Kirkland: Richard Sherman, the football player who ‘gets it’

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Kirkland: Richard Sherman, the football player who ‘gets it’

Will Kirkland, Columnist

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Say what you will about Richard Sherman, the Seattle Seahawks’ outspoken star cornerback, but one thing is clear: He gets it.

A Stanford graduate who majored in communication, Sherman fully understands the media-savvy and controversy-prone personality that he’s been building up ever since he entered the league in the 2011 draft.

To put it mildly, Sherman is a divisive player. Even before the 2014 NFC championship game that made him a household name, Sherman carved out a niche for himself as a trash-talking corner whose psychological game played almost as much of a role as his physical one.

But it was that NFC title game, in which Sherman’s “Legion of Boom” held off my hometown San Francisco 49ers at roaring CenturyLink field in Seattle, that brought Sherman into the elite group of professional athletes who take the American media by storm. In a now-famous post-game interview with Erin Andrews, Sherman boasted that he was “the best corner in the game,” shouting directly into the television screens of millions of American with the kind of adrenaline-fueled passion most were unaccustomed to seeing off the field.

The interview became the big water-cooler story of the week. Unfortunately, many Americans saw it through the same racial lens that has plagued this country since its founding; thousands took to Twitter to call Sherman a despicable series of racial epithets. The bottom of the racist barrel knows no bounds.

But Sherman has the stats to back up his boasting. With 24 interceptions and 65 pass deflections in only four seasons, Sherman has proven his worth as a bedrock of the Seahawks’ defense. The top brass in Seattle knows this worth has a monetary value. Last year, the Seahawks made Sherman one of the highest paid cornerbacks in the NFL with a $57 million, four-year extension contract. He’s earned that money, having approached every game with the same dedication that his father, Kevin Sherman, still approaches his 3:45 a.m. shift with the Los Angeles sanitation department.

In the wake of the controversy surrounding his interview after that NFC title game, Sherman took to a press conference to deliver a humble, honest and much-needed message to our football-crazy nation. He derided those who took his words for more than they were; he was merely “showing passion after a football game,” a football game in which his defensive play sealed his team’s place in the 2014 Super Bowl they went on to win.

Most salient, though, were his comments on the use of the word “thug” to describe his antics by Twitter haters (and some Fox News hosts).

“The reason it bothers me is because it seems like it’s an accepted way of calling somebody the n-word now,” Sherman said.

With one sentence, he turned a national conversation about football into one about the reality of our so-called “post-racial society.”

Sherman’s comments on the new racial codewords of America in the Age of Obama were in my mind as I listened to Michelle Alexander’s stirring speech to a standing-room crowd at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall last Monday.

Alexander’s words were not about football, but about the institutional racism of America’s oversized prison-industrial complex. One of her central arguments, expounded upon in her powerful book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” is that “racial caste systems, such as slavery and Jim Crow” seem to die out, the apparent result of monumental achievements like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but in reality “are reborn in new form, tailored to the needs and constraints of the time.” 

This is actually the same phenomenon that Sherman was referring to, albeit in a much different context and on a much different scale. At the core of both arguments is the idea that instead of eliminating racism and its accompanying epithets, American society has merely altered the manifestations of such racism (from Jim Crow to mass incarceration) and altered its language (from the n-word to “thug”).

Sherman later wrote in a column, “Would the reaction have been the same if I was clean-cut, without the dreadlocks? Maybe if I looked more acceptable in conservative circles, my rant would have been understood as passion.”

Richard Sherman is a football player. Unlike Alexander, his main concern isn’t waking up the American conscience and tackling institutional racism. His main concern is playing football, and playing it well. But a common thread runs through their words, one that weaves a story we can’t ignore.

The Seahawks lost in a legendary Super Bowl battle on Sunday, thanks to the lightening speed of Patriot’s rookie Malcolm Butler. Butler ended up being the night’s most pivotal cornerback, not Sherman. But as the champagne pops in Boston and all of New England is celebrating, think back to Richard Sherman’s words and remember that what’s at stake is bigger than football.

Will Kirkland is a Weinberg junior. He can be reached at williamkirkland2016@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

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