For those who do not know, Richard Sherman is a player in the National Football League. He plays for the Seattle Seahawks as a cornerback (the position that generally plays against wide receivers to defend against passing plays), and in his second year in the league, is already considered to be among the best there are at his position.
This past Sunday, the Seahawks beat the San Francisco 49ers to advance to the Super Bowl. The win was secured on the last play of the game, as Sherman successfully defended against a pass attempt to Michael Crabtree in the end zone. Immediately following the play, Sherman interacted with a number of people in ways that incited a fury of criticism through comments and posts all over the internet, as well as conversations in homes, workplaces, sports bars, and beyond. I was among them, posting to Facebook how I felt he should be disciplined severely for his lack of sportsmanship and class. The press also seized it and ran, adding to the public drama.
Since Sunday, Richard Sherman has been interviewed a number of times, has posted comments through his Twitter feed, and has even written an article which was published on Sports Illustrated’s website. As I’ve read and watched a number of these, I’ve come to learn a good bit more about Mr. Sherman. Raised in Compton, CA, with very little, he attended a high school with an unfathomably high drop out rate and an equally daunting gang presence, yet he managed to graduate second in his class with a 4.22 GPA, gaining him admittance to Stanford University, where he also graduated with a major in communications.
Today, along with his impressive history working his way out of the projects to financial and professional success, and his status as a top NFL player, he is also very active in his charitable work and his community involvement. However, even with all of that, he has still been cast as a villain in the public eye. I think I know why, and I believe it’s worth thinking about.
To begin, let’s consider two points. First, most people, particularly in today’s day and age, do not investigate someone or something fully before forming their opinions. It’s human nature to establish an opinion based upon the first experience we have with another, and changing that initial perspective is difficult. As the cliche goes, “you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.” Second, people don’t care about the behavior of others, they care about themselves and how that behavior might impact their lives. For some, it’s to cover up some lack of confidence in their own value by criticizing another. For others, it’s simply fodder for talking with their friends, or any number of other reasonably benign explanations. For many, though, it’s because we recognize the significant role sports play in how our children, and society in general, learn about life, about themselves, about right and wrong, and about how the world works.
I chose my career as a swim coach because I believe there may be no better vehicle for teaching life lessons than through sport. Lessons such as the value of hard work, tenacity, perseverance, passion, commitment, teamwork, faith in self and in others, as well as so many others. I believe the most important lessons to learn, though, are the values of personal character and integrity. If our world was made up of individuals who based their actions and behaviors solely on the opinions and values of the person they see in the mirror, and not on what society thought was cool, sexy, important, or successful, people would be much happier, and the world would be a far better place.
I watched the NFC Championship game this past Sunday. I watched it with my 9 and 11 year old children. When Sherman successfully defended the pass to Crabtree, I pointed it out to them as a truly outstanding job of adjustment and athleticism. But then, as I watched what appeared, at least from my perspective, to be a sarcastic, taunting attempt to shake Crabtree’s hand, followed by his choking motion toward Kaepernick, and then finally the interview with Erin Matthews, I turned to my kids and told them I wanted them to remember his behavior as an example of how to never, ever be. That from the beginning of a competition to the end, you compete with all you have, and high emotion is often a critical part of doing your best. But it will never be justifiable for winning to come at the expense of sportsmanship, class, or character. And what they just saw was a lack of all three.
As I stated earlier, since then, based on what I’ve seen and read about Sherman, I think those post-game actions were an inaccurate depiction of who he is as a whole person. Unfortunately, those are the actions most people will know about him. And while his charity work is awesome, his position as a role model, whether wanted or not, is one that will likely impact more young people than will any of his charitable activities. On Sunday night, Richard Sherman had a moment in the spotlight, by himself, in front of millions of people, and what they witnessed was a person acting in a manner few parents would want their children to emulate. And that is why he became a “villain”. Not because we felt sorry for Crabtree, or Kaepernick, or even Erin Matthews. Because he presented my children with a picture where success could occur in the absence of character. I believe that’s a false lesson, and it is not one I want them learning. I think many people feel the same way. So the response is to vilify Richard Sherman, in an attempt to impress upon our children… upon our society, that class, dignity, and character are not optional in the pursuit of true success. While I personally wish Richard Sherman no ill, I do wish society would learn that lesson.