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The NFL's Richard Sherman (Human) Problem

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Richard Sherman, though obnoxious, acted like a human being Sunday night. This, apparently, is a problem.

In the hours, minutes, seconds leading up to Sunday's doubleheader between the Broncos and Patriots, then Seahawks and 49ers, television coverage across the country treated us to what is commonly known, mastered and distributed by ESPN and the like, and yet is still unnamed: sportselatio, perhaps. Here was Dan Marino, retired Hall of Fame quarterback, interviewing one of the two publicly administered faces of the NFL, the handsome, seasoned quarterback of the New England Patriots, Tom Brady. The hard-hitting analyst Marino pitched tough questions at Brady about the other publicly administered face of the NFL, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, questions like, "What's it like playing against Peyton?" to which Tom answered with the sort of near-perfect, humility-fortified, assistant-written copy one would expect: "I look up to him," "It's special," etc. Quick camera shot of Marino, like the late Mike Wallace, face knotted in thought, admiration. Deep stuff. Cue triumphant music, a few more shots of Brady's brilliant but humble smile. End with Marino voiceover...

In short: the ideal, prepackaged script the NFL so regularly sells. Hours later Fox Sports repeated the same script with the quarterbacks of the Seahawks and 49ers -- Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick respectively.

Most Americans likely had the television on mute or were not paying attention. This sort of pre-game analysis, which is the most effective and pervasive PR campaign for all Major League sports, is at its slimiest when coming from the NFL. It is also -- and this is key here -- part of the larger formula the NFL and the distributing media have concocted to sustain their ever-apparent house of cards.

In the Broncos vs. the Patriots, the NFL had their ideal matchup: two drama-free, Hall of Fame bound quarterbacks facing off, perhaps for the last time, in the waning years of their illustrious careers. In the Seahawks vs. the 49ers, they had two dominant and athletic defenses with energetic and outspoken coaches.

As with most things hyped and sold to be great, the first event was largely, well, a non-event. Save for a minor and late threat, the Broncos game was over by the third quarter. Again, as with most NFL games, however, the injuries were not. In the second half we watched enormous -- almost mythical in size and speed -- men writhe on the ground as CBS' Jim Nantz and Phil Simms rather calmly and dispassionately analyzed the game, its likely outcome, and both teams' possible strategy.

Later the same evening, this practice was on clear display during Fox's coverage of the Seahawks/49ers game and was briefly noticed on Twitter.

This disconnect (the calm voices analyzing the play as slowed-down theme music drowns out the real-world atmosphere of the game -- you know, the sounds and images that remind us that this game is real and has real-world repercussions) is fundamental to the NFL's survival. This cognitive dissonance allows us to watch men -- many of whom we know are, on average, statistically more likely to die young or suffer through old age crippled and in pain -- physically punish one another each week. The harder the hit, the louder the gasp, and the greater the fake-guilt. Allow me to feel something only after the eighth run of the slow-motion replay.

Each week we turn away from the writhing young man on the field, flick to another channel like it were a commercial break and await the inevitable and undoubtedly valiant walk-off to a chorus of cheers. This procession of events is often accompanied by a solemn and thoughtful note from the broadcaster about the bright future of the now-badly crippled young man.

Then back to the game.

When the game ended, all the injured players carted off the field and out of view, the camera found its hero, a smiling but still serious Manning reflectively standing at center as confetti poured down from the rafters. Formula realized: the perfect NFL image on display.

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John Leyba via Getty Images

This, of course, is old business. Much like the pre-game propaganda, the post-game interview procession requires a script. Usually a female reporter grabs the winning team's star player and prods him with pointless questions, such as, "What were you thinking when the ball left Brady's hands?" and so on and so forth, to which the player responds, "I just wanted to go out there and make a play for my team." Almost always he is tired, sweaty, his chest heaving and collapsing, and visibly distracted. In other words, he is still caught up in the moment, in the game he just played, the same game that required all his energy, that asked of him to perform athletic feats unnatural for 99 percent of the population. In this same moment, where emotions are running high, adrenaline still pumping, this player is expected to calmly rehearse a script that employs some level of articulation and sportsmanship. If the formula is executed properly, the interview lasts no longer than 60 seconds, before the sideline reporter pitches it up to the calm, jovial analysts back in the studio.

Loosely, the formula looks like this: Pre-game mythologizing, real-time in game violence and injury, post-game wrap-up with just a touch of humanity.

Occasionally the formula is interrupted, as was the case Sunday, in the second and much better game, when Richard Sherman, the brash star corner for the now-Super-Bowl-bound Seahawks, went off NFL script.

Here was Erin Andrews offering up the hard-hitting "Let me ask you, the final play: take me through it," as Sherman, still visibly amped, put his championship hat on. Here was Sherman yelling into the microphone, proclaiming himself the best corner in the game. Here was Andrews, face twisted up, recoiling. Here were Fox Sports producers and NFL employees alike shitting their pants. Here was the cutaway. Here now the outrage. What followed were racist and hateful tweets directed at Sherman, a quick surge in media analysis and then finally, and inevitably, an apology.

And while Sherman's unneeded apology will likely close the lid on this story, it is worth pressing the pause button for just a bit longer.

Sherman, in his brash, egotistical mini-monologue, is neither a hero nor a villain. He's a human being, something the NFL has brilliantly excised from its product. These post-game interviews follow a script for a reason -- they create a sort of decorum, civility and reflection in a game, which, at its foundation, requires that all involved parties (including the fans) be divorced from all the aforementioned qualities (which is not to say the game doesn't display some positive qualities, namely team unity and hard work). In these moments, in the canned responses from the towering athlete, the NFL and its fans find the calm, simulated human veneer that keeps its brand intact.

This is not arbitrary, by the way. Though it may be administered by the NFL it is certainly co-signed and authorized by its fans.

Richard Sherman, just briefly, and unknowingly, disturbed this formula. Instead we saw what shockingly appears so few times in these post-game interviews: a human being, someone overcome with emotions, energy, adrenaline, triumph, and egoism. Did it look good? No, not really. Was it human? Yes. Certainly there is an argument to be made for sportsmanship. And certainly people are within their right to find Sherman's rant off-putting. But that's it. That's where it stops. The larger issue, however, remains. Why are we so shocked when an athlete doesn't fill in our pre-drawn outline? Why such outrage for a brief spell of pomposity?

Richard Sherman's outburst is nothing if not natural -- any one of us is capable of such a display. And that's apparently what makes it so disturbing. When Sherman temporarily broke character, he reminded us above all else that he's human and that the NFL comprises not super-natural athletes but real, living, breathing people. So too are those young men, some crippled and concussed, whom we so breezily skipped over moments earlier.

How can a sport built entirely on our collective cognitive dissonance control such realizations? If all stays according to script, then the NFL and its viewing public -- myself amongst them -- won't have to answer that question for quite some time.

 
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