Ever since it happened last Sunday, Richard Sherman’s interview with Erin Andrews immediately following the 49ers/Seahawks NFC championship game has truly lit up the TwitterVerse. Some are applauding the authenticity of the moment, comparing it favorably to the vapid platitudes of most sports interviews. Others are berating Sherman for a lack of class and doing so in a way which, to many ears, smacks of racist dog whistle.
I, for one, found the whole thing unsettling, and it’s taken me a couple of days to figure out why.
Full disclosure: I live in San Francisco and would’ve loved to have seen the 49ers going to the Superbowl.
* * *
I’m a carnivore. I eat meat. I cannot, however, look at images or videos of animals anywhere even remotely close to the process through which they become meat. So I’m OK with eating meat, but, please lord, do not make me confront the lives and deaths — most of them horrific — that these animals confront to satiate our appetites.
This idea, it seems to me, has very much in common with the commotion Mr Sherman’s interview hath wrought. Please read on.
* * *
Less than an hour before Richard Sherman’s interview, at a crucial moment in the fourth quarter of the game, someone at Fox Sports decided to show, seemingly at least half a dozen or more times and from multiple angles, the left knee of the 49ers wonderful star linebacker, with the equally wonderful name of NaVorro Bowman, bending in a most unnatural and injurious way.
I don’t know about you, but, after seeing that video twice, I found it necessary to look away every time they started rolling the tape again. I’ve since heard that I was not alone in this repulsion.
Bowman was taken by cart off the field; as the cart made its way towards the bowels of the stadium, someone in the stands above the cart apparently decided that throwing pop corn on the physically very seriously broken Bowman was a good thing to do.
* * *
Somebody first “sound-designed” a sports telecast long ago. They decided we should hear the squeaking of sneakers on the basketball court, the swooshy sliding sound of a tennis player’s shoes across a clay surface, the wonderful sound of a puck sliding across ice and hitting stick after stick in a hockey rink, and, most recently, the roar of the fabled 12th man of the Seahawks crowd, presented in a way to let you know that it was louder than normal, as the sportscasters visibly struggled to hear each other over the din and as a decibel meter appeared on the screen from time to time.
The sound designers also decided, though, that we should most definitely not hear what the players of these games say to each other. We can surmise that the sound designers thought that there would be too much swearing going on for family viewers (not to mention the FCC). And we can also extend that idea out further and surmise that the sound designers and the rule-makers and the broadcasters and the general Powers that Be of the commercial sports industries had a very clear idea of how they wanted to present their sports.
They wanted the presentation to be stylized — to show a lot of some things, and to hide others. They wanted to control their product.
* * *
More than any other of our major sports, football is about violence. Throwing someone out at first base is not an inherently violent act; sacking an opposing quarterback is.
The football Powers that Be have been tremendously successful at stylizing that violence, dialing it up or down as they deem appropriate for the given times, and wrapping the whole thing in as much off-field do-gooding and civic pride as possible.
Richard Sherman broke through that stylization by bringing his on-field persona to the post-game interview. He spoke from the heart, yes, but mostly he spoke from the limbic system, as, right then and there, he might have been the most adrenalized person in the country, having just a few moments earlier made a game-winning play that catapulted his team to the Superbowl. And what came out was the verbal equivalent of physical violence, aimed at his direct opponent during the game.
On the field of play during the game, that sort of interaction between opposing players is, by most people’s thinking, totally OK. But it’s also clearly not the norm after the game and off the field.
If you couple Sherman’s post-game interview with the very real physical violence that befell Bowman shortly before, and if you then add on top of that the symbolic violence planted on Bowman as he left the stadium, and if you then pile onto all that the constant refrain of how each of the 68,000+ people in the stands were honest-to-goodness, real-live players helping their team win, well, then, what you end up with is stylization fail, with a chunk of football’s veneer of civility falling away.
* * *
Richard Sherman reminded us just how violent the game is, and how base its motivations can be and often are. It’s not bean bag; it’s punching bag. It’s not croquet; it’s hit-you-over-the-head-with-a-mallet violent. It’s not make-nice; it’s make war.
And a lot of us just don’t want to see that too up-close and personal.
Kinda like how many of us carnivores, when we’re just sittin’ there tryin’ to enjoy our steaks, don’t want to see documentaries about what happens to animals at the meat-packing factory . . .