Straight Out of Compton: The Education of Richard Sherman

April 3, 2014

Richard Sherman ignited a national conversation when, posting on the Sports Illustrated MMQB blog, he defended homeboy DeSean Jackson and delivered a cornerback smackdown to the Philadelphia Eagles organization for releasing Jackson because of alleged ties to Los Angeles gang members. Before addressing larger issues Sherman spotlights, let’s clear out the underbrush.

First, the Eagles organization has not disclosed the basis for the decision to release DeSean Jackson. While it is true that a South Jersey newspaper revealed some of Jackson’s less savory hometown connections, his departure from the team may have been over-determined, in that many partial explanations exist for this decision to part ways, and none appears to take primacy over any of the others. The need to pay Jackson handsomely going forward was clearly an issue — money is never not an issue in the NFL. But while no one disputes Jackson’s prodigious gifts as a receiver, he also was allegedly not beloved in the Eagles locker room and was widely viewed as a player who cared more about himself than his teammates. Jackson and head coach Chip Kelly apparently did not connect personally, and Jackson’s fit within Kelly’s up-tempo offensive scheme remains unclear.

Second, in the absence of any way to know for sure (over-determination and obfuscation go hand in hand), we can assume that Jackson’s somewhat adolescent stylings and dubious associations simplified the decision of the Eagles to let him go. Putting aside a larger conversation about the Hobbesian state of nature inhabited by professional football players (a war of all against all, continual fear of violent death, the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short), teams part company every year with players like Jackson, who are in the prime of their career, and generally no one suffers inordinately on behalf of the departed player.

With a typically rear-view mirror approach to decision-making, however, the Eagles seem to have filtered DeSean Jackson’s future with the team through the lens of Aaron Hernandez, and if the gang affiliations mattered, it was probably because the team was going to make absolutely sure no one could accuse them of not properly acting on the warning signs. In other words, the Eagles hedged pretty radically toward protecting their image, without perhaps much regard for the accurate interpretation of these gang-banging “warning signs”, and therefore (probably too willingly) accepted the risk they might lose a terrific player, to a team in their own division (the Redskins), who would have every incentive, twice each season, to torch the organization that spurned him.

Third, the Eagles surely did not count on Richard Sherman sabotaging their desire to keep this story a blip in the news cycle. We can all admire Derrick Ward’s remarkable Twitter rant about the smug, rampant ignorance of the ESPN corporate drones smogging up the airwaves with empty, self-important chatter about DeSean Jackson’s gang affiliations and character. However, no one these days owns Richard Sherman’s remarkable ability to claim the attention of the nation. While Sherman’s candor surfaces some ugly responses, the ugliness actually signals the value and importance of his message, which is both more nuanced and more global than many of those most irked by him realize. And in the reaction to his MMQB post, the argument almost (but never quite) rose above the stew of hostile bile typically stirred up by stories involving sports and race.

Much has been made of parallel DeSean Jackson — Riley Cooper storylines. Talented Eagles wide receivers born within a year of each other. One black, the other white. One rises out of South Central Los Angeles and consorts with Snoop Dogg. The other hails from Florida and favors Kenny Chesney. The Eagles discipline one for gay slurs, the other for racial slurs. The Eagles sign the white athlete to a long-term contract and release the black athlete. Of course, Richard Sherman can’t resist tapping the Shakespearean dynamics of these twinned storylines — Othello pitted against Iago. However, it would be a mistake to reduce his post to a statement of racial solidarity with his Compton Little League bro.

Richard Sherman is not about “Can’t we all get along?” He is about “Can’t we all understand each other.” Richard Sherman, in pretty much everything he’s said on-air and written online, is about explaining to Americans what it means to grow up in a poor, racially isolated, gang-infested, geographically bleak and endless community like South Central Los Angeles. He is about humanizing inner-city African-Americans and in the process building a foundation for a conversation about race, poverty, inequality, and ignorance that can elevate all of us to a higher plane of existence, simply because we do better understand each other and do better appreciate our common humanity and shared national identity.

In the DeSean Jackson post, Richard Sherman is not passing judgment on DeSean Jackson. He is not passing judgment on LA gangsters. He really is not even passing judgment on Riley Cooper. What Richard Sherman in instead doing is bringing us inside his community, and (as in the movie Pleasantville) suffusing with light and color people normally viewed in black and white. He introduces us to his parents, who both must work late, and introduces us to Jackson’s father, who drives 30 minutes across town to retrieve elementary school Richard so he can play Little League baseball with his friend DeSean. He helps us to appreciate what it may have meant for DeSean Jackson to lose his father to cancer, and how he might not care to walk away from people, unsavory or not, who supported him in dark times.

What Richard Sherman discloses to us is pretty quotidian stuff — mundane details in the lives of normal (if exceptionally athletic) kids trying to reach adulthood under more difficult circumstances than most of us will ever experience. But quotidian is the point. Because quotidian is real. Quotidian is human. Quotidian is what we can all understand without too much trouble. And what Richard Sherman tries to make clear in his DeSean Jackson post, is that we, none of us, can fully sequester our past from our present, our origins from our destiny, our consciousness and our conscience from the people who raised us up and who continue to remind us of the meaning of life in our own specific communities.

These fellow citizens, of Watts or Compton or Brentwood or Beverly Hills, of neighborhoods poor and rich, black and white, all walk through light and shadow, and certainly some live more in shadow, or perhaps fully in shadow. But arising from the same set of circumstances and bound together by the same history and shared experiences, none of us who live in the light (as Richard Sherman and DeSean Jackson surely do most of the time) can turn away from those who still inhabit a darkness we remember well.