“That Kind Of Guy”: Richard Sherman, Class, and “Class”
On Sunday, Jan 19, the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers played a football game. Not just any football game, but a very meaningful one. The winner would go on to the Superbowl; the loser would see their season end at the hands of their biggest rival. At the end of the game, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, matched up against 49ers wide-receiver Michael Crabtree, made the biggest play of his career. The Seahawks won.
Sherman went over to Crabtree after the play was over, gave him a sarcastic pat on the back, and got shoved in the face. Then he made a choking sign towards 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Then Erin Andrews shoved a microphone in Sherman’s face, and Sherman yelled:
Sherman: “Well, I’m the best corner in the game! When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that’s the result you’re gonna get! Don’t you ever talk about me!”
Andrews: “Who was talking about you?”
Sherman: Crabtree! Don’t you open your mouth about the best, or I’m going to shut it for you real quick!”
The horror! With that, the backlash began. Sherman was everything wrong with professional sports. Sherman was ungracious. Sherman was classless. There is, everybody knows, a right way to win and a wrong way to win, and Sherman had done it the wrong way. Tom Brady made this clear on Monday: ““I don’t know him at all. I’ve watched him play. He’s that kind of guy.”
That kind of guy. That kind of athlete. Classless. These are the accusations (along with the typical troglodytic Twitter responses) popping up everywhere since Sherman’s post-game interview. But this narrative is very different than the one you might normally encounter during an NFL game, and especially after a game like the one Seattle and San Francisco played on Sunday. That narrative usually tells us that the men on the field are warriors. Gladiators. That the game is not a game at all, but a battle. And when the war is won, and the bodies are left battered and bruised on the battlefield, the expectation is that warrior Richard Sherman shed the soldier’s uniform and put on a politician’s. After the most intense few hours of his career. After the biggest play he might ever make. After a fight. This request is not just unreasonable in its expectations, but also a form of control over the image of the prototypical professional athlete. This athlete is a blue-collar worker, a “lunch-pail guy,” who is tough, hard-working, and looks like somewhere between your average construction worker and Dennis Quaid. He doesn’t talk much, this athlete, he only “goes about his business” because he’s a “consummate professional.” On top of all this, the professional athlete is classy.
To be classy in pro-sports, you must exhibit a certain level of white-collar, or at the very least middle-class, professionalism. To conduct yourself in a professional manner. The policy in the NBA is that, when engaging in team or league business, players are required to dress business casual. This look is not uncommon in all major sports. The unwritten policy in all pro-sports, the one Richard Sherman so deeply offended on Sunday, is that, along with the upper-class aesthetic coveted by leagues like the NBA, players must also exhibit an upper-class morality. The coveted sportsmanship. Because of those necessary qualifications, the way in which we identify “classy” professional athletes has become class-based, and is inherently racist.
In 2011, the Economical Policy Institute published a study determining that ” labor market discrimination excludes many black men from high- wage jobs.” The study presented the obvious: black males were overrepresented in low-paying jobs and underrepresented in high-paying jobs. In 2013, The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport reported in its annual “Racial and Gender Report Card,” that 66.3% of NFL players were black; in the NBA, that number was 76.3%. In the NFL League Office, 9.2% of management position were held by African-Americans; in the NBA, 18.3% of League Office professional employees were black. In 2011, ESPN reported on a study declaring that 34% of black athletes in the NBA grew up in households earning no more than 150% of the poverty line. In contrast, no white NBA player had come from a below-average-income home without two parents. It is in these numbers where the white-collar definition of “class” becomes problematic in professional sports; that type of definition disqualifies a large number of athletes who did not grow up and were not socialized in a middle/upper class environment. Perhaps the way we define “classy” is idealistic; perhaps it is unreasonable, but it is certainly not fair.
Football is a rough sport; beyond that, it is a dangerous one. No one is more keenly aware of this than its professionals, the players who risk injury or worse every time they put on pads and a helmet. In the NFL, the players constitute the working-class, and there is a deep respect among them, but this respect does not — and should not have to — come in the form of politeness or placidity. Shaking hands and exchanging kind words after a game is lovely, but it is only a distraction, not the true display of athletic solidarity. This solidarity presents itself in much more significant ways: a prayer circle around an injured player, a strike, nearly 5, 000 players suing the league over its mishandling of concussions. On Monday, when Richard Sherman published his refutation aimed at “those who would call [him] a thug or worse,” he took the time to express solidarity with 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who went down with a knee injury in Sunday’s game and had food thrown at him from the Seattle stands: “Navorro Bowman is a great player who plays the game the right way. When he went down, I dropped to a knee and prayed for him. He deserves better than having food thrown at him as he’s carted off a field. All players deserve better than that.” This is the kind of worthwhile sportsmanship you will find among NFL players.
Richard Sherman is an exemplary human being. He was a great student both at his high-school in Compton and at Stanford, and he has a charity (Blanket Coverage) that provides kids with clothing and necessary school supplies. But by the current definition, Sherman lacked class when he taunted the 49ers. He lacked class when he taunted Michael Crabtree. Hell, he lacked class when he raised his voice during that interview. Of course Tom Brady does not like the way Richard Sherman conducts himself. Tom Brady “goes about things the right way”; Richard Sherman does not.
To grow up poor is to grow up disenfranchised. To grow up without all necessary resources. Growing up working-class does not always breed the ideal “lunch-pail guy.” Hard work is always necessary to make it into professional sports, but it is harder when you are lacking the right equipment or a ride to the game. During the years of hard work and struggle, perhaps it is natural for one to develop the anger, aggression, and passion so often displayed in the NFL. To deny that, and to appropriate the idealized notion of a working-class mentality is to ignore the reality of a professional athlete and focus only on the beauty of the talent. To separate athletes into “classy” and “not classy” based on the current white-centric system of classification is to take part in the deeply entrenched system of athlete commodification in professional sports; even worse, it is to completely ignore inequality altogether.
Dragos Nica is a recent University of Toronto graduate and writes on sports and pop-culture. He currently writes about hip-hop for survivingthegoldenage.com and can be found @DragosNica on Twitter.