On race, socioeconomics, whom we’re rooting for in the Superbowl, and why

2 Feb

The game is on, and I’m thinking about a conversation I caught on NPR the other day. Disclaimer: I didn’t catch who the panelists were, and I don’t even know what show it was. Just that my radio (yes, radio) was tuned in to NPR, and they were discussing their favorites to win the Superbowl.

It came up again: Seattle Seahawks’ Richard Sherman’s on-air post-game rant against San Francisco 49ers’ Michael Crabtree right after Seattle beat SF in the NFC Championship. If you didn’t catch it, here it is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G7UPXzHShpc.

Somehow, this 29 seconds has become a major factor in the opinions of a lot of people (including people who usually don’t care about football), regarding who should win the Superbowl. Who deserves to win.

The opinions I heard the other day on NPR epitomize the general tenor of what I’ve been hearing among friends, acquaintances and professional opinion-sharers: one panelist professed to favor the Broncos over the Seahawks, using Sherman and Peyton Manning (the Broncos’ quarterback) as some sort of moral embodiment of their respective teams. In his logic, the Broncos are worthier of a win because their QB is a “gentleman.” While I’m not sure he used the word “thug” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dexter-rogers/richard-sherman-thug_b_4705030.html) to describe Sherman, that was certainly the gist of his argument about why the Seahawks should lose.

In response to this position, the other panelist suggested that we need to understand that Sherman grew up in Compton. He was going with the Seahawks.

And I’m thinking… what??

As much as the second panelist seemed to think he was providing counterpoint to the first, all I heard was an affirmation. The second panelist effortlessly reduced Sherman to a pop cultural stereotype by using Compton as code to explain him. (He didn’t, for example, also mention that Sherman went to Stanford. That would only complicate the archetype of the Angry Black Thug.) And his message to NPR listeners? Sherman can’t help what he is, and we (the well-heeled gentleman’s crowd) need to understand that and lower our standards to an altitude that even someone from Compton can clear.

I was struck on several fronts:

  • The distance between intention and impact. I believe the second panelist was trying to support Sherman. But in effect, he keeps Sherman in his place (as less than, for instance, Peyton Manning) by intimating that being poor and black means you can only meet the lowest standards.
  • The social acceptability of both panelists’ subtle but devastating racist, classist worldview. Yes, racist and classist. Because this moment isn’t just about Sherman. It’s about using a deficit perspective to perpetuate an attitude about the inferiority of poverty and blackness. And it was just another NPR moment.
  • That we’re not seeing the forest because we’re so busy judging one tree. Here’s the thing: what Sherman did was visible. (And accentuated by context: a one-on-one interview immediately after the Seahawks won their ticket to the Superbowl. That moment is fraught with cultural notions about not being a sore winner.) My question is: what kinds of invisible bad behavior go on all the time, that help create a culture in which of course Sherman acted the way he did? What kinds of bad sportsmanship and normative and actually acceptable (when done right)? I observe this line a lot in groups: the child or adult who is overtly cruel to a peer, versus the child or adult whose cruelty is well-timed and scaled to happen in plain sight unobserved, or at least irreproachable because they know how to navigate the tacit rules and step far enough without overstepping the bounds. My point isn’t to judge Sherman’s outburst as right or wrong, but to contextualize his action within a reality: that in pro football, there’s acceptable trash talk and acceptable aggression. And when we come down just on the people who fail to play by the tacit rules, we don’t actually address the issue: we just privilege the more strategic, savvy insiders who know how to work the system. And then what kind of system do we have?


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