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Sherman’s March

As a Northern California sports fan living in New York, I’ve become familiar with something commonly known as the East Coast Media Bias – a tendency for major outlets like ESPN to ignore anything happening with a ball west of the Mississippi. It registered on my first day in Brooklyn, 2003, when I picked up a late edition of the New York Times to check the box scores for the Giants-Dodgers game the previous evening. “Los Angeles – San Francisco : night game.” This was all it said .. no score, no explanation, nothing. The implication was clear: those teams left in ’58 and nobody cares what they’re doing now. Sure, there was the occasional story about the hated Barry Bonds back then as he was ramping up to pass the great Babe Ruth (and eventually Henry Aaron) for the home run record. And in subsequent years some attention was thrown the Giants’ way for their two World Series victories. But as far as day to day sports coverage went (and still goes) I was out of luck unless a New York team was traveling west.

All of which is a long way of getting around to how shell-shocked Richard Sherman must have felt when he woke up Monday morning. Sherman is the talented and talkative cornerback who plays for the Seahawks, an equally talented but decidedly small-market football team in Seattle. If west coast teams already have a chip on their shoulder because of the New York media bias it has to be doubly bad for Seattle and their fans, playing in the same division as the storied San Francisco 49ers. The teams have been neck and neck for the past few seasons mirroring each other with strong, hard-hitting defenses. Seattle has been nearly unstoppable at home. But let’s face it – Tony Bennett never left his heart there and outside of rain, coffee, and a high suicide rate, the town isn’t exactly on most must-see lists. So there was plenty of build-up to the NFC championship game on Sunday featuring the Seahawks and 49ers despite the fact that a lot of people still didn’t know who Richard Sherman was. Being a Niner fan I was already more than familiar with the guy and his mouth, but it was quite the phenomenon as about fifty million other television viewers received a crash course in his special brand of id-venting.

The game was a good one but something changed for me early in the fourth quarter when the 49ers’ linebacker NaVorro Bowman suffered a sickening knee injury, replayed endlessly on FOX for good measure. The Niners were still in it but I didn’t care anymore. Things got sloppy after that; chances for a controlled scoring drive were squandered by quarterback Colin Kaepernick and he threw a key interception. It ended with a final surge downfield and a somewhat forced attempt at a touchdown pass with thirty seconds left, perhaps against better judgement and to Richard Sherman’s corner of the end zone. Sherman made a great leaping play on the ball tipping it into his teammate’s hands for the interception and win. It was an opportunity for the guy to do one of two things: celebrate with his fellow players and allow the multiple slow-motion angles to speak for his greatness, or go with his M.O. of running his mouth. To both his credit and demise, Sherman stuck with the latter. He immediately got in the face of the intended receiver Michael Crabtree, slapping his behind and offering a taunting handshake. He made a choking gesture, putting his hands around his throat. But he saved the pure gold for his post-game interview a few minutes later where the intensity of his anger (despite the win) was palpable. He proclaimed himself the greatest in the game without mention of his team and went after Crabtree as a “sorry” receiver. This wasn’t Terrell Owens in tears and overcome with emotion after making a game-winning catch against the Packers. And it wasn’t Peyton Manning shattering the single season passing yards record and deflecting all credit to his team, either. It was a guy going nuts and proclaiming his singular greatness to fifty million people while making sure to get in how much the opposing player sucked.

There were excuses for Sherman’s behavior. Crabtree had supposedly dissed him at an Arizona charity event in the off-season when Sherman attempted to shake his hand. But this wasn’t an isolated post-game outburst for Sherman and his on-camera record is notable, whether taunting Tom Brady, accusing haplessly pompous ESPN commentator Skip Bayless of sucking at life, or provoking the Redskins’ Trent Williams to make good on his promise – “I’ma gonna punch you in the face” – after their game last year. Some, including Sherman himself, noted that Sunday’s incident was in the heat of an adrenaline-fueled moment minutes after he’d made the play of the game. Yet he still had the tact and good sense to reiterate Crabtree’s mediocrity and his own greatness an hour later in a calmer, sit-down session with the media. Things went viral by the following morning with most Internet outlets seeming to defend Sherman’s outburst(s) as ‘good television’ and many implying that the backlash had much to do with race. (Sherman, Crabtree, and the majority of both the Niners’ and Seahawks’ rosters are black.) But the reader response to these posts went in the other direction ranging from those proclaiming that Sherman qualified as a jerk regardless of his skin color to out and out racist vitriol. It’s an unfortunate fact that stirring a national hornets’ nest typically includes letting some sub-human hornets out, too. An article on the sports website Deadspin asserted that a public personality (in America) can be black, arrogant or talented, but never any more than two of these traits at the same time. I don’t know if this is true, but as a 49er fan I’d still like to reserve the right to dislike Richard Sherman. If he was on my team I’m sure I’d be glad he made that play, but a part of me would probably wish he’d learn to shut up on occasion, too. Perhaps that makes me racist, but like Richard Sherman I believe it’s healthier to put it out there for discussion.

If I had to put all of this under one encompassing canopy it wouldn’t be about Sherman’s race, talent, outspokenness, Compton upbringing, feud with Crabtree, Stanford education or impressive dreadlocks. It would be about the guy’s age .. twenty-five years old. Jerk or saint, supremely talented or B-squad backup, not many people get to be the center of a national maelstrom simply by running their mouth as they’ve always done throughout a short if eventful career. Putting this in proper context would be an impossible task for anyone, never mind a twenty-five year old man. It will be interesting to catch up with the guy in a few years to get his perspective. Chances are he’ll still have a lot to say.

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