There’s concern of a female terrorist on the loose in Sochi two weeks before the Olympics, an abandoned cruise ship of cannibalistic rats is inching closer to the United Kingdom and Justin Bieber has finally been taken down for drinking one too many Zimas and getting behind the wheel.
All frightening news, to be sure, but none of it has captivated America’s attention over the past week like what happened Sunday evening in Seattle.
Nope, not the Seahawks’ thrilling 23-17 NFC championship game win that sent them to just the second Super Bowl in franchise history. A game for the ages? Absolutely. Two incredibly physical, supremely talented teams who staged such a thriller that it made the Tom Brady-Peyton Manning AFC title showdown look like an Introduction-to-AARP flag football game.
Seattle wouldn’t be packing its bags for New Jersey without Michael Bennett’s strip sack of Colin Kaepernick or Russell Wilson’s 4th-and-7 TD strike to Jermaine Kearse, but the play of the NFL season was also the last meaningful play of the game. Richard Sherman managed to get his hand on Kaepernick’s pass intended for Michael Crabtree in the corner of the end zone with 30 seconds left, tipping it to linebacker Malcolm Smith for a game-ending interception and stifling the 49ers’ comeback attempt. It was one of the best plays you’ll ever see a defensive back make and given the stakes, one of those plays you instantly knew would wind up being immortalized on NFL films.
Except within about 3 ½ minutes, everyone forgot about it.
That’s when Sherman delivered his exuberant postgame rant to FOX’s Erin Andrews, who looked somewhere between frightened, inconvenienced and pissed off. Here was the best cornerback in the NFL – Sherman’s words – being asked to sum up the play of his life just moments after making it.
While Wilson was kneeling three times to kill the clock as Jim Harbaugh sulked one last time on the sidelines, knowing he’d have to wait another 7 months to throw a sideline tantrum anyone would pay attention to, Sherman was hugging teammates, leaping into the CenturyLink Field stands to celebrate with fans, and generally basking in the glow of the best professional moment of his life.
But one other thing happened between Smith falling to the turf in the 49ers’ end zone with Seattle’s ticket to the Super Bowl cradled in his midsection and Wilson’s last, triumphant kneel-down. Sherman went over to Crabtree to shake his hand and tell him “Hell of a game! Hell of a game!” Crabtree wanted no part of the perhaps facetious consolation, shoving away the man that helped hold him to four catches for 52 yards. That, combined with the certain back-and-forth jawing during the game and, depending on whose story you believe, a slight that led to a fight at an offseason charity event, provoked Sherman’s very public, in-the-moment takedown of San Francisco’s top wideout.
It also led to furious reaction on social media’s usual suspects, with countless Twitter tough guys attacking Sherman’s character, calling him every racist name in the book. We were told by talking heads everywhere that it was a classless attack, poor sportsmanship and a slap in the face to the NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE.
Not everyone agreed. Many folks though it was at best refreshing to hear a player channel his raw emotions and not spew clichés after such a monumental game, and at least pretty damn entertaining at worst. And if you didn’t fall into one – AND ONLY ONE – of these black-and-white camps, you were completely wrong, because it’s the Internet! And people must react harshly to everything! Immediately! Because everything is terrible or great and screw perspective and open-mindedness!
If you want to hate Sherman for what he did, go right ahead. (Just don’t do it for racist reasons, because then you really are an idiot.) Maybe you were taught to handle winning with grace and losing with humility. Maybe you’d have preferred Sherman to give congratulations to the 49ers, tell Andrews that it was just the Seahawks’ day and that it’s a shame someone had to lose.
You know why it’s OK to hate Sherman? Because it’s sports. Half the fun of sports is manufacturing hate for people you don’t know. I hate LeBron James. I hate Bill Belichick. I hate the Philadelphia Flyers. I root against these players or teams because sometimes it’s fun to root against the best. Fans build up rivalries, and sometimes players actually, genuinely don’t care for each other. It’s harmless fun to build up distaste for athletes and teams because they’re people you’ll (hopefully) never meet. If you build up hate for your mailman, your dentist and your butcher, you have problems.
If your aunt’s brother-in-law only knows Sherman as the guy who said the mean things about the other guy and was kind of an asshole on national TV, that’s fine. If he wants to root for Denver and that swell fella who sells him pizza and occasionally finds time to also throw a football because of it, that’s fine too. And if you want to convince that guy at your Super Bowl party that Manning is actually getting paid by a Nebraska tourism board to bark “Omaha!” 67 times prior to snapping the ball, then you’re my hero.
But Sherman’s not a villain, or an idiot. And it’s not just because he went to Stanford, which Stephen A. Smith probably told you Monday morning when concocting his “he should have known better!” argument. If you want to hate him, know you’re hating a guy who runs a foundation to give children in need adequate school supplies. Know you’re hating a guy who is intelligent enough to write weekly columns on MMQB.com and is pursuing a Master’s in communications as his alma mater. Know you’re hating a guy who heroically called Skip Bayless an egotistical cretin.
If I found Sherman to be guilty of anything, it was taking the spotlight away from his team – himself included – after what was probably the biggest win in franchise history.
But consider this. Seattle is the first team since 1990 to be heading to the Super Bowl with not one player who’s been there before. It’s not totally surprising that the reaction to Sherman’s interview has lingered for the past five days with two weeks before the Super Bowl, but come media day next Tuesday every camera and every reporter will be keying on Sherman. The questions won’t stop, and while many will be good-natured, they won’t all be. Sherman, for better or worse, will have to continue answering for answering a question honestly with a bit of excessive bravado.
And maybe that’s part of his plan. Every camera that’s in his face is one less hounding Wilson, or Pete Carroll, or Marshawn Lynch, or Cliff Avril or Percy Harvin. More time to focus on defending Manning or formulating an offensive game plan for the Meadowlands’ swirling winds. If the shitstorm of Sherman having the audacity to call another player mediocre in any small way helps Seattle over the next 10 days, it’ll have been well worth it.
I think most of us would like to see a similar scenario unfold in the late evening hours of Feb. 2. Manning and the best offense in football driving late, down 6 against the best defense, the best secondary and the best corner in the game. Sherman tested this time by not the somewhat shaky arm of Kaepernick but the best passer to ever step on the field. Maybe he can make another spectacular play to save Seattle’s season.
Just don’t go mouthing off to Andrews about Manning being mediocre in the midst of the celebration.
He’ll send Papa John after you. And being drowned in garlic dipping sauce is no way to go.