THE BLOG
01/22/2014 11:11 am ET Updated Mar 24, 2014

Richard Sherman, the NFL and a Glimpse Behind the Curtain

Ronald Martinez via Getty Images

Most of the time, we would rather avoid uncomfortable truths that are right in front of our eyes because they force us to reflect on the things we hold dear. Instead, we tend to shame those who would dare draw our attention to the truths hiding in plain sight. For me, and many others, football is one of those favorite things.

Richard Sherman's epic display of bad form during and after the NFC Championship on Sunday reveals several truths about the NFL, and about the cult-like worship of Big-Time sports in society, that we might want to avoid. We shouldn't.

"I'm the best corner in the game. When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that's the result you gonna get. Don't you ever talk about me...LOB"

In the days since, the man whom the NFL network described as the "best trash-talker in the league," has been denounced in sports media, and the Twitter-sphere has been atweet with commensurate displays of bullying bravado that reveal how nasty people can be and just how threadbare our social fabric is.

Sherman is a star because he is physically gifted, aggressive and seems to thrive on taunting other players. On a raw level, this is the recipe for primetime success in the NFL. Distilled to its essence, what he said is 'you all made me what I am because you love gifted, aggressive players who talk trash and are willing to stomp the competition. I am just performing your own desire back for you. LOB.'

Too much truth; But just as quickly came the well-orchestrated walk back by Sherman, apologizing for "attacking an individual and taking attention away from the fantastic game by my teammates." Then came the hand-wringing and public relations massaging by coaches, sports writers and the league, calling Sherman "emotional" at best, and a "disgrace to the game" at worst, and focusing on players who are better weavers of our collective dream. And so, a teachable moment that reveals volumes about our disproportionate investment of time and resources in Big-Time sports will be lost as people rally around their love of the game. The conjuror distracts the eye with one hand, while picking the collective pocket with the other.

Sherman deviated from the normal script, and for that he will be the focus of attention in the two-week media binge building up to the Super Bowl. He is an uncivil man who has succeeded in a game that values uncivil behavior on the field. A graduate of Stanford with a degree in communications, Sherman has stirred up controversy before with his candor and knew exactly what he was doing on Sunday. He knows that his role in the media spectacle is to generate buzz. For performing his role, he will be pilloried -- insofar as everyone will be talking about him - by sports writers, the only growth sector of journalism left in our society. Why? Because, as Sherman knows, our society pays way too much attention to what people with athletic prowess have to say because we can't seem to take our eyes off of them.

Because Americans can't seem to turn away from the spectacle of Big-Time sports, it has taken over a huge swath of our public discourse and gobbled up an enormous slice of our public wealth. In our public schools, our love of distraction makes us spend more on cheerleading than we do on math, school breakfast for poor kids, or special education for the disabled. In higher education, our love of distraction means that we often define the success and failure of our major public universities by virtue how their football teams do. We heap money on coaches while cutting the public resources that could, and should, be spent on providing affordable education to young people. All across the country, as budgets for education are cut, budgets for big-time college sports grow like a cancer. Instead of addressing this poor allocation of resources, or at least trying to recoup some of that money from the media companies or commercial interests that profit from it, we are distracted by the spectacle and unable to have a serious conversation about what we ought to be investing in. No matter what we teach in the classroom, by our ritualized celebration of spectacularized sports, young people learn to think of themselves first as fans. What we get from this monstrous psychic economy is a society in which Shermanesque behavior is rewarded in the real economy because we can't seem to talk about other ways to spend our time and money.

Due to the ongoing tragedy of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, the NFL has recently received more scrutiny than it usually does. This is why the league has started running all of those "the more you know about football" PR spots, those feel-good success stories as that distract our attention from the serious problems with the game. Last week, President Obama articulated the anxiety felt by many parents when he stated, hypothetically, that he wouldn't let his son play in the NFL because of the potential for brain damage caused by repeated head trauma. And yet no politician would dare frame the constant barrage of televised sports ideology as a source of trauma for our civil society. As a politician, President Obama will welcome whatever team wins the Super Bowl in a fortnight to the White House and quickly smooth over any mild criticism that his statement might have raised. For the NFL is the closest thing we have to a collective religion in America, and the government recognizes it. Indeed, though the NFL generates billions of dollars in profits every year, owing to a sweet deal that Congress wrote into an anti-trust waiver in the 60s when the two leagues merged, it is granted the same tax-free status as any church. From this institutionalized pulpit, the NFL televangelizes the gospel of free-market competition while avoiding the tax obligation that every other for-profit business has to pay. To keep people from discussing this unfair status, the NFL puts millions into PR campaigns featuring its millionaire players helping the underprivileged, and concealing the naked truth that these teams draw far more from the common wealth than they give back.

In reality, NFL owners bully cities into issuing municipal bonds so that these owners can build or renovate stadiums, adding ever-more luxury boxes that only plutocrats and corporations can afford. They, not the municipalities who provide the capital, keep the profits. In order to comply with these aggressive demands, municipalities are forced to divert resources from things like education, infrastructure or public health. When we celebrate the success of these teams and their owners, this is the self-centered behavior that we honor. On any given Sunday (or now increasingly on Thursday on the NFL's very own network) instead of honoring the Sabbath by quietly reflecting on spiritual life or our communal obligation to one another, a hundred million Americans spend their day dressed in their Sunday-best licensed team apparel, passionately enraptured in ecstatic communal distraction. We scream with delight when a physically gifted athlete breaks off a long touchdown run, or gasp in horror when one of our modern-day "warriors" breaks a leg in half -- like NaVorro Bowman did on Sunday; but no matter what we see, we can't seem to turn away. We cultivate this mutually shared attraction with quickly growing social media activities like Fantasy Football, or with new media applications that allow us to never miss a moment of any game. We celebrate the fanaticism of the ardent fan through advertising campaigns -- like Verizon's #FOMOF (Fear of Missing Out on Football) campaign -- that wink at us as they celebrate our superficial priorities. Because of the monstrous psychic investment in our shared collective rite, advertisers reward the NFL and the media companies who profit from producing the spectacle with billions of dollars a year. And for our inability to turn away, we-the-people are rewarded with a constant barrage of commercial messages, little ersatz homilies that tell us what we are missing, and admonish us to go forth and consume.

The Super Bowl is to football what Easter is to Christianity, only much much more profitable. Between merchandizing, ticket sales and broadcasting rites, the NFL will make billions of dollars in tax-free money over the next two weeks. Every year, broadcasting companies outbid one another for the right to produce the spectacle, because they too will reap huge profits. Last year at the Super Bowl, a 30 second ad cost 3.8 million. Normally, each football game airs around 100 commercials (roughly a third of the broadcast time), which means that the Super Bowl will generate roughly 380 million dollars, not to mention the commercials that will run during the pre- and post-game spectacle. With only about 11 minutes of actual playing in any telecast, the television producers will divert our attention to coaches, cheerleaders, replays, announcers, recorded spots on different players or shots of the crowd. At the Super Bowl, when they cut to the crowd for reaction shots, our collective gaze will again be focused on the successful, those who are able to afford the record-high ticket prices at MetLife Stadium, which range from 1,250 to 2,600 dollars-a-seat. Not surprisingly, this means that average fans can't afford to go, an injustice attested to by a class-action suit recently filed in New Jersey. Yet at a time of near-record poverty levels, there is something unseemly about a civil suit that makes access to football a civil right that can be infringed upon, but ignores the symbolic social injustice of spending 1.6 billion dollars on a stadium -- even if MetLife was the first stadium financed privately rather than by fleecing the taxpayer -- with martini bars, 10,005 club seats and 218 luxury suites.

Meanwhile, behind the spectacle, we live in a society where huge economic resources are squandered. Instead of talking about how we could re-prioritize those resources -- the 380 million generated selling Super Bowl commercials, for instance, is roughly the amount just cut from federal heating subsidies to keep poor people from freezing this winter -- or acting to alleviate the suffering that our choices create, we focus our attention on the spectacle of success. The Super Bowl is just the most extreme example of our collective fetish. In a society where 50 million people and 22 percent of all children live in poverty, we will spend billions on a single football game for the love of distraction. In the next week, Richard Sherman will be talked about more than the water poisoned in West Virginia by Freedom Industries and a lax regulatory state, more than the trillions squandered in a never-ending war in the Middle East, and more than the systematic violence perpetrated by a federal budget that defunds programs providing assistance for the desperately poor. If actions speak louder than words, if our deeds matter more than what we say, then this is like the tax-dodging NFL running up to everyone of those people who are down -- like Richard Sherman did to his opponents on Sunday -- and giving them the big choke sign.

Over the next two weeks, in the build up to the annual climax of our shared civic religion, the NFL will spend millions to portray itself as a good corporate citizen. If it was more honest, if it were as truthful as Richard Sherman was on Sunday night, it might respond to whatever meager cultural critic who dares to question its cultural power with something like this: "We run the most powerful spectacle in the world. We wanted to make sure that everybody knew that anything else you might want to focus on -- like the league's failure to meet its obligation to the society that has turned football into a religion -- is sorry. And when you try to test our power, or to talk about the things that might help improve our society or refocus people's attention, that's the result your gonna get. Don't you ever talk about us! LOB" Or, as Sherman reiterated when he Tweeted about the interview on Monday, "The Lion doesn't concern himself with the opinions of the sheep." The candor would be refreshing.