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.
Rooting hard for your team is a fun, but mostly irrational act. It is mob behavior, relinquishing individual sense and reason in an uncoordinated display of self-serving righteousness. The mob is a cloak, an opiate, a spell that allows otherwise intelligent people to indulge a fantasy.
Fans ignore, for example, that the Seahawks, like most sports franchises, are an indifferent entity built of outside corporate interests, the fear of politicians and mercenary combatants playing for their own glory. That football is an extremely brutal, crippling and life-shortening game.
With some basic reality suspended, other illusions come more easily — that the team reflects our values, that “we” are underdogs, that “we” deserve to win, deserve to go to the Super Bowl more than the other team, because we are more virtuous.
“The illusion can make it better, help you create more connections to what you’re watching on the field, or to the guy sitting next to you in the stadium or in the bar,” said journalist and author Tom Farrey. “There’s such a need for people to connect, you grab whatever you can, but a lot of it is fantasy.”
The illusion of virtue, in particular, seems to be a Seattle thing. Seattle smug. Other major sports cities – I’ve lived in Los Angeles, New York and Miami – care about winning, but they don't look to their major sports for virtue." The University of Miami football teams that won national championships in the 1980s prided themselves on a renegade image. The 1988 game against Notre Dame was dubbed “Catholics vs. Convicts.”
But when the University of Washington Huskies shared the national championship with Miami in 1991, the Huskies cast themselves as the team that won with honor, the team that did it clean and fair. The next season, the Huskies were found to be in violation of NCAA rules and punished with losses of scholarships and a two-year ban from bowl games.
Seattle is unique among cities for its blend of confidence and insecurity (personified by Sherman himself). By contrast, a city like Portland is too small to care about global aspirations. Its residents are happy to sell food from trucks, brew beer in their basements, dress like 19th-century farmers and accept praise for being quirky.
Twenty or 30 years ago, Seattle was more like that itself. Now, the Emerald City is too big and accomplished to be graded on its old curve. It has New York or San Francisco-sized aspirations, but not yet the track record to be comfortable with confidence. Illusions are important, especially when you are playing a team from that bigger, better city with that great bridge that you are so obviously trying to emulate.
Farrey, the journalist, works for ESPN and the Aspen Institute as the director and founder of the sports and society program. He is the rare sports journalist who covers issues like the economic model behind big-time college sports, concussions, criminal cases involving teams and athletes. When it comes to sports statistics, he is more inclined to point out that 70 percent of the money used to construct NFL stadiums comes from public funds.
As a former reporter at The Seattle Times, he covered the Seahawks and the SuperSonics, and helped break the story that led to NCAA sanctions for the UW football team. He also happens to be a former colleague and friend.
“Eventually I was able to strip away all that illusion stuff,” Farrey said. “I came to appreciate the game for what it was. I remember covering the Sonics against the Lakers, at The Forum, and my seat was right behind the standard where I had a perfect view of a Lakers fast break unfolding. I could see them converging as they approached the basket, Magic Johnson looking one way as he flipped the ball another, the table shaking as James Worthy stopped himself inches away from me after the layup."
“To see all this human brilliance at work in concert, all these computational decisions coming together, how much time is on clock, what are the strengths or weaknesses of the two or three offensive options he has, are they hot or cold. It’s like speed chess but using every fiber of your body. If you study the game from that standpoint, it’s totally fascinating. That’s what’s impressive, and that’s enough for me.”
“I don’t really care whether the Patriots [Farrey lives in Connecticut] represent this region. I don’t care what Tom Brady said about some player before the game. I don’t like getting stuck on the morality or values we tend to attach to who’s the goat, who’s the villain, or who’s the hero. It’s just hoo ha.”
That hoo ha, worth millions, is the oil that keeps the machinery of big-time sports running. Served best, the hoo ha is bland and harmless.
Journalists usually oblige. Most days, sports pages are just viewing guides to the contests, instead of guides to thinking critically about the product we’re consuming — in theory, what the news at its best should be.
To cover sports in that way requires provocation, and fighting the natural gravity of the subject matter; gravity that continues to feel heavier as sports franchises get richer and more powerful. Sentiment is on their side. Fan interest is in the contests and the athletes and the spectacle they create, not in the mechanics behind the spectacle. It is easier and more lucrative for a sports media outlet to celebrate and exploit the spectacle than to question it.
If Fox Sports was acting in the interests of fans and consumers, it would have kept the camera on Sherman as he went off script, capturing a rare, candid moment for a famous athlete. When Fox producers decided to cut away abruptly from Sherman’s interview, it was reflexively acting in the interests of its business partner, the NFL, swerving from potential embarrassment for its powerful patron.
As a young reporter in the late 1980s, Farrey’s first major responsibility was covering the Seahawks. “It was a great experience, but what I learned is that there is only one news event and that’s the game,” Farrey said, “and the rest of the time, I was just killing time essentially working to promote the team.”
Twenty five years later, not much has changed. The more I watch Sherman’s infamous clip, the more I wonder how easily the moment could have been judged innocuous if one or a few things had been different. What if Sherman had not leaned toward the camera to emphasize his point? What if he had not worn a baseball cap that obscured his eyes?
What if Erin Andrews had not looked so stricken? What if Fox had not appeared to panic as it cut to a different camera? The audience was like the baby who stumbles and falls hard, then looks at the expression on a parent’s face before deciding whether to cry. Had mom smiled, we would have laughed instead.
To understand what that Sherman moment was all about requires time, and something more difficult than judging Richard Sherman. It requires judging ourselves.