Every so often, events (generally of a flamboyant or prurient or violent nature) lift an athlete from obscurity and hurl him (or her) into the TMZ/Gawker/Deadspin spotlight typically reserved for global celebrities such as Charlie Sheen, Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian, and Snooki. Among football players, recent recipients of this kind of doomed celebrity status include Tim Tebow and Johnny Manziel, Aaron Hernandez, and Darren Sharper. In our gridiron hero’s moment of suspect glory, celebrity klieg lights pin him like a moth, objectified, bleached and irradiated in the court of public opinion. It is not a pretty sight.
Richard Sherman is different, for many reasons. Recently named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time Magazine, Sherman’s interest to us results from the way that he has successfully blended on-field heroics, off-field histrionics, and trenchant social commentary, perhaps to a degree unprecedented among our athletes since Muhammad Ali. Richard Sherman has not been afraid to use his fame to drive the conversation about race, sports, and society in the United States. As an African-American, and as a man who actually thrives in the light, but does not need it to grow, Sherman has single-handedly shifted attention to some of the most important themes of our time, regarding the prejudices that inhibit and divide us, and the empathy that can unite us.
Sherman, who from an early age excelled in the classroom and on the athletic field, and who has always possessed outsized confidence and charisma, might argue that fame has not changed him; that people now only notice him for what he always has been. Nonetheless, his celebrity status, normally the prelude to either a slide into notoriety or absorption into a stultifying, “brand-focused” conformity, has given him a clear voice and reputational credibility, and to date he has used both well, partly to leverage a historically munificent contract with the Seahawks, but equally, and truly without artifice or calculation, to leverage social change.
The essays included in this collection were all written and published on the Jeremiadus.com website in the months following Richard Sherman’s nationally televised, emotional assault on his haters in the waning moments of the NFC championship game against the San Francisco 49ers. Sherman had tipped away what would have been a touchdown pass from Colin Kaepernick to Michael Crabtree, thereby sending the Seahawks to the Super Bowl, where they would cap a remarkable season by pulverizing Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. When Erin Andrews thrust the microphone under his chin, seconds later, Sherman let loose with a primal howl of pain, anger, and joy which, if clearly not jubilation, represented catharsis on an epic scale.
By decisively claiming the Super Bowl victory and so ascending to the top of the highest mountain in sport, Richard Sherman instantly silenced the many critics who in previous months deplored his own unwillingness to remain silent, and who applied to him, with various adjectival embellishments, the loaded epithet “thug”, evincing a different kind of howl, a voice not of triumph against the odds, but of fear and ignorance.
The unifying theme of these three essays is that Richard Sherman’s catharsis deserves scrutiny. My general, and often unstated, conclusion is that Sherman, much like Muhammad Ali in the late 1960s, presently embodies the most important social tensions, and thereby the most significant social growth opportunities, of our time. Like Ali, Sherman is the proverbial nail who defeats the hammer. He is a one-man meme machine who won’t go away. And so he irritates us, frustrates us, and fascinates us. But like Muhammad Ali, Richard Sherman also instructs us, and so over time can actually change us. For this reason, the education of Richard Sherman is also truly America’s education.