Yesterday, my colleague Sarah Onorato ’15 published a column titled “Being a good sport,” addressing the antics of Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman after the closely contested NFC Championship game. Setting aside the issue of sportsmanship for a moment, I think it’s only appropriate to address how the Sherman incident took an incredibly ugly turn after the game thanks to the power of the Internet.
Almost immediately following the end of the game, numerous Twitter users called out Sherman for being a bully and an ungraceful winner. The criticisms became more venomous when some began hurling racial insults against Sherman, ranging from “jungle monkey,” to “ignorant ape” to the “N-word.” It seemed highly ironic that this game took place the night before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, when we celebrate the progress we have made trying to overcome the shadow of racial hatred.
Regardless of what you think of Sherman’s behavior during and after the game, Sherman does not deserve the hate from people who only see his public persona. Some people are aghast at Sherman’s post-play interactions with 49ers players, most prominently Michael Crabtree and Colin Kaepernick. They believe that his behavior crossed one of the most sacred, but also one of the most vague and restrictive lines in athletic competition: sportsmanship.
As spectators, we expect our athletes to show grace whether they win or lose, forgetting that the athletes have put a lifetime of work, and often their physical and mental health, on the line for our amusement. Sherman behaved exactly as any human being would after triumphing in a high-pressure situation, and we slammed him for it.
Conventional wisdom dictates that Sherman should have said the following: “This was a total team effort. The 49ers are a great team, but we simply executed better tonight and came up with the big plays when it mattered the most.” High-profile athletes spew trite clichés such as this one after almost every game, and after hearing them so many times, fans have adopted a distorted perception of sports and how athletes should behave.
Ms. Onorato spoke of the need for athletes to uphold a graceful image to serve as role models. While athletes should absolutely be emulated for their athletic achievements, they should not serve as our moral compass. We like our athletes bland and devoid of individuality so that we can impose our views and our personality on them and live vicariously through them.
This belief in the heroic idol affirms our image of athletes as role models. But their job is not to be role models. Their job is to entertain. Shouldn’t entertainers be allowed to have some creative freedom over how they behave? Of course, this freedom shouldn’t excuse athletes from engaging in childish, offensive and criminal behaviors. Sherman’s behaviors on Sunday don’t fall within any of those categories. Unlike the vast majority of his compatriots, Sherman let people know how he truly felt about the role he plays to entertain the audience. And because what Sherman said clashed with our perception of how athletes should behave, some people thought it was appropriate to direct virulent hate at him. We always talk of being passionate about what we do, but when athletes show passions beyond some vague standards, their behaviors are deemed socially unacceptable.
Worst of all, when we put athletes on pedestals and inflate their importance in our values and norms, we ignore evidence of their incompatibility with our moral compass until it’s too late. People dismissed doping allegations against Lance Armstrong because the narrative of a cancer survivor triumphing in the Tour de France was simply too good to pass up.
Treating athletes as heroes and role models dehumanizes them as we try to ignore anything that casts a negative light on them. We dismiss their poor behaviors with a variety of reasons and justifications — so we can maintain our interpretation of what their accomplishments means —v until they can no longer be excused. And when that point is reached, the athletes become sacrificial lambs to be cast aside so that we can maintain a clean conscience.
Both fans and the media are complicit in fostering a system that encourages misbehavior by athletes. We give millions to young men without giving them the guidance necessary to use their newfound wealth wisely. By equating athletic accomplishments with the idea of a transcendental hero, we plant in the mind of successful athletes the idea that they are somehow beyond the rules that bind the behaviors of other people. A better approach is to recognize that athletes are people too, capable of a wide range of human emotions and behaviors beyond the platitudes perpetuated by the sports media.
In constructing our own narrative of the supposed higher meaning of sports, we sometimes forget that athletes are fallible creatures too. Because we remove the human element from our evaluation of athletes and treat them as some sort of caricature of our expectations, we open the door for hatred towards these athletes.