January 23, 2014

CHIUSANO | Athlete Egos: The Value of ‘We’

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Richard Sherman’s outburst in his postgame interview last Sunday has monopolized sports media across the country. News outlets everywhere are scrambling to interview him. Even the Yankees’ $155 million signing of Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka only briefly eclipsed Sherman’s story. Inevitably, the aftermath has been blown out of proportion. The problem with Sherman’s rant is not his racial or educational background, as Stephen A. Smith insinuated on First Take Wednesday.

The real question here is: When has an athlete lost himself in himself?

A similar question emerges from Chris Christie’s “Bridgegate” scandal. Christie’s political aspirations are on a slow decline as his administration is being investigated for the role it played in creating high traffic by the George Washington Bridge. An article in the New York Times by Frank Bruni, titled “The ‘I’ in Christie’s Storm,” suggested that Christie will continue to be scrutinized until he can detach himself from his ego. Bruni noted the number of times Christie spoke about himself in interviews about the scandal: “I am not a focus-group-tested, blow-dried candidate or governor,” “I am who I am” and “I am not a bully,” were just a few examples. “Without enough ‘you’ and ‘we,’ a politician inevitably bumps up against a word that, unlike apology, is correctly spelled with an I. That’s isolation,” Bruni wrote.

While politicians and athletes are very different breeds, there are similar lessons to be learned from Sherman’s story. Though at the moment he is at the forefront of the media, just as Christie is, Sherman will soon become a footnote in the NFL’s history if he continues his egotistical rants.

NFL.com captured soundbites from the moments right before Sherman’s big play, up until the NFC championship presentation. First we hear him addressing his teammates on the bench: “They’re about to try me, they’re about to try me, I’m gonna capitalize.” There is no mention of team defense.

After the play, Sherman pounds his chest and chants something that is, at least to me, unrecognizable, until his teammates surround him. But he promptly pushes them away and sprints over to 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree, offering him a hand and saying, “hell of a game.” Crabtree shoves him away. An obvious mistake by Crabtree. This makes Sherman out to be the hero. He was simply congratulating his opponent, and he was scorned for it. But why at this moment?

After securing an NFC championship, Sherman should have been celebrating with his team. Instead, he chose to say something to Crabtree first, which he clearly, and justifiably, felt was Sherman’s way of mocking him.

In his postgame interview, Sherman made no mention of his team. There was no generic, “we made it here as a team, this took a team effort.” All we heard from Sherman was how he was the best corner in the league, how no one should ever talk about him. It was the Richard Sherman show, and the young corner has shown in the past how prone he is to this tendency.

In an interview with Skip Bayless in March, Sherman told Bayless he was “better than him at life,” citing his all-pro NFL selection and Stanford education as reasons for this.

Yes, Richard Sherman is both an intelligent and a talented football player. He has surmounted incredible obstacles to make it to this level. He cares about his background, and he gives back to his community. Nobody can ever take any of that away from him. It is the “me-first” mentality, which has become so evident this week, that has gotten Richard Sherman into this mess.

I realize that writing a column like this only magnifies the problem. Talking about, writing about and listening to Richard Sherman will only serve to stroke his ego more. The sad truth about the professional sports world is that it is an egotistical one, and we as sports fans add fuel to the fire when we put these athletes on a pedestal. Sometimes, it is difficult for a 25-year old like Richard Sherman to stand on that pedestal without it crumbling from beneath him.

The world of politics is the same, if not worse. When constantly in the limelight, it is hard for a politician to disconnect his or her ego from a constituency that both relies on and scrutinizes every move. Amid this scandal, Christie was caught defending himself — a natural human reaction — but one that can only bring more unwanted attention to a politician. In the end, Christie’s goal should be to protect his constituency, not his own image.

Because people like Christie and Sherman are forced to speak out, their voices are heard the loudest. As a Stanford graduate playing in the NFL, Sherman has the perfect opportunity to use that voice to become a role model for aspiring athletes. He can only do this by caring less about himself and by overlooking people’s doubts about his success.

As sports fans, we need to stop encouraging the Richard Shermans of the professional sports world and start listening to other voices; even voices that are not speaking English. Tanaka just signed the fifth-highest contract for a pitcher in MLB history, without even throwing a pitch in the MLB. But in his first press conference, Tanaka said this through a translator: “I’m going there to win the World Series.” Not to win the Cy Young or to become the best Japanese-born pitcher in the game, but to win the World Series with his team. It is not just the wealthy athletes that we should listen to. Blue Jays’ infielder Munenori Kawasaki made $625,000 in 2013 and was never able to secure a steady starting role. But in a post-game interview after a walk-off hit, Kawasaki pulled out a slip of paper and, in broken English with a smile that lit up the stadium, recited the words, “My teammates gave me an opportunity, so I wanted to do something about it.”

It seems that some professional athletes lose sight of the fact that their fame and success is complemented, if not necessitated, by their teammates. Richard Sherman may have realized this after the fact, but it was his initial, gut reaction that showed his true self-centeredness. It is important that we start listening to the voices of athletes like Tanaka and Kawasaki, because they are making themselves heard in a way that is infinitely more dignified.