Last night in the NFC championship, the San Francisco 49ers trailed the Seattle Seahawks by six, 23-17, with 30 seconds left in the game. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick had led the 49ers all the way down to the Seahawks' 18-yard line. He took the snap out of the gun, set his feet, and released a flossy little fade to the corner of the end zone, where receiver Michael Crabtree had his hands out. And then Richard Sherman happened.
Sherman, a 6-foot-3 physical marvel and the current best cornerback in the NFL, leaped with Crabtree, and falling backward toward the rear of the end zone, he tipped the pass with his left hand back inbounds to a teammate and ended the 49ers season.
It was a spectacular play, a historic play, the kind of play we'll be seeing on NFL playoff ads in five, 10, 20 years, when the name Richard Sherman dances on the tip of our tongues, just out of reach, and the memory of this year's conference championship is clouded and composited with the memories of playoff matchups to come.
But we're not talking about that play today. Instead, we're talking about what happened right after the play, when reporter Erin Andrews found Richard Sherman in the postgame scrum just seconds after the final buzzer. Because what happened next was absolutely epic.
When Erin Andrews asked Sherman to rehash the play, the cornerback instead barked out: "I'm the best corner in the game. When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that's the result you're gonna get! Don't you ever talk about me!" Then he glared directly into the camera.
It was so powerful, so raw of a reaction that Andrews needed a moment before proceeding. The league's best cornerback had made the best move of his career on the biggest play of his career to win the biggest game of his career, against an opposing wide receiver and college head coach with whom he shares not a little bad blood. This was a triumphant moment, and still to a lot of people there was something viscerally ugly about Sherman standing over a pretty blonde woman, yelling into our living rooms with an emotional mixture of joy, relief, and excitement, arrogance, and anger. Dude was turnt up.
Erin Andrews looked petrified. I don't blame her.
— Kayla Knapp (@KaylaKnappFOX) January 20, 2014
Millions of Americans took to their cell phones, to social media, to the bar patron next to them, to cluck at Sherman. We called him classless, a bad sportsman, a troll. We called him a monkey and a nigger. We threatened his life. We said that he set black people and race relations back 30, 50, 100 years.
Because in that moment, Sherman—a singular kid from Compton who won both the athletic and intellectual lottery so completely, so authoritatively, that he spent three years playing on Stanford's football team at wide receiver before converting to defensive back and becoming the NFL's best at the position—was in the public eye. In that moment, whether he knew, cared, or neither, Richard Sherman, a public figure, became a proxy for the black male id.
When you're a public figure, there are rules. Here's one: A public personality can be black, talented, or arrogant, but he can't be any more than two of these traits at a time. It's why antics and soundbites from guys like Brett Favre, Johnny Football and Bryce Harper seem almost hyper-American, capable of capturing the country's imagination, but black superstars like Sherman, Floyd Mayweather, and Cam Newton are seen as polarizing, as selfish, as glory boys, as distasteful and perhaps offensive. It's why we recoil at Kanye West's rants, like when West, one of the greatest musical minds of our generation, had the audacity to publicly declare himself a genius (was this up for debate?), and partly why, over the six years of Barack Obama's presidency, a noisy, obstreperous wing of the GOP has seemed perpetually on the cusp of calling him "uppity." Barry Bonds at his peak was black, talented, and arrogant; he was a problem for America. Joe Louis was black, talented, and at least outwardly humble; he was "a credit to his race, the human race," as Jimmy Cannon once wrote.
All this is based on the common, very American belief that black males must know their place, and more tellingly, that their place is somewhere different than that of whites. It's been etched into our cultural fabric that to act as anything but a loud, yet harmless buffoon or an immensely powerful, yet humble servant is overstepping. It's uppity. It is, to use Knapp's word, petrifying.
The problem is that it's not just white folks who feel this way. Last night, Golden State Warriors wingman Andre Iguodala received nearly 3,000 retweets from this:
We just got set back 500 years...
— Andre Iguodala (@andre) January 20, 2014
The problem is that too many people think that Iguodala has a point. Too many of us think that one ecstatic, triumphant black man showing honest, human emotion just seconds after making a play that very well could be written into the first appositive of his obituary, is not only offensive, but is also representative of the tens of millions of blacks in this country. And in two weeks time, in the year 2014, too many of us will be rooting for the Denver Broncos for no other reason than to knock Richard Sherman down a few notches, if only to put him back in his place.