Richard Sherman: The New, True All-American

Why has Sherman's infamous post-game interview stirred up so much discomfort? Easy: The nation sees itself in him.

Elaine Thompson / AP

As a citizen of Seattle, I’ve been aware of Richard Sherman for some time. I knew he was one of the best corners in football and had come from Compton to Stanford to the NFL. I knew he was a strategic trash-talker who goaded opposing receivers into committing costly penalties. I knew he was capable of an aggressive, boastful flamboyance that is at odds with “Seattle nice”—and that’s therefore deeply appealing to noisy Seahawk partisans seeking release from everyday sublimation.

What I didn’t know was that Richard Sherman was also ready to represent the nation. He contains at once three narratives that the great organizer Marshall Ganz says are key to social transformation: a story of self, a story of us, and a story of now.

In all the reverberating sound and fury since Sherman’s postgame interview, Sherman’s been derided as a loudmouth by people who once considered that a badge of honor. He’s been called many ugly racist names, and was depicted literally as the alien other (that is, the creature from Alien) on Twitter.

But let’s face it. Richard Sherman is as all-American as all-American gets. Pick your American trope and this young man embodies it. Brash, cocky performer who craves the spotlight. Rugged individualist who pulls himself up by own bootstraps, fanatically prepared and self-reliant. Iconoclast who speaks his mind and wears his style without fear. Hard-nosed capitalist who works at the intersection of big dreams and big money. Budding celebrity who manipulates his public image to mask his actual smarts and savvy—and perhaps his actual appreciation for family, team, tradition, causes greater than himself.

You don’t have to buy into or like all these tropes. But don’t they add up to something more richly and complicatedly all-American than, say, picture-perfect Peyton Manning, son of Archie, brother of Eli, the scion who didn’t blow his inheritance, who is great at the family business, and is safe, dull, and inoffensive?

What’s all-American now, in this sixth January of the Obama presidency? What’s all-American in a week when the New York Yankees pin their hopes and their budget on Japan’s best young pitcher? What’s all-American in a season when American Idol is judged by a Latina, an Aussie-Kiwi, and a voice of creole New Orleans?

Our notions of Americanness are both superficially in flux and deeply stable: in flux, in that black athletes in dreadlocks can claim the status as much as the white guys in the Papa John's commercials; stable, in that the basis of the claim is a way of being and behaving that translates as “typically American” no matter what color the person is.

This isn’t about inclusion and diversity, exactly. Remember Linsanity? When Jeremy Lin came on the NBA scene in an unprecedented burst of inspired play, the cultural fever was fueled by a sense that a whole group of people (Asian Americans) who hadn’t participated much in a quintessentially American endeavor (big-time sports) were now getting a chance to star, to be the hero and vessel of other people’s dreams. That was a fairy tale of inclusion and diversity that warmed everyone’s hearts (until it didn’t anymore, when Lin became merely pretty good again).

Shermania is something else. The angst of both his critics and defenders, the way social media still can’t let go of those 15 postgame seconds, breaking them down and the footage that preceded them like they were filmed by Zapruder (“was his handshake offer to Crabtree sincere or calculated?”)—all of this amounts not to a story we tell to make ourselves feel good. Rather, it amounts to a story we tell over and over again, as if working out conflicting memories of a highway accident or reading a kaleidoscopic Tim O’Brien short story about combat, to try to make sense of who we are and what’s happening to us in a time when tribe and identity are getting scrambled and realigned explosively.

This is the source of so much of the discomfort Sherman stirred up. We have seen something we recognize in his 15-second clip: us.

It so happens that in his freshman year at Stanford Richard Sherman was named an all-American. So let’s think of this—the period that began when Erin Andrews asked Sherman, “Who was talking about you?”—as our own freshman re-orientation. In less than a fortnight, he’ll either shine or shut up. He’ll be a champion or a humbled loser. Then he’ll go away. We, the people watching the action on our screens, will have to keep talking our way through this game of being all-American.