Don’t drag me into this Richard Sherman thing

Knowing roughly how the internet works, I had a pretty good idea that Richard Sherman’s postgame interview with Erin Andrews would elicit a substantial amount of “discussion” as I watched it on Sunday night. I also had a reasonable suspicion that that discussion would become a discussion about the discussion. That’s because, as I wrote here the next morning, Sherman’s interview was not all that remarkable when compared with other works in the same genre.

In the immediate aftermath of his comments, a lot of people said racist things about him, including labeling him a “thug.” The new online sports media critics (shorthand: Deadspin), collectively about which I’ve attempted to write before, preemptively steeled themselves against charges of racism by 1) labeling Sherman’s critics racists and 2) wholly endorsing Sherman’s comments.

It’s important to take the nation’s temperature on race issues periodically, but the race element of this discussion isn’t particularly interesting or nuanced, even though it does come with an Ivy-League-esque twist. However bluntly they did so, Deadspin et al. are right to stand up against racist tendencies in our discourse. Does that mean they need to go all-in with Sherman, though? No.

I have long been weary of the internet’s obsession with whether someone or something is “classy.” “Classiness” is a malleable, ultimately meaningless, and likely-if-I-was-an-anthropologist/sociologist hegemonic trump card of online discourse that is, at a minimum, an annoying vessel of collective faux-rage. I don’t care whether you think Sherman was “classy” on Sunday night, because that is a meaningless, self-aggrandizing opinion.

I don’t know if I care whether Sherman exhibited good sportsmanship on Sunday night, but I do care that the always-thoughtful Will Leitch has wrongly conflated sportsmanship with the “classiness” concept in his latest article. Leitch is part of the online sports media group I mentioned– I previously described him as its “aloof biological father”— and, as such, he’s all-in for Sherman. His view is that people who found Sherman’s comments unsportsmanlike are off-base because “sportsmanship . . . is a crock.” It’s about decorum, Leitch writes, and, more specifically, “about being as dull as possible, by design. It is putting on a blank, bland face for the world even though, deep inside, you want to scream.” It’s paternalistic: “It is play-acting for the sort of person who picks up their newspaper, shakes their head and can’t believe what the damned world is coming to.” Leitch grants that there is a worthwhile set of values contained within the sportsmanship package, but confines the worth of imparting and upholding these values to youth sports. At the professional level, being a good sport is antithetical to what Leitch sees as professional sports’ entwined true values: full-out competition and showmanship. There’s also that paternalistic aspect of sportsmanship values:

They’re also about control: They’re about fans, and coaches, and leagues, attempting to force some sort of order on a situation, and people, where such order does not apply. Just because you sitting at home don’t approve — just because your job over at the mortgage lending firm doesn’t feature people talking trash into microphones — doesn’t mean you’re right, or that athletes should adhere to what you think. They have a different job than you. It’s not their job to raise your kids, or to make you happy. Their job is to win.

Leitch began his article by recounting an exchange he had with a friend prior to a playoff series between Leitch’s favorite team and his friend’s. Leitch sent his buddy a text message: “hey, good luck tonight. See you on the other side.” His friend’s reply wasn’t so kind. Leitch’s conclusion, in light of his sportsmanship-as-crock definition and view, is that his friend’s response was the correct one because it was honest:

The more I think I about, the more I realize that I told Dom good luck before the game because I wanted him to consider me classy, above the fray, not looking for anything but a competitive game well-played … more than anything, a good sport.

But none of that was true. I didn’t want Dom’s team to have good luck. I wanted them to lose. Dom was a lot more upfront about that central fact than I was.

Leitch sums it all up: “Sportsmanship is for children. Showmanship is for adults. I hope your team loses, and I hope my team wins — and wins big. And so do you. There. Doesn’t it feel better being honest?”

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It doesn’t feel better, actually, because Leitch isn’t being honest, or at least, because he isn’t being precisely accurate in two respects: 1) he conflates being sportsmanlike and being “classy,” and 2) he accepts a transcendent, all-encompassing view of sports.

1. Sportsmanship versus Classiness

Leitch isn’t precise on sportsmanship, the concept he rejects in professional sports in favor of showmanship. On one hand, his empty definition of sportsmanship– a paternalistic “crock”– sounds a lot like the meaningless “classiness” concept. He even uses the word “classy” when admitting his good-luck text message to his friend was an attempt at being considered “classy” and not simply to be a good sport with his friend. On the other hand, he concedes that there are meaningful values behind the sportsmanship concept, at least at the youth sports level.

If good sportsmanship is a real and meaningful concept we should teach our children, why does its role vanish once our children (e.g., Sherman, age twenty-five) become professional sports players? Leitch’s response: “If you’re a professional athlete, playing a hypercompetitive sport watched by the whole world — most of which is actively hoping you fail — that pays you millions of dollars, well, a little hubris then can go a long way. You’ll get a lot farther by having some swagger, because you know the other guy does.” No one is arguing that athletes should not be competitive, “hypercompetitive” even, or play with “swagger.” During a game, we want athletes to do what they need to do to be at their best. That includes being honest about their competitive drives. Being a good sport does not necessarily mean being “as dull as possible,” Crash Davis telling Nuke to stick to the cliches. That’s the insistence of those who demand “classy” athletes, rather than seeking to meet the simple demands of good sportsmanship. Professional athletes don’t have to be role models, and they don’t have to bow at the altar of “classiness,” but surely it’s ok to want them to be good sports, right? To appreciate that it’s all just a game? To shake hands when the game’s over?

2. The Scope of Sport

The online sports media critics’ rush to the wholesale defense of Sherman goes too far because it envisions a world of total sport for athletes and fans. As referenced in the previous paragraph, there is a distinction between what athletes say and do in the heat of competition to “psych themselves up” and compete at high levels and how they act once the game is over. As humans, if our jobs require us to act toward others in a manner not pleasant outside the context of that job, perhaps endeavoring to enforce a separation between those two aspects of our lives is worthwhile. The things that make someone a good basketball player, police detective, lawyer, or surgeon might not be the things that make that same person a good spouse, parent, or friend. It’s one thing to talk trash to an opponent during a game; it’s another to do so outside the arena. Leitch doesn’t seem to want to recognize any boundaries: competitive showmen, 24-7. Difficult as it may be for Leitch or Michael Jordan to remember, though, there is a world beyond the sports world, and, in that world, it’s ok to try to be decent to other folks.

Leitch really makes a leap when he tries to bring fans into his totalitarian sports state. Fans are interested observers of, but not participants in sports. We laud fans for demonstrating loyalty to their teams, not the competitive drive of their favorite athletes. Leitch’s text message was the right one to send, not his friend’s. Leitch now sees his friend’s vulgar, antagonistic message as praiseworthy because he sees it as in line with the same competitive, antagonistic competitiveness he sees and endorses in Sherman’s postgame remarks, but this reasoning is nonsensical. With respect to the games at issue, Leitch and his friend were no more than fans. Beyond that, though, they are friends. An insult hardly seems necessary. Not only was Leitch not a bad fan for sending his good-luck-talk-to-you-afterwards message, he was being a friend. He recognized there was more than a sports game (in which neither he nor his friend were playing) at stake. To write that his friend’s response was the correct one, the better of the two messages, is to ignore a) the difference between fans and athletes and b) that there is more in this world than sports.

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We rightly praise athletes for their fully competitive participation in their sports; that does not mean we have to praise them for being jerks when their games are over, however. And none of that means we should praise fans who act out athletes’ antagonistic competitiveness. Don’t tell me I’m a bad fan because I want to keep my friends after games between our favorite teams. Don’t reward a person who continues to pummel a vanquished opponent once he’s left the ring. Sports are fun for many and a job for some, but there’s a more to life that’s longer-lasting and more meaningful.

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Previously
Richard Sherman is not the new standard-bearer for on-field, postgame NFL playoff interviews
Online sports media critics: When Colin Cowherd starts to make sense, it’s time to reevaluate your approach
A note on rants
Why do you hate Johnny Manziel?
Socializing endurance athletics

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3 thoughts on “Don’t drag me into this Richard Sherman thing

  1. Several thoughts:

    1. “Knowing roughly how the internet works” … heh.

    2. Another aspect to people taking sides on the Sherman situation is that this draws non-NFL fans. Regardless of what classiness or sportsmanship may be, players doing things like this:

    don’t draw a lot of readers from outside the NFL community. Racism charges and denials bring hits and advertising dollars. While I doubt that deadspin simply crunched the numbers and decided that supporting Sherman would stuff their pockets more, I suspect that it crossed their minds that this story would get real pull from the general public and a different point of view could give them an edge in searches about the story.

    3. Whenever issues like sportsmanship and class and order versus competition and aggressiveness and entertainment come up all that I can think about is gladiators. Football (among other sports) is our modern equivalent of gladiatorial battles. Of course it doesn’t end in death (usually) and the participants are free to leave (mostly), but it is a test of strength, speed, and cunning. There is no room for the generous or kind. Only the cruel can ultimately win. And the rest of us eat it up. We did then and we do now. We build bigger and bigger stadiums to enhance the experience in as many ways as possible and now have the ability to broadcast it worldwide (and yet people still like to go to the stadium to watch the action live despite the increased price and the decreased viewing experience).

    This gladiatorial metaphor leads us to the two groups in this Sherman discussion in a straightforward way. There are those who embrace their desire to see all out battle. Who enjoy the fight for what it is and have accepted it as a part of their humanity. And there are those who feel uncomfortable about the thought that football is more similar to gladiator battles than, say, futbol (word play created primarily for word play purposes) or other modern events. These people tend to want to impose order, sportsmanship, and classiness – whatever those things might look like. To them, civilization is wonderful and clearly rejects gladiatorial battles (bull fighting fits in here somewhere, but I don’t understand the associated culture which I’m told is an essential part) which puts football in an awkward place.

    The point of point number three is not to select one group. It is not to say that watching physical feats of strength at the highest level of competitiveness is so ingrained in our humanity that we need to accept it as it is and at least they carry pads and helmets and a football that doesn’t hurt and not swords and maces. Nor is the point that the inexorable process known as progress and civilization will undoubtedly look back on football as crass, crude, and crumbly. The point of this swelling point is merely that people – particularly those involved in various stages of the meta-discussion – should be aware of their true motivations on this topic (unless people really are crunching numbers to get the most hits or really are racist).

    4. A (hopefully) shorter point on boundaries. I suspect that the reason that players are more willing to accept attitudes and behaviors they might not agree with than boundaries is because they are bad at boundaries. Perhaps if you should be hyper-competitive/mean everywhere you can’t mess up and accidentally go overboard at someone (because people only remember you when you hurl insults at an opponent, not when you are pleasant and friendly) because it is not only accepted but required.

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