on.]

I still liked the headphones because I have great respect for KG, but how could they put Kap in a commercial--he is obviously a thug? Like I said, I was torn. Then I read more about Kaepernick: he is adopted, he's just out of college, he is a Christian (instant guilt because I *say* I am one too), he has a pet turtle (!!), and he has an awesome touchdown celebration. I saw him play a few games and he is amazing! I feel bad for pre-judging him based on the tattoos and the swagger. It made me sad that the angry people in Kaepernick's beats commercial were dressed like Seahawks fans (because I call myself one of those too). So, as long as he isn't playing against the Seahawks, I will cheer for Colin Kaepernick.

And finally the Richard Sherman beats commercial came out just before the championship game. I LOVE IT--don't get me started on Richard Sherman! I can't stop spewing praise! Just like he couldn't help his rant that started all this discussion.

When I try to defend Richard Sherman to people who have written him off as arrogant or as a thug it is nearly impossible. I wish they could read more of the good things about him (like that he grew up in Compton and graduated from Stanford, that his work ethic comes from his dad who is a sanitation worker in LA, etc) and come around just like I did with Kaepernick.

I really want beats headphones now and I can enjoy all of the very clever commercials. Because I am a girl I cannot sing along "I'm the man." so instead I sing (for all three commercials!) "I'm a fan, I'm a fan, I'm a fan".

Go Hawks!

DCShadow

Posted Fri, Jan 31, 1:34 p.m. Inappropriate

PS: I huberis-ly have a homemade 12th Man flag on my garage.

DCShadow

Posted Sat, Feb 1, 4:54 p.m. Inappropriate

What an odd and condescending piece. I think Mr. Kugiya is confusing "virtue" with "coolness," and perhaps "local news" with "reality." This Seahawks team is an unusually interesting, dynamic, and somewhat combustible collection of players, which is why there's even more enthusiasm for this team than there was for the 2005-06 season's team. I don't think there's a lot more to it than that.

pika

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