“Unsportsmanlike” Conduct and That Richard Sherman Interview

R ichard Sherman, star defensive back for the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, has received severe public criticism for his comments in the immediate aftermath of his team’s victory over the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game this past Sunday.

Richard Sherman, star defensive back for the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, has received severe public criticism for his comments in the immediate aftermath of his team’s victory over the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game this past Sunday.[1] Many of these insults have attacked his intelligence, his character, his “class,” his humanity – not to mention others that are unquestionable instances of overtly racist and hateful speech.[2] These assaults are unjustified and based on an oversimplified analysis or hasty judgment that is consciously or subconsciously motivated by a desire or need to confirm race-based stereotypes.

Another strand of public commentary expresses concern that, regardless of the how Sherman’s interview should have come across, his interview will negatively impact American race relations because critics will use Sherman’s interview to “confirm” racial stereotypes.[3] To prevent such stereotype confirmation in this particular case – although I am completely unsympathetic to such conclusions in any and every event – I propose a more exacting review of an appropriate response to Sherman’s conduct, and hope that such analysis will illuminate that Sherman’s conduct reasonably should have been expected and did not deserve the degree and nature of personal insults that it generated.

A. The degree and nature of public outrage over Sherman’s interview is unjustified.

To determine whether Sherman’s conduct deserves criticism, strong or weak, there are at least four relevant and related questions. The threshold question is whether Sherman owed his opponent or the public some standard of conduct at all. The scope of this question is largely theoretical given how public this debate has become, and I will assume for the purposes of this article that Sherman owed such a duty. Therefore, the questions I address are as follows: (1) by what standard should we evaluate Sherman’s conduct; (2) did Sherman’s conduct overstep this standard; and if so, (3) was Sherman’s conduct so egregious to warrant the level of public outrage expressed?

1. Sherman’s conduct should be evaluated under a standard of sportsmanship owed a rival player in an NFL playoff game.

I begin by addressing the vocabulary of most critical responses to Sherman’s interview, which have decried Sherman’s lack of “class.” “Class” is a term loaded with historical and cultural value judgments; to say that someone is or is not “classy” imputes critical assumptions based on past-and-present racial and socioeconomic conditions and experiences. To avoid such deep, convoluted implications and a biased framing, rather than ask whether Sherman acted with “class,” we should ask how and to what degree Sherman departed from  “sportsmanlike” conduct in this context.

Additionally, I define the relevant context of the statements as a forced response in the seconds following an emotional and highly physical game of great importance, while facing an individual opponent with whom you have a history, in a sport defined by its violence and intensity. It may be argued that this is a biased framing that is built to support Sherman’s conduct, however any other framing would fail to give adequate weight to the underlying circumstances that made this interview exceptional.

Given the question presented and the context (or some variation thereof), I believe that Sherman only owed the public and his opponent the level of sportsmanship that fans demand during the game itself: near-absolute mental and physical dedication (including sacrificing short term and long term health[4]) to your team, its victory, other than that which would cause unpenalized physical injury to the opponent’s players. I believe this holds especially true for a team leader, which Sherman certainly is, in which case fans also require inspirational verbal and physical displays of emotion, including those that may disparage and vilify the opponent and its players.

I realize that my take on the relevant standard is contestable. One could argue athletes should be held to a higher standard of sportsmanship during the in-game context that I describe. Going further, one may argue that once a game ends a distinct post-game standard should apply. Further yet, it is arguable that a post-game standard should be higher for victors than for losers.

Nevertheless, any sportsmanship standard should reflect the context and timing of the interview. Former athletes should consider their own experiences and reflect on the type of comments made on the field, in the aftermath of a loss, or the heat of a hard-fought win. Similarly, fans should consider the comments they hear and make during a game, following a defeat, and while celebrating a victory. All evaluators should consider the unique emotional nature of play-off games and rivalry matchups. Similarly, should consider whether “bad-blood” between players renders attempts at sportsmanship more difficult.  Expectations of sportsmanship should depend on the situation that the player faces; in all reasonableness, you should not require players to act the same way in a controlled post-game environment that they would seconds after the final whistle blows.[5] Until these “professional” athletes step off of the field, they are still sweating and bleeding in helmets and pads, not polished and scrubbed clean in suits and ties.

2. Richard Sherman met or exceeded the applicable standard of sportsmanlike conduct.

Under my sportsmanship standard, I believe that Sherman clearly met the level of sportsmanlike conduct required under the circumstances. If anything, Sherman exemplified the qualities fans demand of a passionate NFL leader and athlete in a contentious play-off game. In addition to the nature of NFL football as described above, the gloss of a play-off game, Sherman made the game-sealing play seconds before the interview against none other than Michael Crabtree, with whom he has “bad-blood” and was matched up against in a physical contest for three hours. Each of these facts cut sharply against finding that Sherman demonstrated poor sportsmanship. As such, Sherman could only have overstepped his sportsmanship obligations with egregious personal attacks. As such, Sherman’s statements that he is “the best corner in the game,” that Crabtree is a “sorry receiver,” and that if Crabtree were to talk smack that Sherman would “shut [his mouth],” are far from incendiary. Although one could argue that Sherman’s external comments and actions, such as his history of “cocky comments” or smack-talk in game (including any judgments about his response to the Bowman injury – he prayed for Bowman [6] – which actually helps his case) are relevant to assessing the level of sportsmanship displayed, this query is off-point; the exacting public outrage has been directly aimed at this interview and not at Sherman’s previous statements or general conduct, which many (or most) offending fans were likely unaware of and unconcerned with prior to this incident. As such, I believe that Sherman did not violate the applicable sportsmanship standard.

Concededly, my analysis depends on my standard as applied, and the analysis would be different if a heightened standard were applied. I urge those who apply a different standard to consider three main elements: (1) Review Sherman’s conduct by strictly applying the previously set-out standard of sportsmanship; (2) ask whether the content of Sherman’s interview was really controversial under the standard (i.e. was saying that Crabtree is a “sorry receiver” truly inappropriate?); and (3) ask whether Sherman’s delivery – visceral, intense, and arguably violent – should impact your analysis at all. The third point largely implicates concern that the degree and nature of the public outrage inherently involves an implicit or explicit willingness to confirm racial stereotypes. On this element I do not claim that the third factor is irrelevant per se, but if you do consider it, ask yourself the following: would a similarly passionate response by a white player cause public uproar, or would he be perceived as a powerful leader, the archetype of a physical and  violent sport?

3. Even if Sherman did not meet the relevant standard of sportsmanship, the amount and type of blowback and public outrage was unjustified.

If you still believe that Sherman overstepped the applicable standard of sportsmanlike conduct, then I ask one final question: Did the degree to which Sherman’s conduct overstepped this standard warrant widespread attacks on his intelligence, character, and value as a person? The answer is absolutely not. While judging the content of a player’s public remarks as uninformed, inflated, or lacking tact may be an appropriate conclusion depending on the comment, judging a player’s overall personal intelligence, integrity, and character based on strictly game-related statements made in a single interview is an incomplete and unfair assessment. Particularly groundless in this case, these judgments have been employed to slander a highly educated and thoughtful individual.[7] Sherman’s comments were directed at his own ability, the ability of his opponent, and his opponent’s conduct. Even if Sherman made these statements in a manner perceived to be cocky or disrespectful, the content of his comments cannot be construed in good faith as indicating that he is not intelligent, not of high moral character, or not a dignity-deserving human being.

B. Conclusion: Sherman boldly displayed the on-field passion that fans demand from NFL players, and to disparage the same conduct is an inconsistent double-standard.

Richard Sherman made an incredible play against a rival opponent to win a down-to-the-wire game that gave the team he leads a chance to win the Super Bowl. If he owed a duty of sportsmanship to his opponents or the public in the seconds after completing the final play, the standard he is held to must be largely or completely reduced from the applicable standard in a post-game interview for which there is time to “cool off.” If that standard is applied with reason and without discriminatory prejudice, the largely mundane content of his comments should not have garnered significant criticism, despite his passionate delivery. Regardless, in no way did Sherman deserve the harsh and degrading personal insults hurled at him following his interview. Rather, his statements and delivery displayed exactly the spectacle fans require of NFL athletes playing this cruel and punishing game: power, dedication, and raw will to win. That critics attack Sherman for conduct they demanded mere seconds before and in those conditions is conspicuous, ridiculous, and ultimately invidious.

Sam Straus is originally from Santa Cruz, California, and is an avid fan of the San Francisco Giants and 49ers. Although he still expects to make the big leagues someday, he is currently working to complete his second year at Harvard Law School, just in case. 

Suggested citation:
Sam Straus, “Unsportsmanlike” Conduct and that Richard Sherman Interview, Harv. J.Sports & Ent. Online Dig., January 22, 2014, http://harvardjsel.com/2014/01/richard-sherman/.

 


[1] http://www.sportingnews.com/nfl/story/2014-01-19/richard-sherman-post-game-interview-michael-crabtree-video-gif-quote-erin-andrews-seahawks-49ers-score

[2] http://www.azcentral.com/sports/cardinals/articles/20140121reaction-to-seattle-seahawks-richard-shermans-rant-gets-discolored.html

[3] See http://deadspin.com/richard-sherman-and-the-plight-of-the-conquering-negro-1505060117

[4] See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l74lvPiE1r4 (NaVorro Bowman’s injury during the same game)

[5] Compare https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HESJgpYYUyM (Sherman’s staged press conference for “Beats by Dre”) with https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0GS1qQ0C0j8 (A characteristic in-game reaction by the 49ers’ head coach, Jim Harbaugh)

[6] http://mmqb.si.com/2014/01/20/richard-sherman-interview-michael-crabtree/

[7] See Id..

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