Don’t hate the player (Richard Sherman), hate the game.

Malcolm Smith.

That’s the name of the Seahawks linebacker who hustled downfield to make a heads-up interception that will send Seattle to its second Super Bowl™ ever. You won’t remember his name, because he didn’t do what Richard Sherman did.

Sherman, as most of the world knows by now, is the All-Pro cornerback who made an amazing mid-air adjustment to tip the ball to Smith. Then adjusted a lot of attitudes just after the game when Erin Andrews asked him a question and he went off with the kind of trash talk he brings every minute of every game. Just as much of the Twitterverse had hit “send” on a congratulatory tweet to the Seahawks, Sherman suddenly changed the conversation.

My Twitter feed was divided between immediate haters of Sherman and those who found his candor “refreshing” and about what you’d expect right after a ferocious game between two teams that hate each other.

The most naive reaction came from professional communicators who suggested somebody should get Sherman to media relations training. Sherman has a communication degree from Stanford. He knows what he’s doing. He knows this is how he gets famous. And if you knew Richard Sherman — and almost nobody does — you wouldn’t have been very surprised.

*****

umadbro

Courtesy of Richard Sherman Twitpic

I’ve been a Seahawks fan longer than probably the majority of my Facebook friends have been alive. I’ve seen ups and downs with this franchise — more downs than ups, many years in the NFL desert — so this win was beyond exciting. I was disappointed in Sherman’s behavior because it taints the moment of victory and turned many fans (with a shallow understanding of the team and the game) against them for the Super Bowl™.

Richard Sherman is the best cornerback in the game. He led the league in interceptions, which is all the more amazing because quarterbacks so rarely throw his way. Sherman (correctly) noted that on the final play, the 49ers gambled by going at the Seahawks’ best defender. He has bravado, but he can back it up.

If you follow the Seahawks or are a hardcore football fan, you know this. If he played in New York, you’d know it. If he played among the East Coast media that sets our sporting agenda, you’d know it. But he plays up in the northwest corner of the country, where you have to do bold things to get attention.

He first gained notice when, after the rising Seahawks earned a surprising upset win over the Patriots last season, he tweeted a photo of himself and New England quarterback/media darling Tom Brady with a caption “U mad bro?” The sports establishment that reveres Brady was aghast some upstart would do such a thing, people with actual senses of humor found it funny, and soon enough the sports world returned to ignoring Seattle and its mouthy cornerback.

The Seahawks and the 49ers hate each other with a passion. The Seattle secondary and San Francisco receivers trash talk and taunt more than most, so it’s not surprising that Sherman and Michael Crabtree, the receiver he tipped the ball away from and ripped in his postgame interview, despise each other. The NFL likely will fine Sherman for his comments (probably less than the $50,000 they docked teammate Marshawn Lynch for not talking to the media) while realizing the swagger he brings and the rivalry between the two young teams will bring the league riches beyond belief.

*****

Russell Wilson is the kind of player coaches and PR staff dream about. In just his second year in the NFL, the humble Seahawk most believed too small to play his position in the league is now a franchise quarterback for a Super Bowl™-bound team. He says everything you’d want in his interviews about hard work and teammates and respect for opponents. He makes plays with his head, his legs and his arm. Wilson is known as the first player to show up for practice and the last to leave. Wilson’s face lights up when he tells heartwarming tales of visits to children’s hospitals, and how much he admires the brave young people he meets.

Russell Wilson is everything we say we want in our heroes.

So he’ll never be as famous as Richard Sherman.

*****

Fortune favors the brave. That line has been written many times about the Seahawks (mainly in Seattle, of course, because outside media barely paid attention to them until recently). Coach Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider built the Seahawks from also-rans to Super Bowl™ contenders in a few short years by taking lots of risks and creating a competitive atmosphere. They took risks on quarterbacks deemed too short, cornerbacks deemed too big, defensive lineman considered too small, and found a way to win. Mel Kiper and the shellacked-hair draft analysts who make a living pricing young players as if they are sides of beef, routinely give the Seahawks low grades in their drafts … but Wilson (third round), Sherman (fifth round) and others Kiper and others derided are among the best at their position, and undrafted free agent Doug Baldwin made a number of game-changing plays on Saturday.

Deciding to go for it on fourth down — where Wilson rifled a pass to another undrafted free agent receiver, Jermaine Kearse, for the go-ahead score — is the kind of thing most observers applaud … when it works. On the field, Sherman deflecting the pass to Smith to seal the Seahawks win and trip to the big game is something fans cheer.

But when the athletes we venerate for on-field bravado do something other than act as corporate spokespeople, the world acts with disgust. Fans tweet their dissatisfaction, not realizing they are merely making the target of their anger more famous and more ripe for several endorsement deals.

Richard Sherman knows this. Football is not the only game he plays better than almost anybody else. Russell Wilson can still become famous, and deserves to. Malcolm Smith can still become a prized football player. But only Richard Sherman has become the most talked-about athlete on the planet.

UPDATE: Sherman explains himself and his comments in a Monday Morning Quarterback column for Sports Illustrated. If you’re interested in knowing how he really is, it’s well worth a read.

3 Comments

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3 responses to “Don’t hate the player (Richard Sherman), hate the game.

  1. jesskry

    As someone who has watched zero football this season (I needed a break. LOL) I read this not having seen or heard of any of this. What it made me think is – what matters?

    Will Sherman gain endorsements or contracts from this, or will he fade away/be known for having a bad attitude and someone people steer clear of, contract-wise? Do fans love the quiet, great player with heart that never speaks ill more than they love a trash talker, long term? Does that matter to the franchise? The players salary? I’d think that the quiet, great player has a longer shelf life and better contract deals. The trash talker – what does he really earn besides his 15 mins? It’s sad to me, actually.

    Fame doesn’t equal longevity. It’s a blip and like you said will taint his abilities. Candor is not bravado.

  2. Tim

    JESS: You missed a good season! As for Sherman, he currently is revered by his teammates and as long as he keeps team in mind he should have a successful career. Nobody will ever deny that Terrell Owens had immense talent, but he desired the spotlight for himself and alienated teammates, which was detrimental to his career. While I think fans love the quiet, dedicated player — if on their team — the general public only knows those whom the media amplifies, that then transcend home-team or casual-fan awareness. Thanks for playing along!

  3. Dan

    From Erin Andrews:
    “You expect these guys to play like maniacs and animals for 60 minutes,” she said. “And then 90 seconds after he makes a career-defining, game-changing play, I’m gonna be mad because he’s not giving me a cliché answer, ‘That’s what Seahawks football is all about and that’s what we came to do and we practice for those situations.’ No you don’t. That was awesome. That was so awesome. And I loved it.”http://ftw.usatoday.com/2014/01/erin-andrews-happy-richard-sherman-interview/

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