By Tim Baffoe-
(CBS) — Yo, microphone check one, two, what is this?
The five-foot assassin with the roughneck business
I float like gravity, never had a cavity
Got more rhymes than the Winans got family
No need to sweat Arsenio to gain some type of fame
No shame in my game cause I’ll always be the same
Styles upon styles upon styles is what I have
You wanna diss the Phifer but you still don’t know the half
I sport New Balance sneakers to avoid a narrow path
Mess around with this you catch a size eight up your ___
I never half step cause I’m not a half stepper
Drink a lot of soda so they call me Dr. Pepper
Refuse to compete with BS competition
Your name ain’t Special Ed so won’t you seckle with the mission
I never walk the street thinking it’s all about me
Even though deep in my heart, it really could be
I just try my best to like go all out
Some might even say yo shorty black you’re buggin’ out
So I’m listening to A Tribe Called Quest’s “Buggin’ Out” yesterday, and what I think I enjoy most about the song is how it begins with a smooth yet ominous plucking of a stand up bass, an instrument of refine and regality in this musical world of synth and saccharine electronics. Then, like a sledgehammer, Phife Dawg busts into the opening lyrics along with startling percussion, popping the listeners eyes open from that bass tranquility, bugging them out even. Fans of Tribe appreciate the innovation, the unconventionality, and the outright brilliance of the group’s musical and lyrical choices, the latter evidenced in those opening lines by Phife in which he lays out a résumé of sorts while qualifying himself with a bit of humility.
Those who aren’t fans of Tribe would likely hear this as “noise,” both the music and the lyrics, being put off by the cacophony of startling drums and words and likely see Phife as full of himself and “typical” of a culture (to use some loaded language). The smartness of it all is off-putting, uncomfortable, slightly frightening.
I couldn’t help but apply this song to the story of Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman. Much has been said of Sherman since his post-game interview with Erin Andrews following Sunday’s victory over the San Francisco 49ers that put Seattle in the Super Bowl. Screaming and staring directly into the viewer’s eyes (soul) immediately after a satisfying football-watching experience was off-putting, uncomfortable, slightly frightening.
Negative response ensued because delicate sensibilities were messed with. The sanctity of the on-field post-game interview had been tainted. How dare Sherman make us sit up straight and make our eyes bug out while watching his do the same.
Was much of the backlash toward Sherman racially motivated? Of course, and it would be naïve and destructive to pretend such was not the case. Read Greg Howard’s excellent take on this specific layer of the matter. It’s also not fair to chalk up every fussy response to racism—some people merely don’t like hearing people unexpectedly yell on TV. Makes them uncomfortable, put off, maybe even a bit frightened.
You know what else has the same effect I’ve noticed? Smart athletes. And Richard Sherman is a very smart person who is also an athlete.
Sherman’s intelligence frightens people. The one thing we’ve traditionally had over athletes is that, despite their talent and money and celebrity, we would always be allowed to feel smarter than them. They’re jocks, so they’re supposed to be dumb enough for us to still salvage some superiority over them and feel good about ourselves without completely devoting ourselves to a completely superior false idol.
But Sherman blows all that to pieces. He’s a guy who parlayed a 4.2 GPA in high school into a degree from Stanford and the beginning of a Master’s (and somebody asininely gave credence to stupid people and begged the question of whether he’s embarrassing his school). He can talk about game play and game film as well if not better than any player in the league. He can write, and even do so the morning after an infamous interview. He takes no guff from spewers of BS. He is acutely self-aware and understands the marketing of his brand, and that was very much in his mind as he twisted Andrews’ question into a classic pro wrestling heel turn.
And maybe, just maybe he made the next two weeks more about him than, say, his young quarterback facing enormous pressure to play well versus the one of the best to ever play the position. Nah, don’t consider that. It’s more comfortable to label him has having no “class”—a highly subjective word that when applied to athletes is code for “not being a character from a Matt Christopher novel that gives me the warm and fuzzy narrative I so sadly crave in my sports.”
Richard Sherman does not fit the stereotype we have of a football player, and that’s off-putting, uncomfortable, and maybe a tad frightening. He’s more successful personally and professionally than 99% of people, and damn if his lack of humility doesn’t bother people. And so a man impressively mixing raw emotion with perhaps a dash of calculated intelligence in a post-game interview—a genre that is usually painfully mundane and produces almost nothing of substance—gets dumped on. Yes, he should have smiled and fed us platitudes, and we all would have been better people for it, right?
Of course, those who would say that it was no way to behave with adrenaline still pumping and a microphone shoved in his face I guess have never seen the majority of NFL Films. Or is it only OK to scream and trash talk and even swear (which Sherman did not do) when it’s a documentary mic at a distance?
There is this large blob of humanity that is the intellectual average. The blob is neither the minority of the criminally stupid nor the small amount of especially creative thinkers, the scary “different” among us. That blob has long enjoyed having that one advantage over athletes—its average intelligence that allows it to work a decent job and provide for a family but otherwise contribute nothing special to world, to never really think outside the box but instead display the ability to memorize and regurgitate better than the jock-type. The blob has also long hated (see: feared) the group of intelligent people. Smart people hold power, so they must be ridiculed and labeled “nerds” and “weirdos” to save the ego of the blob.
When an athlete flips the expectancy on its head and goes from the sliver of lack of intelligence to the opposite, the very smart (and does so with dreadlocks), well that becomes something the blob just can’t deal with. So “classless” and “thug” and much worse get thrown at this different person in the hopes of taking him down a peg.
The worst kind of stupidity is that which fears and rejects intelligence out of pure uncomfortability. Most people don’t like when the gladiators become self-aware. They prefer their athletes as Tennyson wrote (though they have no idea who Tennyson is probably): “Theirs not to reason why,/ Theirs but to do and die…”
And Richard Sherman is intelligent and, thus, different. And different is scary. He’s a member of a quiet revolution taking place in sports—that of the non-jock athlete. The physically and mentally superior person. We see it with thinker who happens to be a pitcher Brandon McCarthy and a growing number of baseball players not only embracing but preaching the New School of baseball that is those scary sabermetrics that threaten to destroy the Rockwellian image of the game held so dear by the blob. We take a very bright young basketball player and happily cut him down because of a mental illness—now he ain’t so special. We demonize it in a hard-working, very bright Vanderbilt-educated Chicago Bears quarterback who doesn’t suffer fools and doesn’t robotically smile on cue.
It’s a layered subconscious uncomfortability with athletes who speak their minds. No, son, entertain us and go back in your cage. Don’t force us to think. We don’t want logos seeping into our pathos of sports. Keep ethics and math and brain-using gobbledygook out of our yelling at our TVs. Don’t have the TVs yell back at us. And if you do get out of line, son, hopefully there’s some barbaric self-policing to take care of you. Ah, that feels better.
These next two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl will be filled with various forced narratives and weakly written tripe as they are every year—the garbage pondering of Peyton Manning’s legacy, how likable Russell Wilson is, what’s up with this dude they call Pot Roast?—and Richard Sherman provides a huge gift for sportswriters who struggle annually to fill column space with something interesting and Super Bowl-related.
And as more and more is written about Sherman between now and the big game, some will appreciate Sherman’s unconventionality and intelligence. Most, though, will only see an assassin of comfortability with the roughneck business, their eyes bugging out at this different, off-putting, kind of scary man.