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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