The word "thug" has been used so many times by the same sort of people about the same sort of thing that it's no longer even accurate to call it code—it's really more of a shorthand. It means a black guy who makes white folks a little more uncomfortable than they prefer. On Sunday night, Richard Sherman made a lot of people uncomfortable. Then on Monday, people said thug on TV more often than on any other day in the past three years.
The numbers here come from iQ Media1, and they're based on every closed caption that ran in every market in the country over the past three years. As you can see above, Monday was more "thug"-heavy than any day in the past few years. iQ Media says 625 "thug"s across all markets, while competing service TVEyes says 524 so far today, but just 269 yesterday. Both have today and yesterday as massive spikes. ESPN, to its credit, appears to be on the hook for just two "thugs" all of yesterday. CBS was the overall leader by iQ's count, but that number is slightly inflated because of a mention on the national broadcast of the creatively bereft ratings graveyard Intelligence, which went out to a bunch of local affiliates.
Looking at the national numbers loses the local color, but dodges the affiliate/national complications. Here's how those look:
Here, Richard Sherman is beaten out by John Kerry, who on August 29, 2013, called Bashar al-Assad a "thug." Sit on that one for a minute.
(One question we wanted to address is if the Beats by Dre commercial featuring Richard Sherman factors into this, since it contains the word thug, but isn't an actual program. It doesn't; these numbers are gathered from closed captioning, and Beats commercials aren't captioned. We ran searches for multiple portions of the dialogue to be sure, but overall, only massive companies like Chevy or McDonald's typically caption their commercials. So in that respect, there's no finger on the scale.)
For individual local markets, here's how mentions break down over the past 24 hours (5:12 p.m. EST):
This is unsurprising. In Boston, nearly all of its country-leading mentions of thugs came from the TV broadcast of WEEI's Dennis & Callahan, which at one point reached a peak of 12 "thug"s in two minutes.
Here's transcript available for the Dennis & Callahan show:
>>he's a thug. some of these are hilarious. i got one in front of me that says "he can't be a thug, he got good grades."
>> sherm "sherman is a stanford educated player who started himself masters degree." stop me when i get to the part that refutes that he's a thug.
>> why is he a thug?
>> isn't it subjective?
>> why is he a thug?
>> because of his behavior.
>> define thug. he's never been arrested.
>> i'm not defining thug.
>> well, look it up.
>> they're not mutually exclusive. you can say he's a thug because of his behavior on the field and the way he acts, that's fine.
Richard Sherman was a flashpoint—and a damn good one—but the way pundits talk about athletes isn't isolated to big, ugly days. So, beyond yesterday, who are the repeat offenders here? It's pretty much the folks you'd expect. Below is the three-month breakdown for the shows that use "thug" most frequently. We've also included mentions of pundit favorite "knucklehead" (in yellow). The "Most Relevant Coverage" section is a list of shows using "thug" most frequently.
Others have moved on to "knucklehead," which, anecdotally at least, seems to have supplanted "thug" as the pundit's epithet of choice. While it lacks "thug"'s imputation of menace and violence, "knucklehead" at least carries a certain air of dismissiveness; it also sounds softer, like something Mr. Wilson would say to Dennis the Menace, though it's used to describe even the likes of Aaron Hernandez.
The Herd With Colin Cowherd: where race-baiting shitbags shake their heads gravely at the "knuckleheads" of sports. This is your discourse, America. Love it or leave it.
1The iQ media seems to become more robust around mid-2012 (this holds true for other searches we've run), and we are guessing that it is from adding smaller national cable channels over that period.