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Richard Sherman and the Fantasy of a Color-blind Society

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Let's start by stating the obvious: No one is required to like Richard Sherman. Anyone who wants to is entitled to think he's a jerk or whatever for his post-game comments Sunday about Michael Crabtree and about his own greatness.

It should also go without saying, however, that we necessarily bring our personal prejudices to bear on whatever it is we're evaluating, that it's impossible to remove completely the filter of race when we do so. It suffuses our perceptions, embeds itself in our subconscious and shapes the way we see, hear, contextualize. Even compliments about black athletes, for example, like Sherman, bear those marks -- people refer to him as "articulate," or "well-spoken," comments often made about black athletes, but rarely if ever about white ones. We all know the studies -- announcers regularly ascribe to white athletes descriptors like "scrappy," "heady," "hard-working," and so on. Black athletes are much more likely to be described as "freaks," "naturals," etc. My own pet peeve: the regular habit of describing interception-prone quarterbacks like Brett Favre and Jay Cutler as "gunslingers" and risk-takers, whereas interception prone black quarterbacks are more likely to be regarded as selfish, or poor decision-makers. I am not speaking here about the professional race-baiters. I am talking about the rest of us -- who are trying to make sense of the world, to form our judgments as best we can given who we are and what we know.

The world didn't begin five minutes before Richard Sherman spoke on Sunday. In his press conference yesterday, Sherman argued that the word "thug" is just a permitted substitute for the n-word. Sherman also highlighted the real-life example of the old line -- I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out, when he commented on the Saturday brawl between the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks that began a mere two seconds after the puck was dropped. This caused Sherman to wryly note: "There was a hockey game where they didn't even play hockey. They just threw the puck aside and started fighting. I saw that and I'm like, 'Wait, I'm the thug? What's going on here?'"

The double standard in coverage of hockey and basketball is interesting to consider in the light of this latest media hoo-ha. For example, there is never a debate in the popular media about whether 18-year-olds are too young to play in the NHL (college hockey interests are now pushing one, for their own purposes), whereas we've been discussing for years why 18-year-olds aren't mature enough to play in the NBA (and the NBA wants to bump the 19-year-old minimum to 20). Why is that? Please don't tell me that physical or mental maturation is less important in hockey than it is in basketball. When a brawl breaks out in the NBA -- which, especially as a result of various rules changes in recent years, almost never happens -- it is generally taken to be a sign of the APOCALYPSE, consuming days and weeks and even months of analysis. In the NHL, it's all in good fun, part of the "appeal" of the sport. In no other sport do fights draw more negative attention nor more dire commentary on the state of our society than do those on the basketball court. David Stern has been honest enough about this reality -- that his sport, in trying to sell predominantly black players to a mainly white audience, faces special challenges. And in no sport do beat writers and other commentators talk about what "good guys" the players are than do those covering hockey (except perhaps golf). To be clear, writers can think what they want about whether, as a group, hockey players or golfers are good people. But we should at least be self-aware enough to understand that this is as much an articulation of cultural affinity on the part of a mostly white sports media as it is a somehow objective statement about the superior character of hockey players.

Many commentators have pointed out that Sherman is being judged by a standard that affixes especially to black athletes -- that they are seen as inherently more menacing than white ones, thus requiring a demeanor or comportment that mollifies social anxieties and accepts the premise that when one black athlete behaves in a certain way, he is representing not only himself, but his "race" more generally. Others have made the more basic point that there is no reason to expect an athlete, moments after playing an especially high-intensity, testosterone-infused game, to act as if he's just been invited to afternoon tea. These are both fair and valid points. But as I said at the beginning, no one is required to approve of Sherman's behavior. He can still be considered accountable, fundamentally, for his actions by those who disliked what he said and how he said it.

Sherman has now apologized numerous times for those comments. He acknowledged that he took away from the focus on his team, that he made it "personal" with Crabtree, that he could have and should have expressed himself differently. He has, in short, humbled himself. And the rest of us can afford a little humility, too. Leaving aside the more direct and nauseating explosion of racist diatribes directed at Sherman on Twitter, for instance -- a simple reminder of the persistence of such degeneracy -- we can all acknowledge how race shapes our reality.

There is a fantasy in the sports world, as in American society more broadly, that we can and should be able to achieve a colorblind society, that we can somehow wish away our past and our present. But that's all it is -- a fantasy. Yes, white athletes get criticized for their conduct. But they do not, as a group, they face the degree of scrutiny, the constraints and the baggage that accrue, in general, to black athletes. Because, in truth, they don't really get evaluated as a group at all. Given that, we can, at a minimum, strive to be more self-aware about the world in which we live. So, after Richard Sherman has apologized yet again for a few intemperate remarks and you still can't get over it, at least be willing to ask yourself whether that says more about you than about him.


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