Football player Richard Sherman was the latest public victim of a digital hijacking, as someone using an identical name in social media published emotional comments. A few outlets wrongly figured that this person was the real guy talking and, to stop the bleeding, Sherman stepped out to clear the confusion. Being Richard Sherman, he made space to state his true opinion, too.
Seattle’s Sherman has been painted as a profound quote machine at least since the 2014 NFC title game, when he spewed ferocious competitiveness toward a rival after a victory. His postgame interview led to knee-jerk thug accusations, and put him in the spotlight. The Super Bowl-winning cornerback ricocheted the stereotypes, suddenly revealing intelligence and a clever self-awareness. Media and fans began seeking his opinion on various issues.
“Richard Sherman is as All-American as All-American gets,” The Atlantic correctly noted. The brashness, capitalistic savvy, and spotlight clinching are all perfectly packaged for today’s media. Remember that part of his personal brand was crafted by punching upward at popular figures, like star quarterback Tom Brady and commissioner Roger Goodell. It is not always easy to tell genuine reflection apart from angsty mic-grabbing these days.
Since his introductory rant, Sherman has broadened his scope, opining on everything from politics to league rulings to race relations. The Nation describes Sherman as “football’s most prominent political voice.”
Is Sherman a big thinker, or just a good talker? Does he really stand as someone who gives voice to the voiceless? We can take the measure by looking at what other athletes have said and done.
Former basketball pro Charles Barkley has been held up as a candid representative of truth for decades. He balances between profane ramblings and observational brilliance in ways that would have made George Carlin proud. Like Sherman, the media and public find Barkley entertaining and clever. Here, another balancing act appears, one dividing real wisdom from sensationalistic talk. The celebrities who speak coherently and openly on the subject of race will never lack for attention. This is true even when they aren’t saying much, or their words are ill-informed.
Real needle-movers include Hank Aaron, who made strong statements just by going to the ballpark for work every day. Muhammed Ali’s conversion to Islam and opposition to the Vietnam War were controversial in his day. Arthur Ashe used his platform to battle apartheid, bring awareness to many other issues, and publish an acclaimed history of the black athlete. Knowledgeable sports fans remember baseball’s Dick Allen and Curt Flood, two men ahead of the curve as far as speaking out against bigotry and players’ rights.
A social worker who’s created programs to help gang members and convicts, football Hall of Famer Jim Brown said things like, “There’s a trend toward anti-heroes now, and I think it goes back to guys like Bogart and Cagney. They seemed to have no compassion, and they were always alone.”
Something about that and other comments stand apart from a Barkley or Sherman quote. There seems to be a spirit of constant reaction today—famous or otherwise, most of us are reduced to liking, sharing, and making witty comments about things other people are doing. But that doesn’t make our commentary profound. Modern life can seem like an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Maybe the nature of social media and society at-large is such that a young Jim Brown type would self-censor. Or maybe there is so much flotsam and trivia now that even the wisest thoughts get reduced to cute memes. Still, it’s hard to imagine Sherman or any other modern athlete saying envelope-pushing things like Brown:
“Martin Luther King was a misguided leader. He worked to be recognized as the leader of black America when what black America needs isn’t a leader, it is education.”