Commentary

Ready for the Richard Sherman test?

Don't dread a week's worth of clamor about the outspoken corner, unless you do

Updated: January 28, 2014, 10:38 PM ET
By Jane McManus | ESPNNewYork.com

On Friday, the NFL fined Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman $7,875 for unsportsmanlike conduct and taunting.

It was way too much. Unless it wasn't nearly enough. Or maybe fining him just gives him the attention he so desperately craves. Sherman's epic rant following the NFC title game made for great television, or for an interview getting so "dangerous" that a broadcaster pulled away after two questions.

Millions of opinions have been expressed about Richard Sherman since then, most of them contradictory. Have any of them -- other than his own -- gotten us any closer to the truth? Maybe he is both a hero and a loudmouth. Maybe his postgame moment says something about our nation or its history of racial discrimination. Or perhaps, as Super Bowl week takes over America's biggest city and its biggest TV stage, Richard Sherman and his words have simply become a Rorschach test for each of us.

[+] EnlargeRichard Sherman
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonProvocateur or truth-teller? It all depends on your point of view.

An American television audience was faced with unedited intensity from Sherman, a black man both emotional and confident. "Well, I'm the best corner in the game," Sherman yelled after knocking down a possible touchdown pass and sending Seattle to the Super Bowl. "When you try me with a sorry receiver like [Michael] Crabtree, that's the result you are going to get. Don't you ever talk about me!"

People celebrated him and called him a role model. They called him a "thug." They called him words I won't repeat. The conversation was off and running.

Fred Smerlas, a five-time All Pro as a defensive lineman in the 1980s, tweeted: "Classless in Seattle; the most obnoxious player to ever disgrace the Super Bowl -- Richard Sherman."

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell noted that Sherman was "well-spoken" but, when asked about the incident, said he was "not cheering for that."

Preston Mitchum, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, tweeted: "This Richard Sherman 'situation' is not a national catastrophe but if you think this has nothing to do with race, you are kidding yourself."

A New Yorker calling himself @jtrain56 tweeted: "I wish Richard Sherman were white so we'd realize this isn't about race but about how being offended is a sport."

New York-based comedian Mike Lawrence tweeted: "I didn't think the Richard Sherman story was indicative of how racist society is until no one called Justin Bieber a thug."

The Root, a website with news and commentary from an African-American perspective, fixed that inequity by linking to a news story: "Teen thug Justin Bieber was arrested in #MiamiBeach."

Is an opinion on Sherman really even about him anymore? By now it's apparent he has become a symbol, a stand-in for bigger ideas and arguments that bubble under the surface of our national discussion.

You can use Sherman to talk about racism, and about code words like "thug" or "articulate." You could bring up sportsmanship -- Sherman drew a risky flag after the game was all but decided. You could talk about the brilliance of delivering a WWE-style soliloquy on live TV moments after the greatest achievement of your professional life.

Heck, you could even use it to talk about how the NFL doesn't promote individuals who don't happen to play quarterback, and how the scarcity of guaranteed contracts might motivate Sherman to be his own PR machine. Just days later, Sherman was selling "Don't you ever talk about me" T-shirts on his official website.

There was similar range in people's reactions to interviewer Erin Andrews. Some said she looked "scared," while others said her demeanor reflected how professionally she handled the situation. Fox's decision to kill the interview didn't leave a lot from which to judge.

Not that it matters. People see what they want in those 20 seconds of footage.

Does this conversation get us any closer to consensus?

The power of a discussion about race is that it can sweep away smaller conversations; it may be difficult to deplore Sherman's actions without getting lumped in with the haters. There are plenty of well-meaning people who don't appreciate a player who denigrates his opponent after a win, whatever the history between them. Some of the same people, or their parents, called John McEnroe a punk for the way he belittled chair umpires.

This much is indisputable: In the coming week, Sherman will give analysts and fans plenty to talk about. Whatever he says will be taken and polished, held up to the light for more scrutiny. It will undergo immediate interpretation, viewed through prisms of culture and shaded by experience.

And in the end, what you think of Richard Sherman may not say as much about Sherman as it says about you.

Jane McManus has covered New York sports since 1998 and began covering football just before Brett Favre's stint with the Jets. Her work has appeared in Newsday, USA Today, The Journal News and The New York Times. Follow Jane on Twitter.

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