By now you have probably seen Richard Sherman’s postgame interview, shot seconds after he tipped an end zone pass to his teammate and won the NFC championship for the Seattle Seahawks. Due to my jet-setter lifestyle, I heard about this video for days before I actually saw it, and the real thing was kind of anticlimactic. Sherman has a rad voice—presumably from yelling on football fields for ten years straight—and he criticizes Michael Crabtree, whom he is rumored to dislike. Mostly, he declares himself the best cornerback in the game. It’s kind of unseemly and kind of awesome, as human beings in celebration are. It also led a bunch of commenters to call him a thug. On Thursday, Sherman opined that “thug” is an acceptable way of calling a black man the n-word.
Probably, he knows more about uses of the word “thug” than we do. Sherman grew up in Compton, where he earned a 4.2 GPA and a football scholarship to Stanford. He got a 3.9 at Stanford and played very well at cornerback, although he was drafted for the NFL later than he expected to be. If the Times profile is to be believed, he seems like an exceptionally driven individual who is also a frightening dude from a famous ghetto. And then, when he won the NFC championship, he used slang and his scary voice to say how great at football he was.
A lot of people on Twitter called him the n-word, but a lot more people on actual news outlets called him a thug. I was skeptical of this meta-story at first, since Googling “richard sherman thug” seemed to turn up only stories about how he didn’t want people to call him that. But Deadspin found that the word “thug” was said on television 625 times the day after the game—the highest frequency in over three years. The second-highest was when John Kerry used “thug” to describe Bashar al-Assad.
If we disregard the explanation that Sherman—who has no criminal record and appears to be a model of discipline, if not sportsmanship—really is a thug, then it does seem that white people are using the word as retaliation for, as he put it, “talking loudly, talking like I’m not supposed to.”
Anyone who has sat through the “there are black people and there are [n-words]” argument will recognize this similarity of usage. There are good African-Americans like the president and Neil deGrasse Tyson, and then there are thugs like Richard Sherman. Here’s where America is in racism right now: we will not hold blackness against you simply because you play football,* provided you behave in a sportsmanlike (read: humble) manner. But if you screw up or become arrogant, your race will immediately become a component of your arrogant screwing up.
Basically, white culture has progressed to the point where we can accept well-behaved, normal black people. Richard Sherman’s rad GPA is an argument against his being a thug but not a testament to how smart he is—unlike Tim Tebow’s 3.5. Babe Ruth pointing over the outfield fence or Chael Sonnen relentlessly talking shit is an expression of mastery or determination, but a black man crowing is a sad expression of thug culture.
Incidentally, Deadspin’s 625-thug count did not include this commercial:
I’m sure the good people at Beats by Dre (several nerds, Dre, conspicuous absence of MC Ren) were not disappointed when Sherman delivered his postgame rant on the same day this commercial premiered. Its central message is that you can listen to music to drown out stupid assholes, which is surely one of music’s best qualities. But the turning point in the setup to that message is when an unseen reporter asks Sherman about his reputation as a thug.
Sherman acts pretty hard in order to convey that he does not like that question. He wishes the thug thing would just go away. Except this is a commercial shot with Sherman’s active participation—if “thug” really bothered him to the point that he would rather not hear it, why would it be in there at all?
At the risk of reading too much into a headphones commercial, this is what we mean when we say that African American culture is oppositional. Historically, to be a black person in the United States is to define yourself in opposition to a mainstream culture that was once openly and is now subtly against you. That means disliking the word “thug,” but it also means that your opposition to that word becomes part of your identity.
Clearly, Sherman is motivated by conflict. Probably, he got such good grades and worked so hard in football in part because he grew up in Compton; one suspects that suburban Richard Sherman might have settled for a 3.5. Maybe part of the problem with “thug” is that you can push against it so hard that it starts to penetrate your skin. You get called a thug enough, and you want to be one on your own terms. You reclaim it. In that way, “thug” is not completely different from the n-word, either.