Richard Sherman won’t shut up. The star cornerback for the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks has become one of the NFL most recognizable and talked about athletes, an especially remarkable feat given the anonymity of wearing a helmet each week for work and the lack of attention Sherman’s team receives. Although he does have an endorsement or two, Sherman has kept his name in water cooler circulation with his tweets, press conferences, and blog posts that appear regularly on Peter King’s MMQB.
Most recently, Sherman penned a post about former Philadelphia Eagle DeSean Jackson. Jackson was released by the team and has subsequently found a home with Washington’s professional team. It’s the offseason, and football players are cut and signed by teams everyday. However, what was notable about Jackson’s release was the news that accompanied it. Jackson is a dynamic, game-changing, and popular player. Yet the Eagles justified cutting Jackson by calling into question his work ethic and expressing concerns about his negative impact on the locker room and young players. Given the climate of the NFL (e.g. Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin), teams are particularly sensitive to these kinds of intangibles and how they effect the energy of the team. That wasn’t all, though. Jackson’s release was also accompanied by reports that his affiliation with alleged gang members and people who had been to jail. In other words, Jackson had maintained a close relationship from the guys he grew up with, who played a significant role in his life after his father passed away.
Richard Sherman grew up with DeSean Jackson in LA. And in his piece, Sherman talks about what it’s like to be friends with people who (allegedly) do bad things. Sherman goes on to note that the Eagles did not release Riley Cooper, but re-signed him. As you may recall, Cooper was caught on camera calling a black security guard nigger during a concert. Sherman then notes that Indianapolis Colts own Jim Irsay was pulled over for a DUI, and officers found drugs and $29K in his vehicle. The response to Irsay has been rather positive.
Now, folks have taken issue with Sherman’s take on this issue. After all, the Eagles only officially cited Jackson’s work ethic and locker room behavior as the reasons why they cut him. I don’t want to articulate my opinion here at length. Suffice it to say that I think news of Jackson’s gang affiliations were part of a larger strategy to help the Eagles justify releasing him. What I’m more interested in–and more appreciative of–is of Richard Sherman’s unequivocal commitment to using his position to articulate a kind of politic, an opinion about what happens on and off the field in the game of football, and how those scenes from his life help articulate larger societal issues.
Richard Sherman won’t shut up and I’m glad. As William Rhoden’s $40 Million Slaves argues, athletes have been deliberately and decided non-political. At the most, athletes tend to lend support to causes and individuals that seem non-controversial. For the sake of establishing and maintaining a brand, to make sure that Republicans buy their sneakers, many athletes take the “both teams played hard” approach to dealing with media. Perhaps no one better personifies this better than Kobe Bryant, who showed a real lack of dexterity and forethought when he let the world know that he wasn’t “impressed” by the Miami Heat donning hoodies in support of Trayvon Martin. Bryant’s remarks showed a real lack of fluency when it comes to navigating political waters and articulating a position that isn’t neutral. The #kobesystem doesn’t address how to deftly articulate something other than postgame sound bites.
In a time when the most recognizable black figures after Barack Obama and Jay-Z are athletes, I find Richard Sherman and all of his talk to be a breath of fresh air. From Ali to Jim Brown to Bill Russell to many others, black athletes have a long history of being politically engaged. We may disagree with Sherman’s argument or the way he uses or interprets evidence, but I for one am glad that he’s using his position to say something, to engage his fans for something beyond buying sneakers. Sherman is using his platform to show that he is thoughtful and just as relentless in his pursuit of understanding and articulating his world as he is on the field. And it’s about time an athlete once again take up that torch and carry it proudly. In so doing, Sherman not only shows that he’s not simply an anonymous automaton who tackles other dudes for a living, but proves that he’s willing to use his influence to compel his fans–and detractors–to think less robotically. Keep talking, Richard. Many of us are gratefully listening.