One of the most interesting chapters of David Remnick's fantastic book on Muhammad Ali, King of The World, focuses on the media reaction to the dominant fighter changing his name. Most newspaper editors and reporters refused to refer to Ali by his new name, calling him Cassius Clay, even as he welcomed them into his gym. For reporters like Robert Lipsyte, Ali was a gold mine, a rare combination filled with unbelievable talent and the personality of a talk show host. But for many others, Ali was terrifying, partially because of race, but also because he refused to bow to the conventional wisdom of how he was supposed to act.
Richard Sherman is not Muhammad Ali. The gregarious all-pro Seattle Seahawks cornerback is not a political dissident, and his nationally televised trash-talking diatribe following the Seahawks dramatic victory of the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday is not quite the same (to put it mildly) as Ali's conscientious objection to the Vietnam War, that eventually worked its way up to the Supreme Court.
The racial undertones of the backlash to Richard Sherman's post-game have been summarized well by Greg Howard at Deadspin and the great Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic, but what's nearly as troubling is the idea that Sherman should willfully lie to the media and fans in the name of "sportsmanship."
If an incredibly talented, emotional player like Sherman should be forced to mute himself to fit into the conventional wisdom of how a professional athlete should behave, then what's the point of having sideline interviews or post-game interviews in the locker room to begin with?
Just trot out the athletes in front of Papa John's or Pepsi Max signs two hours after the game and let them lie to the hundred people live-streaming about how much they enjoyed their opponent's company.
You can see why a coach or team executive would be in favor of this. The old adage "loose lips sink ships" can apply to sports franchises just like any other company. But a journalist demanding "class" and "sportsmanship" over honesty? And fans demanding this, after seeing the pit of hell that is an NFL post-game parking lot?
An interesting contradiction that's been noted, is that players like Sherman and Johnny Manziel are criticized for running their mouths, while coaches like Jim Harbaugh and Nick Saban (or basically every other college coach) act like beasts on the sidelines and that's just part of the deal. In fact, there's a weird sub-section of media and fans that seems to enjoy coaches verbally berating reporters.
It's also curious as to why players like Sherman face the brunt of criticism while activist investors like Carl Icahn or political operatives who trash their opponents for months on end are hailed as conquering heroes. Why is talking trash appropriate in all outlets besides sports, the place where it's least harmful?
A few days before the Sherman incident, I was in the Miami Heat locker room in New York, talking to a player who's been with the Heat since LeBron James arrived in 2010.
Discussing the media swarm that has engulfed the Heat over the last three years, the player said, "It's hard to say what we actually think, because every time we do we get killed. No matter how we're actually feeling, we just have to get up there, and tell them what they want to hear. Media, fans, everybody."
Richard Sherman failed to tell America what we wanted to hear. Who's really at fault?