Following the NFC Championship game last weekend, Richard Sherman gave an interview to Erin Andrews. He yelled to millions watching in their living rooms about being the best and shutting down opposing receiver Michael Crabtree. However, following his interview, he somehow morphed from a football player who had just reached the pinnacle of sports achievement into a racial stereotype.
Suddenly he was “classless,” a “thug” from Compton, and any manner of other negative terms that one can substitute for the n-word. Sherman was no longer human, but a racist caricature.
Black people exist in a “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” space within American conversation. If a black person does something that’s seen as negative, that negative behavior is used as yet another example of how “we” are. Negative behavior, so it goes, is just inherent in “us.” On the flip side, if a Black person achieves something positive, the positive achievement is often dismissed either undeserved or the result of an innate gift the achiever can’t take credit for.
Many people believe President Obama only got into Harvard because of affirmative action, and just as many believe he was only elected into office (twice no less) because he is Black. In sports, the success of White athletes is most often attributed to “smarts” and “hard work,” but the success of Black athletes is often attributed to “natural ability” or “God-given” talent.
In 1999, when Brandi Chastain whipped off her shirt to celebrate U.S. Women’s World Cup win, photos of her celebration landed her on the covers of Newsweek, Sports Illustrated and Time Magazine. She described her spontaneous action as “momentary insanity…the greatest moment of my career, and I lost control.” However, when the Black men of the 2000 Olympics gold medal 4×100 team removed their shirts in celebration, they were called a “disgrace.” And Serena Williams was harshly criticized for doing a popular L.A. dance when she won the her Olympic gold medal (and, as Gawker’s Cord Jefferson notes, called a “thug” when she argued with an ump).
When Ryan Lochte represents the US on the international stage wearing grillz, it’s a fashion statement — all anyone wonders is “can he pull it off?” However, Trayvon Martin is called a “thug” for wearing the exact same thing (google “Trayvon Martin grillz thug” and the same for Ryan Lochte).
And Richard Sherman, the high school salutatorian who graduated from Stanford with a 3.9 GPA, has now been reduced to an uneducated unsportsmanlike “thug” in the American lexicon for giving a passionate interview that some people didn’t like. Black hockey player, Ray Emery, was subjected to similar dismissiveness. When he was involved with a fight with fellow goalie, Braden Holtby, he was widely called a “thug,” a moniker never attributed to any of the dozens of White players who fight at nearly every hockey game. And White players who break the hearts of opposing team’s fans with game-winning plays never get the kind of vitriol that was directed at Joel Ward for scoring the winning goal in a playoff game.