Friday, January 24, 2014

In Defense of Trash Talking and My New Favorite Player, Richard Sherman

So the big online hubbub in the last few days has revolved around a post-game interview with Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman that was, shall we say, a little animated. Immediately the overreaction was in full effect, with plentiful direct racism and even more indirect racism, such as calling the black man with the masters from Stanford a "thug" or saying that Sherman had no "class," despite class in this case not being a thing that is required or defined in the league, or anywhere else for that matter. And many of the people who accused Sherman of having no class said nothing about explicit racism from someone like Richie Incognito, or homophobic comments from any number of players, or any number of obviously more classless things done by white players. So, at best, it's a selective outrage, driven by 49er homers, Seahawk haters, racists and old people who long for the days when players played with more class. Like the guys who tried to intentionally injure Jim Brown back in the day.

Here's the transcript of the rant heard round the league:

Sherman: "I'm the best corner in the game. When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that's the result you going to get. Don't you ever talk about me."

Erin Andrews: "Who was talking about you?"

Sherman: "Crabtree. Don't you open your mouth about the best or I'm going to shut it real quick. LOB!"

Sherman was loud in delivering these lines, but despite what some tell you he wasn't particularly louder than most guys are on field in a massive stadium after a big win. And if that were the whole story and there weren't any further context, that would seem a bit like a dick move to start saying that out of the blue.

But there's lots more.

The Crabtree in question is Michael Crabtree, who according to Sherman and his brother, previously disrespected Sherman at a earlier event, so the two had a history. Sherman beat Crabtree on maybe the play of the year, leading to an interception and his team making it to the Superbowl. Seconds later, Sherman went over to Crabtree, patted him on the butt, saying "hell of a game," tried to shake his hand and repeated himself. Crabtree responded by hitting Sherman in the face. Moments later, a microphone was shoved in Sherman's face and he made the above comments.

Having played lots of sports, been disrespected and been hit by players I beat, I absolutely would have said things much worse than Sherman did. As would many, many other athletes. I'm of the school that you never hit someone except in self defense and, in this case, Crabtree's hit was especially egregious because he was hitting Sherman because he knew Sherman bested him. And it was clear to any neutral source that what Sherman was doing was being the bigger man and congratulating an opponent who he had just bested on playing well. While anti-Shermanites will suggest otherwise, they have no evidence for any bad intentions from Sherman and it's clear that Sherman was respectful towards the 49ers. On the full video from the NFL, he is clearly shown going around and hugging and congratulating other 49ers players, including Quinton Patton and LaMichael James.

Sherman has a reputation for being a trash talker. And it's clear that he does talk to other players a lot. But unlike a lot of trash talk I've seen and heard in my life, Sherman's trash talk is incredibly mild. Sure, he's brash and arrogant by many people's standards, but who cares about those standards, they aren't mine, they aren't Sherman's. I think, and this is vitally important to me, that if you are playing sports and you are arrogant, but accurate, you aren't doing anything wrong. So the question becomes, "was Sherman accurate?" The answer would appear to be mostly, if not completely, "yes."

Is Sherman the best CB in the League? Yes, according to the AP and Sporting News, the two most well-known All-Pro team designators, both of whom named him a first team CB in each of the last two years, the only repeat CB and one of only 3 players to repeat at any defensive position (the others are Houston's JJ Watt and Seattle safety Earl Thomas). That seems to be pretty definitive.

But what do the stats say? During his time in the NFL, Sherman is first among all players in interceptions, passes defended, and lowest opponent QB rating when they target him, a paltry 39.4. Those numbers are kind of ridiculous over a three year span. More than 80 times in those three years, QBs have thrown at Sherman and he did exactly what he did to Crabtree, and said "no."

Take a look at the NFL Hall of Fame. You'll see that one of the standards they use is people who are among the best players on championship teams or teams with dominant units. While the Seahawks aren't champions yet, they came pretty close last year, and are playing for the championship this year. And they are the second youngest Super Bowl team ever, which suggests that they have a really good shot at winning one before Sherman's done. How dominating is the unit that Sherman anchors? They were the number one defense in the NFL this year, including a pass defense (what Sherman does) that allowed 60 yards fewer than the league average, the lowest total of any team during Sherman's time in the league and the lowest in the league since 2009.

So when Sherman says he's the "best doing this right now," he can make a pretty good case.

The one place where Sherman was inaccurate is in his reference to how bad Crabtree is. Crabtree is potentially a upper-tier receiver in the NFL. He hasn't quite proven that yet. He was just inside the top 15 in both touchdowns and yards in 2012, but an injury kept him off those lists this year. In 2011 and 2010, he was solid, a guy you probably want on your team, but certainly not your top guy. So do two solid seasons and one season in the top 15 make him one of the 20 bests receivers in the game? Absolutely not. But they make him far from "sorry."

So I think that what Sherman said is mostly accurate. After that I dug into his supposed "bad boy" persona and found almost all of it is unfounded. People claim he taunted Tom Brady, but most observers of the NFL realize that Brady is a bit of a prick and the full story on that one makes it look like Sherman acted with admirable restraint. A lot of the rest of the criticism of him is people saying things about him without there being any evidence to back it up. For instance, this NFL film on him called "the Trash Talking Cornerback," which makes a lot of claims about Sherman that aren't really backed up much. There's a few quotes that are arrogant by some standards, but almost all of them are responses to other players disrespecting him and him beating them and telling them about it. I absolutely support the idea of not letting people disrespect you, particularly when you're better than them. And almost everything he says is accurate. He is better than that other guy. He did have a mismatch over that weak receiver. As Deion Sanders once said, it ain't bragging if you can back it up.

Digging more into Sherman, I got to like him more and more. He's the son of working class parents in Compton who is the opposite of a thug and graduated from Stanford with a masters in communication and a high GPA. He's drastically underpaid, but you don't hear him whining about it. He self-identifies as a nerd. He's a charitable guy who takes care of kids in his old neighborhood. He's an intellectual ball player. And there are so many video clips of him just being awesome.

So, I've come to the conclusion that Sherman is actually one of the coolest people in the game. He's the type of player I would be if I had that kind of talent and dedication. I don't. And neither does just about anyone else. So a lot of the animosity towards him is jealousy-based and that's a bullshit motivation. I'm a big fan of clever, intellectual athletes and I always root for people are falsely maligned and who are the target of racism and other such nonsense and ignore it to excel (one of my children is named after Jackie Robinson). I'm not aware of any player that combines all of those things better than Sherman. So he's my favorite player now.

A few people said that his antics distracted from his team and were selfish. But that's nonsense. He's a massive promoter for his teammates and talks about them in almost every interview. In the "selfish" interview he gave to Erin Andrews, note that the last thing he said was "LOB," as in "Legion of Boom," as in the nickname for his comrades in the Seahawks secondary. In a short, short rant about how mad he was at Crabtree, he got in a shout-out to his teammates. You might not have known that, but they did. And that's what matters. And if his trash talking, which is nothing new, was so distracting, why is his team playing for the Superbowl title and yours isn't?

Finally, though, there are people complaining that his way of bragging about himself and talking trash is arrogant or makes him an asshole. This is not only a misunderstanding of the way sports works, it's a misunderstanding of how life works.

Trash talking is an integral part of sports. Non-sports people may not understand it or like it, but if you are playing sports, people are going to be talking trash. The first time someone talked trash to me was in junior major league baseball, when I was in middle school. And it totally worked. That pitcher told me he was better than me, and I was afraid of him ever time I went up against him that season. And the only time I got on base was the time he hit me with a pitch, which intimidated me even more. Baseball wasn't my sport.

But the bigger thing is that mental games are part of the way sports works. It is absolutely acceptable and encouraged for players to use any legal tool they can to gain an advantage and win. Getting into someone's head psychologically and make them play worse so you can beat them is so widespread in sports and games that it happens in almost all sports and all games at every level. As long as you aren't being abusive, you're doing exactly what you should do. It's a plot element in almost every sports movie ever. Hell, it's the story of David and Goliath. Use the tools you have against an opponent who is bigger, faster, or stronger in order to equalize things and give yourself a chance to win. Again, as long as the tool you use is legal, you'd be dumb not to use it.

Sherman uses intimidation and trash talk better than most athletes I know of. And people get mad at him because he's better at them in every aspect of the game. They can't equalize things or neutralize his talent and intellect because he's better than them. So they hit him. Or call him names. Or say he has no class. Or say he's a thug. What they don't realize, though, is they're playing right into his hands. When you're worried about the next thing he's going to say, you aren't catching the pass that will beat him. Not that you were going to beat him anyway, but he's using failsafes to make sure he wins. Hence that AFC championship ring.

And before you say, "well the all-time great athletes didn't have to do that to win," I'll remind you that you're wrong. Some of them didn't, but many did. Go look up a list of the greatest trash-talkers of all time. I'll wait. Sure, on whatever list you found, you'll find some assholes. But you'll also find names like Deion Sanders, Charles Barkley, John McEnroe, Shaquille O'Neal, Reggie Miller, Kevin Garnett, Michael Jordan, Satchell Paige, Larry Bird, and Muhammad Ali. Which of these guys is a thug? Or an asshole (not counting McEnroe)? These are some of the greatest and most beloved players in history. And they all trash-talked at a higher level that Sherman. Yet where's the hate for these guys (unless you were on the other team)?

Finally, and I know you're glad to see that word, what is it that Sherman is doing with his trash-talking? For the most part, if you've watched a lot of clips, is he's promoting himself. "I'm the best to be doing this right now." You'll probably say that sounds arrogant. I'll say that you're full of shit. That isn't just sports talk or the type of talk you hear rappers engage in, it's the type of thing most of us say all the time. And we have to. Promoting yourself is a necessary part of life. When you go into a job interview, do you not tell them you are the best person for the job? When you try to date someone that you really like, do you not make the case that you are the best person for them to date? When you perform on stage, do you not try to convince people that seeing you is better than seeing someone else? When you play pick-up basketball, do you not try to win and do you not start off with the assumption you're going to win? When you do favors for your best friend, do you not try to convince them that you are the best friend they have? When you teach classes, don't you want good student evaluations or a "teacher of the year award"? When you try to get a raise at work, do you not tell them that you deserve the raise because you are the shit? Of course you do. We all do at least some of these things and many others. The coffee mug you get from your children doesn't say World's Second-Best Dad. Most of us want to be the best at something. Most of us want recognition for that. Getting that recognition is very difficult if you don't promote yourself. So most of us do the same thing that people are up in arms about with Sherman all the time. Sherman just happens to not be a hypocrite about it.

Go Seahawks.

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