The man who first achieved widespread notice by getting in the face of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has reached a level of attention and notoriety that is rare in the sport of football — especially for someone who plays defense. Not since William “Refrigerator” Perry has a guy who rarely touches the football experienced so much scrutiny and discussion and analysis.
But that’s the position Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman currently occupies. We’ve already heard plenty from him, via a wave of one-on-one interviews, and we’ll be hearing even more as the Super Bowl approaches. Earlier this week, defensive end Cliff Avril was asked during a visit to Pro Football Talk on NBCSN to identify the Seahawks player other than Sherman who’ll be talking the most; Avril laughed and said, “Probably just Richard.”
Based on Wednesday’s press conference, Richard likely will be saying some interesting, inspiring, and thought-provoking things. He occupies for the next week-and-a-half an uncommon platform, and plenty of children will see him and hear him and learn about his background and acquire hope that they too can will their way to a better life.
“I really hope it resonates a little more with them because there are no limits to what you can do,” Sherman said Wednesday. “I think regardless of how bizarre my story gets at times, especially in times like this, it’s still remarkable how a kid from Compton, a kid from humble beginnings, and the story can resonate from any kid coming from humble beginnings. Whatever beginnings you come from just understand that your circumstances don’t dictate your future. Your circumstances don’t control your limits. You’re limitless, you’re a limitless person, you’re limitless by your faith, your abilities, your trust in yourself, your hard work, you can do as much as you want to do. If you go to school and get good grades and work as hard as you can, if you don’t have the materials, the school books, the things like that, people can help you with that. There will always be people out there that want to help kids like that, and I’m trying to help as many as I can. But to not go out there and work as hard as you can and give yourself the best possible chance to be successful you’re doing yourself a disservice. That’s really what I want the kids to know.”
It’s hard to paint a guy who has that specific agenda as a “villain” or a “thug,” but Star Wars wouldn’t have been nearly as popular without Darth Vader — and so as sports fans we’re always looking for circumstances that transcend the notion of team vs. team to become the timeless struggle of good vs. evil.
The best villains embrace the role. Sherman doesn’t.
“I don’t think I’m a villain,” Sherman said. “I always say the old cliché, don’t judge a book by its cover, but they’re judging a book by its cover, they’re judging me off of the football field, on the football during a game, right after a game, and they’re not judging me off of who I am. Now if I had got arrested ten times, or committed all of these crimes, or got suspended for fighting off of the field and all of that, then I could accept being a villain, but I’ve done nothing villainous.”
He’s right. Sherman’s only missteps have come when expressing himself in a way that, regardless of content, lacks the charisma of some of the men whose names he mentioned on Wednesday — Muhammad Ali, Deion Sanders, Michael Irvin. Each said outlandish things in their day (and a couple of them still do). But they delivered strong messages in a way that was charming and engaging; for Sherman, who studied communications at Stanford, that’s currently his biggest challenge.
The strongest message Sherman delivered on Wednesday comes from his interpretation of the term “thug,” a word that causes him during a new Beats commercial to turn away from a throng of reporters and put on the headphones he’s being paid to help sell.
“The only reason it bothers me is because it seems like it’s the accepted way of calling somebody the ‘N’ word nowadays,” Sherman said. “It’s like everyone else says the ‘N’ word, and then they say ‘thug’ and they’re like, ‘Oh that’s fine.’ That’s where it kind of takes me back, and it’s kind of disappointing because they know. What’s the definition of a thug really? Can a guy on a football field just talking to people, maybe I’m talking loudly or doing something, talking like I’m not supposed to. There was a hockey game where they didn’t even play hockey, they just threw their sticks aside and started fighting. I saw that and said, ‘Ah, man I’m the thug. What’s going on here? Jeez.’ So I’m really disappointed in being called a thug.”
Sherman isn’t a thug; at times, however, he can come off as a bully. That’s what Sherman’s brand of trash talk really is, whether it’s directed in hot blood to Michael Crabtree or the Vikings receivers, or in cold blood to Skip Bayless.
The problem for Sherman is that flashes of what seems to be bullying will overshadow the far more important example he’s trying to set for kids. The other problem is that, as he inspires kids to overcome adversity, he’s also showing them that, once they do, it’s OK to shout at and belittle others who haven’t risen to the same level.
Like those of us far older than 25, Sherman is still a work in progress, capable of growing and changing and evolving. He’ll likely learn as much about himself over the next 10 days as we learn about him. In the end, maybe we’ll all be better off for the experience.