By Jamie Wilson
Jamie Wilson is a community-college English instructor, high-school pole vaulting coach, and a die-hard Seahawks fan. He earned an MFA in creative writing in 2012 and is currently hard at work on a collection of short stories.
Early last week, I lost the better part of a day reading everything I could find related to Richard Sherman post-game interview controversy. What I found surprised me. Sherman’s on-air rant was sparking an intelligent conversation about the culture of the game, its fans, and its players.
I made a snap decision: I assigned an article on Sherman in my English 101 classes, and dedicated all day Friday to discussing it.
I began class with a simple question: Why did Sherman behave the way he did, and why had so many people responded with such disgust and outright hatred?
In Sherman’s case, part of the answer was obvious. Students were quick to point out that Sherman is a football player. He had just made the play of his life and he was pumped up and excited. He had a special dislike for the San Francisco 49ers, their coach Jim Harbaugh, and their “mediocre” receiver, Michael Crabtree.
But these details seemed to fall short of fully answering the question. We needed to go deeper.
It seemed impossible to fully answer this question without acknowledging the brutal nature of the sport. Football is inherently violent. And this is why we love it. This, along with its grace, athleticism and strategic brilliance, is why more people gather around to watch the Super Bowl every year than any other televised event. The sport awakens something primal and thrilling in our nature. Like the gladiator games of old, we love to watch immensely powerful men tear each other’s heads off. Enlarge this combat into a tactical battle, and we are even more thrilled.
But what about the long-term consequences of this kind of violent spectacle? What about all the violence that spills from the football field? What about Aaron Hernandez and Jovan Belcher, the Chiefs linebacker who killed his girlfriend and then drove to the Chiefs facility to kill himself? What about the long-term brain damage, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) that might be linked to all of this? Retired football players like Junior Seau, Mike Webster, and dozens of others are losing their minds in their 40s and 50s. They’re getting depressed, confused and angry, and they’re taking their own lives. This disease isn’t confined to NFL players; it has been found in high-school and college players as well.
Translation? Football can actually be lethal. Knowing this, how can we still in good conscience enjoy it?
The answer: We try not to know it. We play dumb, pretend the brutality and its long-term consequences don’t exist. We cultivate a comfortable state of ignorance and denial.
What Sherman did wrong is he expressed this violence in a taboo way, with his helmet off and his eyes fixed on the camera. He glared into the living rooms of football fans all over the country and all over the world. He made too personal of a connection with his viewers. He brought the reality of football and its impact on real people, into too sharp a focus. He forced people to look at something brutally ugly in him, in the game, and in themselves. He reached through the TV screen and shattered the comfortable illusions of his audience. He made them feel confused, ashamed and disgusted.
This is a surefire way to get people enraged.
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