Football is a product of the mass media. The popular press took a small game created by college students during the late-19th century and turned it into America’s favorite spectacle. From there the media took over weaving master narratives of race, class, and gender along with tales of conflict and heroism. Fantastic cults of personality ensnared coaches and star players. And then there was money. Oh was there money.
For much of the twentieth century, football was exclusively an amateur sport with college level competition reigning supreme. Though the NFL was founded in 1920, it was mostly a regional league and never rivaled the college game until the 1950s. Despite this amateurism, however, money flowed freely. Gate receipts furnished coaches with lavish salaries and surpluses enough to build stadiums that held tens of thousands people. The players were forbidden from being publically compensated for their part until the mid-1930s.
Of course, colleges asserted that the sport served more purposes than just entertaining the public. It taught manliness, discipline, and cooperation. It turned boys into men and prepared them for the “game of life.” Indeed, this emphasis on physical education tied to muscular Christian ideals carried modernist tendencies. Boarding schools such as Carlisle used the game to control their subjects and channel the believed inherent violence of Native Americans into ordered and disciplined expressions of American civility and manliness.
This use of sports, and football specifically, illustrates how the sport’s physicality placed the body as a key site for control by coaches, administrators, and journalists. Indeed, notions of civility and sportsmanship embedded in football and their attending expecations of behavior and decorum in society illustrate Foucault’s insistence that “it is always the body that is at issue—the body and its forces, their utility and the docility, their distribution and their submission” in “corrective” education. At Carlisle football was used as a type of corrective education, and the sport has continued to be used as such for many racial minorities if not in practice at least in theory. Lingering expectations of decorum tied to sportsmanship remain suggesting that those who are lacking are devoid of civility. Not surprisingly, these suggestions often follow racial lines.
Why does this matter? This background is extremely important in understanding the latest controversies surrounding Richard Sherman. Last night, moments after intercepting a pass in the NFC Championship Game that sealed a spot for his team in the Super Bowl he was interviewed on camera. During this interview his raw emotion showed. By most accounts, he lacked sportsmanship.
As one might imagine, the backlash from this interview was instantaneous and controversial. There was lot of racism, both overt and subtle. There were defenders too. And upon much reflection, there were many fence sitters. Many rightfully point out that Sherman was emotional. He just made one of the biggest plays of his career. Others noted the incredible physicality of the game and the deep season long rivalry between the two teams. Indeed, Sherman and Crabtree who he called out in his comments have a tense personal history. Several praised Sherman for being raw and real instead of offering the standard cliché riddled post game interview.
What caught most people off guard about the Sherman interview was that it was so unexpected. The mass media and the culture of sports have created certain expectations of behavior tied to sportsmanship and media relations. To borrow from Philip Deloria, “A rich cluster of meanings surrounds cultural expectations and its visible manifestations in images, acts, sounds, and texts.” He contends that expectations are “shorthand for the dense economics of meaning, representation, and acts that have inflected both American culture writ large and individuals…. You might see in expectation the ways in which popular culture works to produce—and sometimes to compromise—racism and misogyny.” I think it’s quite clear that this is exactly what we see in the reactions to Sherman’s interview.
This idea of expectation and the unexpected also plays into our conceptions of not only race, but of athletes. The expectation of athletes is that of well mannered, respectful, and clichéd answers. Media training teaches them to give non-answers, to thank God and their teammates, and ignore the hype and media storylines and spin surrounding their own game. Sure, most interviewers ask players what they want to say to their critics, but the expectation is that you say nothing. You’re supposed to let your performance speak for itself. Sherman shattered those expectations.
Like Colin Kaepernick did last week with Cam Newton, Sherman embraced the storylines. He played into the longstanding feud between him and Crabtree and provided a must-see moment. He accepted his role as an entertainer. Kaepernick did the same thing when he parodied Cam Newton’s touchdown dance after scoring on a scamper in to the end zone. The popular reading of these actions is that they’re raw emotional moments in the heat of the game. While this is true, it also indicates that both players are acutely aware of the hype and stories created to promote their matchups in the game. The criticism of Sherman and Kaepernick’s actions imply that in the world of 24-7 sports coverage the matchup and storylines are only the domain of fans and pundits. The expectation is that athletes are supposed to be silent actors who play out these scenes in the games.
As soon as players begin speaking and acting out people get uncomfortable. It seems to be that these expectations and notions of sportsmanship seek to dehumanize players. They’re supposed to play with class and dignity following the rules of the game. They’re supposed to shield themselves from distractions and follow the directives of coaches who know best. We expect athletes to perform for our entertainment in games but not to be entertainers. Players aren’t supposed to revel in the moment and contribute their own storylines. Outspoken athletes are labeled as distractions and bad for the locker room. In short, we expect athletes to be quiet and follow directions. We’re taught to enjoy athletes for their bodies, not their minds. In the world of the mass spectacle the agency of athletes is tied to their physical performance. Sherman wasn’t satisfied with that.
Sherman’s disruptive behavior shattered the fourth wall. He provided insight into the raw emotion of the game and the moment while also speaking directly and candidly about his role as an entertainer. He reveled in his team’s victory and his personal triumphing over Crabtree. He played into the media frenzy and the spin surrounding the game.
Many will think that the player we saw on the field after the game is the real Richard Sherman. It’s not. He’s a Stanford educated with a degree in communication. He’s smart and incredibly articulate. The Sherman we saw on the field was taking us all for a ride. He was shattering our cultural expectations of behavior and sportsmanship that dehumanize athletes, challenging the lingering racism attached to sports and behavior, and exposing the double standard between these expectations and the narratives used to create the mass spectacle.
 See Michael Oriard, Reading Football: How the Popular Press Created an American Spectacle, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), and Michael Oriard, King Football: Sport & Spectacle in the Golden Age of Radio & Newspapers, Movies & Magazines, the Weekly and the Daily Press, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001),
 Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth oh the Prison, trans. by A. Sheridan, (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 25.
 Philip Deloria, Indians in Unexpected Places, (Lawrence, University of Kansas Press, 2004), 6-11.