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Richard Sherman and the culture of respect in the NFL

in which the author explores the quaint old-fashioned notion of sportsmanship and why it seems to be lacking in these degenerate days...

Jonathan Ferrey

We all know what Richard Sherman said in the post-NFC Championship game. Or at least the broad outlines. We all know what he did, especially the pat on the butt and the choke sign. The more interesting thing is the varying responses his actions have evoked.

This is the sort of story which really gets the phone lines fired up on sports radio, and I've been listening to some of the callers. During the "Cook and Poni" show yesterday morning on 93.7 The Fan, a caller said he was just fine with what Sherman did. Ron Cook, who clearly is not, asked the caller if he thought what Sherman did was "sportsmanlike conduct." The caller, who wanted to propound his theories about a lot of different things stemming from this incident, refused to answer the question, despite a number of attempts to elicit a response.

My husband is English. His family, while not upper-class by any stretch of the imagination, is well-educated, and he was able to go to a rather good boy's school (Magdelan College School in Oxford), presumably because his father taught at the University. He hated compulsory games, and participated in as few of them as possible, but he still managed to pick up "the code," I suppose you could call it. So when he took me, as a special Christmas present, to a Ravens/Steelers game at Heinz Field a few years ago, he was shocked when the crowd booed as the Ravens players emerged from the tunnel. In his world, such behavior isn't "cricket."

It's not a coincidence that the phrase "it's not cricket" is used to describe behavior that isn't sufficiently proper. Cricket was (and is) a game played at the great "public" (meaning private) schools such as Eton and Harrow. (Don't even try to understand the British. I gave up long ago.) These schools were attended mainly by upper-class boys who would be the leaders of the country, for better or worse, when they grew up.

The concept of "sportsmanship" is so old, no one even questions where or when it originated. But wherever that might have been, it was probably discussed in ancient Greece. Which would make it ripe for inclusion at places like Eton. As conceived of in such places, when one played cricket (or whatever other game,) one played one's best, and then congratulated the opponent in a genuine fashion after a hard-fought game, whatever the outcome.

It reminds me of the marvelous Tom Lehrer song "Fight Fiercely, Harvard," the first verse of which goes as follows:

Fight fiercely, Harvard,
Fight, fight, fight!
Demonstrate to them our skill.
Albeit they possess the might,
Nonetheless we have the will.
How we shall celebrate our victory,
We shall invite the whole team up for tea
(how jolly!)
Hurl that spheroid down the field, and
Fight, fight, fight!

When expressed in this way, "sportsmanship" does seem quaint and old-fashioned. But in fact one can care, very much, about the outcome of a game and yet respect the opponent who manages to defeat you, or not.

As opposed to places like Eton and Harrow (or even to a large extent, Harvard) the players who make up the NFL are from incredibly varied backgrounds, income levels, and ethnicities. But I think it is safe to say a great many of them are steeped in a culture which differs from that of Eton and Harrow. I'm going to call it the "culture of respect".

Some years ago I read a fascinating book called "In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio." The book tells about the experiences of  an anthropologist, Phillipe Bourgois, who moved his young family into the heart of the Puerto Rican barrio in East Harlem. Over the course of several years he made friends with the drug dealers as well as the other residents of the area.

One of the most surprising parts of the book to me was his discussion about the desire of most of the dealers to get work in the legal economy. He told the story of one of the main dealers whose dream was to open a bodega - a little grocery/convenience store. However, he couldn't navigate the vast piles of paperwork required by the city, and the author eventually discovered why.  The man was illiterate. His problem was exacerbated because he was afraid of losing the respect of his underlings if he asked for help.

As is evident by the title, "respect" was an enormous part of the fabric of daily life. The vast majority of the men who got jobs in the legal economy were unable to keep them for any length of time. These jobs were in the service industry, since generally speaking the men weren't qualified for too much else. And as you can imagine, by the very nature of the job, someone was eventually going to say something to the guy that he would perceive (most likely correctly) as "disrespecting" him. He would then react in a manner inconsistent with retaining employment, and it was back to selling crack.

This is scarcely confined to the drug-dealing members of society, either. My son-in-law, who is a policeman in a less-than-salubrious area of St. Louis County, had an interesting experience when he was fairly fresh out of Police Academy. He had been sent to investigate an incident in which two young women were fighting, and asked one of them what happened. Her answer: "She was straight frontin' me so I stole her face."  After asking her to repeat this a number of times, he finally realized she was speaking a different language, as it were, and asked for a translation. Here's what that means: "She disrespected me, so I punched her head." The punchee had, in the view of the puncher, stolen something from her, so she stole something back.

As far as I can tell, "respect" is also a huge part of the NFL culture. I believe it is before the NFL broadcasts each week that I've been hearing all year a miked huddle or locker room conference or some such, and what is being screamed is something to the effect that "they don't respect you!!!! You have to get out there and make them respect you!!!!"

It seems to me that the very essence of sportsmanship is respect for your opponent, and the assurance that they respect you as well. It would appear a very different message is being delivered in the huddles and the locker rooms to what the NFL wants to show on the field after the game.

"Unsportsmanlike conduct." It's still a 15-yard penalty. But does this really make sense to the average player? I would guess not.

Richard Sherman is neither ignorant nor, apparently, dull, in either sense of the word. He graduated second in his high school class, and has a degree in Communications from Stanford University, not a school generally attended by those lacking a solid academic background or basic intelligence. Furthermore, he stayed for his last year of eligibility in order to begin work on a masters degree.

Sherman's high school was in Compton, California, a place I know nothing about. So I looked it up, and what I found was fascinating. It is considered primarily a working class suburb of Los Angeles. But there's more, as per Wikipedia:

Since the 1980s, the city of Compton has become well known in American popular culture due to many hip hop groups and rappers originating from the community, such as the seminal gangsta rap group N.W.A - best known for their debut album, Straight Outta Compton. The city of Compton as well as southern Los Angeles County in general is notorious for its heavy concentration of gangs and gang violence, such as the Bloods, the Crips, and Sureños, which all originated in the Los Angeles area.

As I understand it, the gang culture is almost entirely based upon the ideas of loyalty to the gang and the need to elicit "respect" from others, both inside and outside the membership. It would seem, despite his education and the upbringing which apparently allowed him to value education, Sherman is still infused with this ethos.

As are the vast majority of the young men in NFL locker rooms, I would be willing to bet. They weren't necessarily brought up in it, and they don't necessarily manifest it in other areas in their lives, but the whole "us against the world" mentality which seems to be so valued in team sports is a big part of the "respect" culture.

So where does "sportsmanship" fit into this? Frankly, it doesn't, other than the compulsory lip service paid to it by the after-game handshakes Richard Sherman was mocking. Of course, some of the players know and genuinely like each other, mainly because of off-season workouts and free agency in which a player moves to a different team. In that sense, you perhaps don't get the same degree of deep-seated organization hatred as much anymore as you did prior to the advent of free agency and off-season workout gurus.

But Seattle and San Francisco are being called the biggest rivalry in the NFL, and it is pretty clear the teams don't like each other. Many members of the fan bases encourage this, not just between these two teams but across the league.

Steelers players have been criticized by fans for consorting in a friendly fashion with Ravens players. But why shouldn't they? Why do we, as fans, ask our players to live in 24/7 white-heat hatred of the players from a rival team, players who might actually end up as teammates, depending on the vagaries of the front offices?

And if we are insistent on this in our players, why should we be surprised if they act like jerks? Let's look at ourselves for a moment. How many of us are "that parent" at our kid's Little League game, the parent who makes the other parents and the coaches miserable? And if the parents of future athletes are acting this way, what sort of a message is it sending to said future athletes?

I for one would love to see a true culture of respect become an entrenched part of the NFL. That would begin with respect for one's own teammates which would prevent the sort of hazing which goes far beyond a harmless rite of initiation and turns into what might best be described as bullying.

It would also encompass respect from the NFL towards the players. Perhaps we could end some of the "injury porn," in which a slow-motion replay of any injury, particularly a horrific one, would be deemed out-of-bounds. Why should we be allowed to view a player writhing in pain or puking? Moreover, why would we want to look at that? No amount of money paid to an athlete should be considered a free pass to take away their human dignity.

The commoditization of sports stars leads to a number of instances of disrespect from the public—everything from hounding them for autographs when they would just like to have a quiet dinner with their family to publicly stating (on sports radio shows, fan sites such as this one, etc.) that one "hates" player X on one's team. How can you "hate" someone you've never met? You know nothing about him as a person.

If your only interest in the player is how well he serves the interest of your team, at every conceivable moment, then how can you possibly be surprised if said player develops a contempt for fans? Some of the players manage to nonetheless comport themselves with grace, and they should be all the more honored for this.

And if the NFL truly respected the players as human beings, they would be concerned about ending head injuries for all positions, not just the marquee ones. They would be concerned about finding a way to maximize their revenues without putting players at additional risk, such as adding two games to an already-brutal season. I could go on and on about what I view as rank hypocrisy on the part of the NFL hierarchy, but I won't. But if you want the players to respect each other, truly, it needs to start with the "grownups" in the equation.

And finally, perhaps the most difficult thing of all, a true culture of respect would mean respect of the players for members of the opposing team. One outcome of actual, as opposed to feigned, respect would be a refusal to target opposing players in the hopes of injuring them.

This would, of course, mean that the coaching staff is committed to also respecting the opposing players and their livelihoods. And, for that matter, their own players, no matter how minor a cog they are in the wheel.

I was so pleased to read Willie Colon's answer to a question about hazing in the Steelers locker room, an answer given after Colon was already playing for the Jets. He said that Mike Tomlin adjured the veterans to keep the "hazing" to a reasonable level, bearing in mind the fairness of players making millions of dollars a year asking someone on a rookie salary to spend perhaps a tenth of it for their entertainment. Tomlin posed it as a fairness issue, but I would contend it is also an issue of respect for a young man who might never make any more money than they earned during their rookie training camp, at least not via the NFL.

But to return to the issue of opposing players, it is only when you truly feel that you are worthy of respect that you can respect others properly. And perhaps this is where we as a society have failed these young men.

We talk a lot about "self-respect" in schools these days, but we don't always teach children that self-respect comes not just from using up a certain amount of space and breathing a certain amount of air, but from being a productive part of the society in which you find yourself. Human dignity is best served by the opportunity to perform meaningful work and to do it well. Whatever that work might be. Thus we as a society have an obligation to treat members of the service industry with as much respect as we do members of the presidential cabinet. (I personally have more respect for most janitors than for most politicians, but that's just my cynicism speaking.)

The amount of respect we give a person should be meted out not according to how much money he or she makes, but by how well they do the work available to them. Some of the least affluent people I know make the greatest positive contributions to society.

Thus "respect" is not a limited commodity which you must snatch from someone else, as Richard Sherman did to Michael Crabtree. There ought to be more than enough respect to go around.

It is easy to point the finger at Richard Sherman. But maybe, just maybe, we should look at how we as "consumers" have been complicit in his behavior. It will have been worth the whole ruckus if we begin to think a little harder about how we treat each other.