We met him as a mouth and we’re getting to know him as the conscience.
The first image Richard Sherman gave us was all decibels and cockiness and edge, like the new kid at school who sucker-punches the bully just to make a point, and give him this: he got everyone’s attention.
First impressions are hard to shake — good, bad or misleading — which means a lot of people are missing the evolution of the Seahawks’ star cornerback. He came into the mainstream sports world largely with two unapologetically aggressive moments on live TV.
First, he belittled an obnoxious talking head (and no matter how much Skip Bayless deserved it, Sherman didn’t need to stoop). Then came his Mona Lisa, the when-you-try-me-with-a-sorry-receiver-like-Crabtree rant that set off a national discussion on sportsmanship, confidence, and pretty much anything else that fans or media wanted to make a point about.
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All of that was fun enough while it lasted, and a large part of the sports world is sure to miss it, but Sherman is using his second Super Bowl platform to move from mouth to conscience. From one-dimensional trash-talker to the most interesting man in football.
“I don’t think (players) should be obligated (to speak to the media) any more than the commissioner is obligated to speak to the media,” he said.
Sherman said a lot more than this on Tuesday, of course, but to be honest, much of it was fairly bland if you’re judging against his old I’m-better-at-life-than-you persona.
He downplayed the silly Deflategate controversy, was respectful of the Patriots, and generally went with cliches. There was a semi-entertaining back-and-forth with a reporter over his comments earlier in the week that there would be no punishment for Deflategate because of the close relationship between the Patriots owner and NFL commissioner. But, nothing that would lead the news.
That line about players being obligated to speak to the media, though — that one created some headlines for reporters, and surely some headaches for league executives.
This was the prepackaged nontroversy of the day, you know, with Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch’s discomfort speaking with the media leading to a bizarre and embarrassing scene of reporters badgering him with questions, and him repeating over and over: “I’m just here so I won’t get fined.”
It is the kind of thing that plays like gangbusters: easy to digest, #HotTake friendly, no real thought required and a good enough way to kill a day before the game on Sunday.
But Sherman cut through all of that. In one soundbite — one sentence — he defended his teammate, exposed league hypocrisy, pointed out how silly the whole thing is, and moved the conversation in a direction he preferred.
The league usually imposes its will on players; Sherman has a way of reversing the scales. He’s put himself in position to make these types of points, too, in a way he wasn’t at last year’s Super Bowl.
Back then, Sherman had allowed himself to be taken as a bit of a caricature — brash, with the volume turned up to 12.
Now, he is forcing people to see him as much more than that. Those people include league executives.
Sherman’s line about Roger Goodell’s silence — the commissioner has a press conference scheduled for Friday, his first public comments in quite some time — comes as Sherman is on the cover of Sports Illustrated with a thoughtful first-person story that references his evolution.
He is playing on a $56 million contract with $40 million guaranteed, for starters. Has a baby boy on the way, due any day now. His confidence is more assured, like he is comfortable with his place in the football world instead of desperate to establish it.
In the story, he calls out league executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent by name, and criticizes the league on everything from game rules to the fines of Lynch and others for not speaking to the media.
Sherman is as counter-culture as major professional athletes can be in 2015, and that is especially true in the NFL. The league is all about control. That’s why it micromanages every detail — down to the height of players’ socks.
But Sherman isn’t being controlled. He is a grown man with the talent of a star, the security of a big contract, the speaking skills of a lawyer, and the spirit of an activist.
That’s an uncomfortable combination for old-money NFL power brokers like Goodell and Patriots owner Robert Kraft, forced to listen and respond to a player’s reasoned criticisms.
“A lot of people said I said what everyone was thinking,” Sherman said. “I’m not a mind reader, I don’t know what anybody else is thinking. But it’s interesting.”
Toward that end, he is smart to tone down the brashness (off the field, we’re talking here) and turn up the thoughtfulness.
It’s easy to brush off a guy who goes into the mud pit to wrestle with a TV shock jock; it’s impossible to ignore a star player speaking intelligently against the most powerful people in the league.
The NFL is better with Sherman, too. For fans, it is refreshing to see someone willing to speak out. Some people love him, some hate him, but either way he makes it more interesting. For players, he is a voice for many, one who happens to be established and smart enough to shine light on the system’s flaws.
And for the NFL’s image, he cuts against a lot of lazy stereotypes of a league full of mindless meatheads who break laws in their free time. The truth is that Sherman is good for the league in every way, even for the people he openly criticizes.
The league has taken many steps — some direct, some subtle — to discourage players from speaking their minds like Sherman, with near unanimous success.
Sherman knows this, which is presumably part of why he has so obviously morphed from a cartoon character to the voice for most players and many fans who love football but tire of the NFL.
He’s smart to do it like this, and if there is a young player watching with the brains and guts, he’d be smart to take notes.