I experienced the thrill of that iconic Richard Sherman play, that last-minute play in the San Francisco 49ers-Seattle Seahawks playoff game, in a bar near Roanoke, Virginia. (This week, I am the artist in residence at Roanoke College.) My daughter, a student at Roanoke, and my host, Professor Robert Schultz, a professor of literature, sat next to me. We had just come out of a movie theatre.
Soon after the play, FOX had a media moment on its hands, interviewing a full-of-adrenaline Sherman—brash, screaming into the camera just moments after he made a “choke” sign to Colin Kaepernick. You’ve no doubt seen it, but here it is:
A media moment like that is what every sports program desires. It leads to thousands of Tweets condemning the act—some with some horrendously racist comments—and Facebook debates on appropriateness and unsportsmanlike conduct. The next morning, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I posted a response—actually, two responses—on my own Facebook account, which I try to reserve for family and close friends.
I saw Richard Sherman going crazy on screen, and immediately thought: if you have not the language of hip-hop, you think he is being unsportsmanlike. But if you have had a taste of urban culture, especially with having a son named Whitelotus living in Detroit, then you look at Sherman’s “theatre” as something entirely different. Here’s Whitelotus facing the icy rivers of Detroit, a place he chose to be graduating from college. Yes, it is on the “explicit” side. I am not making a statement about either of these folks’ character or appropriateness (although I dare say that Whitelotus can really help us to understand what “loving a city” means). I am simply noting that there is a language and culture out there and other “tribal language” that most of us do not understand.
Here’s the music video I included, which is by my son, an artist wrestling with his might before a frozen Detroit river:
And then, as comments came in pro and con, a 2nd Entry:
I think, especially today, we may want to “climb into his skin and walk around in it” (Atticus Finch). How does it feel if you are subject to intensity and violence (not only for the whole game, but for a season to prepare for that moment, when you leap to make the play, and before you hit the turf, you have enough coordination to turn your body and face to watch the interception before your head hits the ground) sanctified by our culture on the field (and yes, like Hunger Games, the promise of possible fortune awaiting for us… I say “possible” because something like 80% of football players, five years after retirement, go bankrupt) and sanctified by you and me watching and rooting, when you have just subjected yourself to de-humanizing each other in front of the whole world by trash talking? What you say after that is really a manifestation of both the ills and the hyper-delights of the nation. Again, I am withholding judgment on his character, his past, even what was said, until I fully under-stand (which means to stand-under) what was on display.
Philosopher James K.A. Smith has noted that Christians claim to follow Christ but really follow the liturgies of the world. We worship secular idols. We go to the mall, theater, or watch the Super Bowl without realizing that we are participating in these “secular religious” acts. In these contexts, we may project, and confuse, the judgments required for true religious communities. We apply them to broader cultural contexts even as we follow, and sometimes bow down to, the dictates of our consumer culture.
I am not saying that Richard Sherman acted properly, nor that he represents hip-hop or urban culture, the African American culture, or Stanford culture (where he graduated from), or any culture. I honestly do not know that much about him or his past. But as a media moment, he captured what good hip-hop artists do well in extending the boundaries of expression with authenticity and forcing us to reckon with the reality of a fractured society and how far we really are from the ideals of any game and any decent society.
We hold Richard Sherman to a standard that none of us live by, nor really require of the media and entertainments we hold dear.
You never really understand a person… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it. - Atticus Finch, in “To Kill a Mockingbird”
Consider the gap between the perceived reality of what goes on every Sunday during the football season and the actual reality that Sherman displayed. Media can amplify these moments of honesty (many players commented that these things happen all the time, out of the camera) and exploit them. Of course, once the player realizes that this is bad press, they will offer the mandatory apology, as Sherman has done. But the authenticity of the interview created a valuable cultural moment. Most of the comments that followed were not grappling with that reality, but were based on strict moralism and not on seeing through the theatre, and the grace, of the moment.
We often confuse the Gospel of Jesus with moralism, casting judgment with prescribed categories already established in our minds. Why do we rush to judgment? The passionate discussions about Richard Sherman are very, very important for me in that they reveal who we really worship. We worship what is certain rather than exploring the possibilities that exist in the margins. We believe what we hear, even on the TV screen, because we believe that what goes on a football field should fit into prescribed notions of what “sportsmanship” looks like. The Bible calls this idol-making, and that in itself prevents us from seeing God and Reality.
As we enter the Feast of Super Bowl, we need to reflect and repent deeply of what we have collectively created in our culture. The NFL, MLB and all the sports liturgies leave many willing victims in their wake. We can turn our eyes from the destructive steroid-filled realities and pretend that NFL is a nice, gentlemanly sport full of outstanding citizens. We go to the movie theatres and watch The Hunger Games; meanwhile, the NFL version of The Hunger Games is too much to bear. As T.S. Eliot noted in Four Quartets, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”
Richard Sherman exposed the uncomfort we all have with Reality. The problem really resides in all of us. We have created entertainment that titillate us to the point of numbness. We crucify the authentic when we see it, then wake up the next day, just the same, unchanged and uncaring. We have created a culture of judgment that can point fingers but is never able to mediate well against the idols of our age.
My former pastor, Tim Keller, says “an idol is a good thing that has become an only thing.” Let’s hope that we can restore the good, as we root for, or against, Richard Sherman on Superbowl Sunday.