Super Bowl circus

When the circus comes to town, you expect the stars to leave a few droppings. With the Super Bowl setting up its tent throughout the tri-state this week, it’s inevitable that somebody will step in it. Richard Sherman, the outspoken cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks, might as well be walking behind the elephants after chow time.

Sherman was doomed as soon as shared his true thoughts after his last game. In one short interview, he became the center ring.

Unless you were living under a rock two weeks ago, you saw Sherman’s terrific play that saved the Seahawks’ season in the final seconds of the NFC championship game. You’d still have to be under that rock to avoid the endless replays of his post-game interview, the one in which he screamed at a sideline reporter as if she were wearing a 49ers jersey. He yelled vague threats against the receiver he’d just bested for having the audacity to doubt Sherman’s prowess. He declared himself the best corner in the league and demanded (ironically), “Don’t you ever talk about me!”

In other words, exactly the kind of trash talk countless professional athletes have engaged in for years.

What made Sherman’s rant so fascinating was that he said it after the game — before the collective corpse of the 49ers’ season had grown cold. We expect some taunting before or during a contest, and sometimes we’ll even forgive it after a tough loss. Never, however, after a victory. What started on the field as a celebration in the throes of a game-saving deflection soon devolved into a fumbled national dialogue on sportsmanship and discrimination.

One narrative focused on Sherman as a player seemingly determined to humiliate his vanquished opponent. Immediately after the pivotal play, Sherman raced over to receiver Michael Crabtree, slapped his butt, and then held up both hands in the universal choke signal as he played to the crowd. A second narrative sprang from the clash between the old guard and new guard in American sports reporting. The old guard decried the loss of civility in sports as a death knell while the new guard seemed to extol the vibrancy of trash-talking as a natural, even necessary, evolution.

A third narrative centered on Sherman as a victim, citing the reaction of the press and social media as emblematic of a new form of discrimination. Former athletes such as Charles Barkley and Marcellus Wiley argued eloquently that labeling Sherman a “thug” was merely a new form of the N-word, while Sherman referenced the numerous racist tweets and death threats he received after the game.

However, these narratives are too simplistic. The actions of one player in the heat of an athletic contest should not be fodder for substantive talk on culture or racism in America. The NFL itself showcases a child’s game played with men paid like CEOs because of a skill set society otherwise rewards with a minimum wage, covered with Cronkite earnestness by a press corps desperate for controversy. Not exactly an incubator for societal change.

It’s a testament to twisted priorities that this incident dominated the news cycle despite Syrian cease-fire talks, a budding civil war in the Ukraine, and the harrowing state of humanitarian emergency Darfur has endured for more than 10 years now. None merited media coverage in the face of Sherman’s tirade. Makes sense: After all, Sherman will make a mint off the publicity, and the folks in Darfur barely have two nickels to rub together.

Funny that even Justin Bieber’s recent DUI arrest for drag racing under the influence of drugs and alcohol didn’t meet with a similar outcry, especially as he actually put lives at risk.

Football is entertainment, little more than an expensive distraction, regardless of how big Super Bowl Sunday gets. When we use flimsy source material such as the Sherman interview to frame important narratives, the narratives themselves emerge fundamentally flawed. The discussion on race in America deserves better.

In the meantime, maybe we should just sit back and enjoy the game. The Super Bowl is circus enough — we don’t need to keep adding rings.

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