Well, here we go again, a Super Bowl week filled with more of the inevitable comparisons between Peyton Manning and Richard Sherman. There’s no better headlines: Good vs. evil. Humble vs. loudmouthed.
The well-groomed quarterback vs. the cornerback with dreads. And, lurking just beneath the surface, the undeniable racial overtones.
We all love an enticing matchup – it doesn’t get much better than one of the greatest QBs in NFL history taking on the best pass defender in the league with a title on the line – and inevitably will take sides. But Manning and Sherman are both worth celebrating.
Sure, they come from diverse backgrounds. Manning is the white son of privilege, an esteemed member of the NFL’s first family, along with father Archie and brother Eli. Sherman grew up in the hardscrabble African-American neighborhood of Compton, Calif., a guy who surely had more obstacles to overcome to live out his dreams.
Given Manning’s lineage and position, it shouldn’t be a surprise he would take a road to fame that’s more in line with the league’s corporate image – careful with his words, slowly but surely expanding his brand, finally feeling comfortable enough to display an endearing goofiness with appearances on Saturday Night Live, that delightful Football On Your Phone commercial and the amusing Buick ad. He’s the poster child for the NFL, for corporate America – and, by extension, white America.
“The NFL is a powerful force in our nation’s cultural landscape precisely because it has done such an excellent job in monitoring and managing its image,” said Jeff McCall, a professor of media studies at DePauw University in Indiana. “The NFL’s marketing strategy is to keep the audience focused primarily on the game and the teams and then allow the personalities of players and coaches to shine within that framework. This allows the game to stay popular even when charismatic players come and go.”
That said, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Sherman, a dozen years younger than Manning, would take a different tack in his quest for fame, one that’s very much as odds with the NFL’s buttoned-down image.
The cornerback may have graduated from Stanford with a degree in communications but he was never going to be portrayed the same as Manning by the NFL’s marketing machine, by the folks on Madison Avenue – and, by extension, white America.
So Sherman veered toward a more in-your-face approach, epitomized by his 20-second throwdown of an interview with Fox’s Erin Andrews right after Seattle locked up the NFC championship thanks to his tipped pass in the end zone.
His marketing methods may not be your cup of tea but it has surely turned him into a household name and, in all likelihood, will lead to some off-the-field opportunities once the furor over his tasteless but ultimately harmless tirade fades away.
In fact, we’d love to see Sherman doing some good-natured trash-talking at Disney World if Seattle beats Manning’s Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl on Sunday. “When you try me with a sorry cartoon character like Mickey, that’s the result you’re going to get!”
But, seriously, while some criticism of Sherman’s actions was to be expected – the choke sign was too much – and we won’t even get into the blatant racism that broke out on Twitter in the aftermath of his brief interview, there is a troubling element in between those two extremes.
There were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of references in the media – both traditional and social – to Sherman being a “thug,” a word that certainly can be applied to any race but carries especially negative connotations when used to describe an African American.
“On the one hand, I think you got the explicitly racist reaction, which is predictable in this age of Twitter,” said George Ciccariello-Maher, a professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia who has studied racial issues. “What is more important is the coded language, those people who called him a thug.”
For Ciccariello-Maher, the reaction to Sherman’s comments is just an extension of the struggle that outspoken black athletes have been waging since heavyweight champion Jack Johnson dared to stand up to the white establishment more than a century ago, a blatant double-standard that carried on through Muhammad Ali and Deion Sanders and anyone of color who dared speak their mind.
That, clearly, is still going strong today.
“When Tom Brady goes on an expletive-laced tirade against the referees in November,” the professor said, referring to another white quarterback with a stellar public image, “it’s not a big deal.”
In the end, both Manning and Sherman are superb football players with essentially the same goals, who, viewed in their totality, come across as decent human beings.
Their talents have them headed to the Super Bowl. Their contrasts have made them the headline. And they’re both worthy of your admiration.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. You may write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/pnewberry1963.