An interesting thing happened the last few days: A football player was attacked by the same, predictable racism that athletes usually have to endure when they speak out…and he won.
Well, he won the game. His team, the Seattle Seahawks, are going to the Super Bowl and (despite a $7,875 fine from the National Football League) an epic post-game rant might net him millions in endorsements.
Richard Sherman's words sent football fans running to social media to voice their approval and disapproval. The disapproval, not surprisingly, was soaked in racism. Deadspin (1/19/14), a sports-oriented blog, chronicled some of the Net's absolute worst, which included "Guys a fricken jungle monkey" and "Richard Sherman's an ignorant ape," followed by long line of comments featuring the subtlety of the N-word.
But the key word in the Sherman brouhaha was "thug," and for many it was code for the what some of those N-word dropping Sherman-haters were using. Deadspin (1/21/14) reported that it was used 625 times on the day after the game.
If you follow sports, then there's nothing new about sports fans embracing the classic Monday Morning Quarterback role of criticizing coaches for play calls and players for mistakes made during the game. But acting brash and ranting after a game seems to only be particularly offensive when black athletes do it. Jim Souhan of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (1/26/14) noted that Peyton Manning, the Denver Broncos quarterback whom Sherman will defend against during next weekend's Super Bowl, had perhaps a more selfish post-game rant a few years back (ABC Sports, 2/2/03) with none of the outrage. Manning is a white future hall-of-famer and a player whom the League promotes as one of its most prominent and recognizable faces.
Again, when players are at the mercy of the fans, it usually doesn't bode well for the player. Former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall drew the ire of America when he criticized reactions to the death of Osama Bin Laden (Chicago Tribune, 5/3/11). Mendenhall also backed up fellow running back Adrian Peterson of the Vikings when Peterson said in an interview that the NFL was like "modern day slavery" (USA Today, 3/15/11). More recently, New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz was forced to apologize for angry tweets made after the acquittal of George Zimmerman.
The backlash for those players, each of whom is African-American, was immediate and perhaps to be expected. Those were, at the very least, controversial subjects already. But what was controversial about Sherman saying he's the best at what he does? Most football analysts say he probably is.
Eventually media figured that out, too. They also realized that Sherman is a pretty smart and interesting guy (New York Times, 1/25/14). They absolved him from being a "thug" (CBS Sports, 1/24/14). Even Fox's Greta Van Sustren backtracked.
After a few days, it became clear that the reactions to Sherman's rants, especially the racist ones, were becoming the story. Sherman, to his credit, never really backed down. As these things go, athletes who don't go on apology tours for getting mouthy usually get all sorts of terrible labels and character attacks thrown their way for the rest of their careers (read: Terrell Owens). Sherman apologized for not putting his team first, but he didn't back down from the subtle racism embedded in much of the criticism coming his way. And as the controversy was swirling, Sherman said that "thug" "seems like an accepted way of calling someone the N-word now."
This is when things took a different turn than they usually do for athletes. While the social media battles raged online, some conventional sports media agreed with Sherman. They even had some semblance of race analysis that was somewhat honest. The Boston Globe agreed with Sherman and pointed to the grotesque amount of obviously racist Internet commentary. Even ESPN Radio's Mike and Mike Show acknowledged that race was fueling much of the reaction.
While it was still tough to stomach media's fascination with Sherman's academic credentials and the novelty of a black athlete that could brag on a football field and also be articulate and well-spoken, it seemed as though there was a change in some conventional media. If sports talk radio, not usually known for its race-conscious content or callers, was able to admit racism was at the core of the Sherman controversy, then perhaps black athletes might actually be able to speak without having to face an onslaught of racist remarks.
Professional sports in America today has so thoroughly been scrubbed of political thought that for the Sherman incident to raise question of racism is somewhat remarkable. While we may not be seeing a resurgence of race and politics in sports (no one may pick up the mantle of Muhammad Ali), it's becoming clear that social media is making some stories harder for traditional media to ignore. Not only are athletes now capable of causing a firestorm via a hasty tweet–now sports fans are finding that their social media reactions creep into the story as well.