Richard Sherman and a changing story line

Much has been said since Richard Sherman, the outstanding African American cornerback for the Super Bowl bound Seattle Seahawks, dissed San Francisco’s wide receiver 49ers Michael Crabtree in an interview immediately after the playoff game between the two teams ended. Only seconds earlier Sherman had leaped high into the air to deflect a pass away from Crabtree in the closing seconds of the game, crushing 49er hopes of going to this weekend’s Super Bowl.

What Sherman said wasn’t gracious to his defeated opponent, but it was by no means out of bounds, nothing that would warrant the controversy that followed. In the world of sports trash talk, it was mild stuff.

As I see it, Sherman was understandably pumped up after a great play as well as still miffed by earlier disparaging comments toward him by Crabtree. Sherman doesn’t have the flat manner of Patriots coach Bill Belichick, but I can’t say I’m unhappy about that; it would make for a dull world if everybody did.

Yet Sherman’s words became a conversational and controversial item far beyond ESPN, sports radio, and the football community.

Ever since Muhammad Ali (who is now considered a national treasure) – and Tommy Smith, John Carlos, Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Dick Allen, and other African American athletes of their generation – there has been enormous pressures on Black athletes to conform to an image and norms created by sports owners and commissioners who grow filthy rich marketing “their” product and brand.

And when they don’t conform all hell breaks loose. The “domestication police” in the media and elsewhere condemn the (mis)behavior in covert and sometimes less subtle racist language – out of control, too loud, gangsta, ghetto, etc. – and insist on an apology, not once, but repeatedly.

Which is what happened to Richard Sherman. He was on the receiving end of a gang-up and it wasn’t pretty. The dogs were out and the odor of racism was unmistakably in the air.

“Thug” was a favorite characterization of him by many of his critics. But Sherman, to his credit, didn’t run, but courageously and thoughtfully confronted his critics. He said the use of the term “Thug” was no more than code for the N-word.

Moreover, he was supported by a good number of athletes and sports commentators.

The vicious attack on Sherman didn’t surprise me; it’s all too familiar. But what did is that the narrative surrounding the incident changed somewhere between the first and second week leading up to the Super Bowl.

The attack dogs didn’t give up their pursuit of him; they seldom do. But the media turned down the volume on their bark, while seamlessly introducing a new “feel good” story line, seemingly de-racialized.

In this new “color blind” accounting, Sherman was transformed from a loud, out of control young African American male – a “thug” – into an American success story who through dint of effort rose from the bottom to the top. Sherman, so the new storyline goes, escapes Compton (a poor majority African American city in Southern California) and its tangled web of social pathologies, dysfunctional institutions, and culture of dependency, enrolls at and graduates from Stanford University with a high GPA, becomes an elite player in the National Football League, and gives back to his community.

All of which, the new story line concludes, demonstrates once again that America is not only the land of opportunity, but also a post-racial society in which anyone, including people of color, can rise to the very top, if they work hard and live right.

What’s wrong with this narrative? Plenty!

For one thing, what Sherman overcame isn’t a dysfunctional culture, people, and city, but the persistence of racism in our social institutions, social policies and social discourse that prevents people of color from living in conditions of equality and freedom. And he didn’t do it alone, but with the help, I’m sure, of people near and dear to him and the broader civil rights movement.

For another thing, it suggests that the city of Compton is nothing but a spiritual and social dead end. Now I’m not familiar with Compton, but I can speak about Detroit, another largely African American city in the news and going through a stressful time, where I once lived and which I return to frequently.

It has many of the same social problems that Compton does stemming, not from some fatal flaw in the social and individual psychology and values of Detroit’s African American people, but from a system of racism that is structurally embedded in the economy, politics, and culture of our society and results in unconscionable poverty, crowded and underfunded schools, low wages, thin and disappearing public services, police harassment of the youth, mass incarceration, population flight, etc. in communities of color.

But that is only one side of Detroit. It also has – and Compton has as well – attentive and loving parents who worry about and care for their children, supportive families, hard working people, sometimes employed at not one, but two jobs, vibrant social and community sustaining institutions, pastors of the social gospel, outstanding students, unemployed people who scour the city and suburbs looking for scarce jobs, and lots of people who are proud of their community, have no desire to leave, and struggle with their allies to make it a better place to live, against very powerful corporate forces and right wing politicians who. in effect, tell such cities to “drop dead.”

Finally, the notion that the U.S. is an “opportunity society” is bogus. Perhaps some evidence for this claim could be found in the early decades following World War II, but that era is now long gone. Economic stagnation, growing inequality, and hardening social immobility are the new template of U.S. capitalism, all of which have narrowed down the life possibilities of all working people, but especially people of color. They have the extra burden of enduring as well as battling – and too often with not enough allies among white people – racism every day of their lives.  

Racism, as this still unfolding episode shows, is not only present and harmful, but it is also mutable and adaptive. It comes in more than one form. Sometime it’s crude and barely concealed – he’s a “thug.” Other times it appears in color blind forms in so far as it turns the achievement of a person of color like Richard Sherman (or President Obama) into a claim that we are living in a post-racial, opportunity society, in which one’s climb up the ladder of success rests alone on one’s work ethic and character, while at the same time making invisible the structures and discourse of racist oppression and exploitation that people of color have to overcome to live a life worthy of their humanity.

That’s what I think, and I bet Richard Sherman would agree with me.

As for the Super Bowl, go Seahawks! Shut down Peyton and shut up the Broncos’ executive and right-wing Republican, John Elway.

Photo: Richard Sherman. Wikipedia


Sam Webb
Sam Webb

Sam Webb is a long-time socialist and activist living in New York. He served as the national chairperson of the Communist Party from 2000 to 2014. Previously, he was the state organizer of the Communist Party in Michigan. Earlier, he was active in the labor movement in his home state of Maine. He blogs at