I am not a role model.

I am not paid to be a role model.

I am paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court.

Parents should be role models.

Just because I can dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.

–          Charles Barkely (1993)

I should begin with a few caveats: I am not a Seattle Seahawks fan. In fact, I have been a San Francisco Fortyniners fan since the early 1970s. I also do not like trash talking in any sport. In fact, when coaching flag football I require my kids to always show “good sportsmanship” whether winning or losing. So it should not come as a surprise that I am not Richard Sherman’s biggest fan and I was angered by his actions at the end of the NFC Championship game. At the same time, the reaction to Richard Sherman’s actions and words tells us a lot about contemporary sports.

There appears to be two basic positions on Sherman. The first is a critical reaction to his unsportsmanlike behavior. When describing their anger, these folks use terms like “low class,” “thug,” or “douche bag” to describe Sherman. They see a clear code of conduct (i.e. sportsmanship) that all athletes should adhere to. Those that violate the code deserve scorn and derision. Moreover, actions that deviate from the code define the person as contemptible. While I believe in and teach the code, I also recognize sportsmanship has a history.

As modern sports were forming in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, sportsmanship became a defining characteristic of amateur athletics. Sportsmanship as a code of behavior differentiated “gentlemen” who could afford to train without receiving compensation for their time from working class athletes who could not afford to forego wages. Amateur fighters, for instance, showed character or boxed for personal development while gambling and profit sullied prizefighters that came from “the dregs of society”. So when we invoke terms like “classy” to describe athletes such as Peyton Manning, we draw on a history of exclusions that produces class privilege and power.

This is complicated in the United States where race relations exert a powerful social force. Class relations in the U.S. are often obscure since we lack language to discuss class. Instead, race stands in as a proxy for class. This is exasperated by the fact that we also tend to use coded language to describe race. So the term “thug” is often used to describe poor, young black men as deviant or anti-social. When applied to Sherman, it suggests that as a black man from “the hood” he cannot govern himself according to an ethical code of conduct as Peyton Manning or even his teammate Russell Wilson can.

The second position on Sherman sees the power implications in statements that call him “low class,” “thuggish,” or worse. These folks respond by redefining class and ethical behavior. They argue that Sherman has demonstrated character: he is educated, he is disciplined (i.e. self-governs according to external codes), and he is extremely hardworking. They see racism in the criticism of Sherman for two primary reasons: 1) critics overlook the working class culture that Sherman grew up in and 2) Sherman is held to a racial double standard. Sherman’s defenders first argue that he breaks the stereotype of black criminality since he graduate second in his high school, attended Stanford, and he speaks in Standard English. Since he transcended Compton and embodies the U.S. success ethos, he scares older white men, especially journalists. Sherman’s defenders then argue that if he were white (e.g. Tom Brady or Johnny Manziel) then his reaction would be seen as showing character; this position is clearly naïve to class dynamics.

While each position have value both hold unstated assumptions about manhood. The first position says that manhood is measured by self-control and the second says that manhood is measured by success. Whether it is the traditionally restrained white manhood of a Peyton Manning or the boisterous young black manhood of Richard Sherman, what is not debated is that manhood is violent, competitive, and profitable. Restraint legitimates the former and success the latter.

As I assess my own reaction to Sherman, I cannot help but see hypocrisy in both positions. The amateur and the professional are the twin heads underlying modern sport. The former, intentionally or not, attempts to preserve historically based privileges. The latter cloaks itself in social justice to argue that ends justify means. Charles Barkely’s 1993 “I am not a role model” Nike commercial effectively captured this fundamental contradiction: He is paid a lot of money to engage in violent, anti-social behaviors but then is judged anti-social for doing his job well. Barkely takes an oppositional stance by criticizing the hypocrisy a white dominated sports industry that profits from the labor of working class black men.

For this reason, I saw Barkely in the 1990s as a heroic counterpoint to the apolitical, sellout Michael Jordan. At the same time, Barkley was heroic on a Nike commercial! Barkley was performing and profiting from an image of blackness; the very thing he criticized. In the end, the NFL does not really care if people love Sherman or despise him. But it will continue to profit from selling his image and this controversy sets up a profitable clash of manhood in the Super Bowl; Manning versus Sherman. As the emotions rise, fans will eagerly pay for young men to destroy their physical and mental health.

Jeffrey Montez de Oca is an Assistant Professor in the Sociology department at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. His research has focused on college football, media, and popular culture during the early cold war. He is the author of Discipline and Indulgence: College Football Media, and the American Way of Life During the Cold War (2013), Rutgers University Press 

Related: 12 Takes on Richard Sherman: The Backlash to the Blacklash

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