After Seattle Seahawks corner Richard Sherman successfully clinched his team’s Super Bowl berth on Sunday by making one of the most incredible cover-corner plays of all time on a perfectly-thrown ball, the celebration of his remarkable demonstration of awareness, timing, and body control was short-lived: moments later, Sherman gave a sideline interview to Fox’s Erin Andrews that looked more like a WWE promo clip, staring directly into the camera and declaring himself “the best corner in the game” and insisting that 49ers receiver (and Texas Tech alum) Michael Crabtree is “a sorry receiver.”
In the day and a half since Sherman’s interview, the sports media has had one of its usual boring spasms of pearl-clutching and hand-wringing: What sort of a role model is Sherman? Conservative columnist and former Reagan speechwriter John Podhoretz, in a now-deleted tweet, declared Sherman to be “a role model for today’s Taliban youth,” and the question of whether or not Sherman had “class” was debated ad naeuseum on Twitter and elsewhere. As if to dispute the notion that the Seattle corner was uneducated, his 3.8 GPA at Stanford was cited in his defense, and Sherman himself explained his side of things the day after in a column for Sports Illustrated.
All of this has been well covered, but here’s the question we’re still pondering: If a cocky, brash, emotional, outspoken athlete who’s not afraid to taunt an opponent he’s just vanquished is suddenly football-watching-America’s favorite topic of the day, what are NFL fans going to make of Johnny Manziel?
Manziel, of course, seems to relish playing the villain in some ways. His performance against Rice in late August was certainly no less cocky or self-aggrandizing than Sherman’s, and Manziel didn’t have the excuse of having just made the game-winning play in the biggest moment in his entire career that Sherman did. Manziel taunted both opposing Rice players and his own critics with gestures related to getting paid and signing autographs, and was penalized for unsportsmalike conduct during the game.
After the initial knee-jerk reaction about Sherman and his supposed lack of “class,” whatever that even means in the context of a game where a linebacker’s leg got broken in slow-motion on our televisions, the pendulum swung the other way: columns began appearing suggesting that we want our sports entertainment to feature big characters and bold personalities, and that humility can be overrated. That swing was exemplified by Esquire politics writer Charles Pierce, who expressed a desire to “revise and extend” his initial tweet of “OK, Richard Sherman, you just made me a Broncos fan” after witnessing the backlash against Sherman, eventually settling on, “Richard Sherman is becoming my hero.”
Manziel hasn’t received a free pass from the sports media for his behavior either, but the idea that Sherman was somehow comparable to the Taliban because he gave an impassioned interview after three hours of being jacked-up in a game that would send his team to the Super Bowl is something that even Johnny F—ing Football hasn’t yet heard. One can’t really talk about Sherman without talking about the fact that the backlash around him was racist in tone, though, and it’s telling that Manziel’s controversy is centered around behavior that lasts year-round, while Sherman’s was a twenty-second clip after the biggest moment of his career.
Still, the question remains for Manziel—do we really care about this stuff? Is it going to hurt his career and his future prospects if he seems to relish playing the villain as much as he does? If he’s the classic stereotype of a smug, spoiled kid who’s never faced consequences for his behavior, is that a problem? Or—as the defense of Sherman that’s been mounted over the past couple days has shown—are we ready for big personalities in our NFL stars, after a dozen-plus years of the league being defined by the “Aw, shucks” demeanor of stars like Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, and Tom Brady? The NFL has had room for the occasional “diva” receiver—the “I love me some me” guys like Terrell Owens or the name-shifting Chad Ochocincos of the league—but guys in lunchpail positions like defensive back, or face-of-the-franchise stars like quarterbacks have been on a strict diet of enforced humility.
Sherman, whose statement that he’s the best player at his position in the game seems right now like a simple statement of fact, is dealing with issues that Manziel won’t have to: No one will look at Manziel’s face and see something that leads them to say the sort of things they’ve said about Sherman. But Sherman’s legion of defenders are doing more than just backlashing against a backlash: they’re acknowledging that the NFL is an entertainment show, and rightfully embracing the fact that entertainment is usually better when it stars characters. And if the NFL world is flipping out about Richard Sherman, wait’ll they get a load of Johnny F—ing Football.
(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)