Football is Different…Admit It

From Richard Sherman to Friday Night Tykes, football shows our best and worst.

Posted Jan 22, 2014

If you base it on Nielsen ratings of the Super Bowl vs. the World Series or the revenue that football makes versus baseball, it appears pretty obvious that football has taken over as America’s game. Don’t feel bad for baseball. It isn’t dying. In fact, it is growing internationally in a way that makes it sustainable even when it isn’t thriving at the rate the NFL is. Yet, football causes cognitive dissonance for us. We love the violence. The thrill of the game. Ignore the injuries that decimate players. Wager hard-earned money on it. Expose our children to concussions for it. And then damn it for its existence. Why? Because football is different and it confuses the hell out of us. 

This past weekend saw the Seattle Seahawks beat the San Francisco 49ers in an amazing game that had all of the thrills one looks for in a highly competitive game. Lead changes and hard hits. Young athletes make impossible plays. Unfortunately, a gruesome knee injury to Navarro Bowman was replayed enough times to make one social media guru liken it to some form of masochistic injury porn. Like we needed to see it enough times to feed our need for violence. Point being, you have two teams of men killing each other on the field and we eat it up. Why do we love football so much? Maybe it is a cathartic release for where our guys (the team we root for) beating the other team, both to a pulp and on the scoreboard, makes us feel more powerful in a world where we are constantly barraged with a depressing news cycle. Terrorism, a horrible economy, famine, dying children, political corruption, spying and invasion of privacy….who in their right mind wouldn’t want to escape? One could argue whether or not reality TV is a moral upgrade to football as a place to feel better, but as a society, we have long turned to sports to make us feel better. To feel powerful. To be affiliated with something dominant; and football may be the best amalgam of war and gladiator-ness. When football season ends, especially for men (yes, I know there are men who don’t like sports and women that are diehard, bloodthirsty pigskin aficionados…just go with the overgeneralization for the point…), the world returns to a higher level of general depression.

And, not to be outdone in a team sport, it is common that a particular player may be a central focus of the game. In Sunday’s game, more attention was given to Richard Sherman’s post-game rant than any of the amazing things that both teams achieved in this contest. Sherman, who many consider to be the best cornerback in the NFL, was interviewed by Erin Andrews moments after his game-winning play where he tipped a pass into the air and it was intercepted by one of his teammates, sealing the victory. 

Yelling at the top of his voice, Sherman decreed, “I’m the best corner in the game. When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that’s the result you gonna get. Don’t you ever talk about me. [...] Don’t you open your mouth about the best or I’m gonna shut it for you real quick.” 

Now let’s set the stage. It turns out that Sherman isn’t a big fan of SF wide receiver Michael Crabtree because of some perceived slight that took place during a charity softball game in the off-season. And Sherman felt that San Francisco’s calling that play with the game on the line was an insult. On the surface, let me say that when you are the best and you know you are the best, you don’t get angry when people don’t think you are the best. Sherman’s reaction was one of immaturity (which he admitted) and insecurity. How good of a player Sherman is, is really not debatable. If he isn’t the best corner in the league, then he is the second best – with Darelle Revis the heir-apparent to the subjective title. But with Revis recovering from an ACL tear, being in a zone-based system and Sherman being better than any cornerback by far in any objective statistical analysis, the argument is a bit of insecure chest-banging.

Muhammad Ali used to announce that he was the Greatest, but it was part of his showmanship and it was done with grace. Sherman’s bombastic tirade was immaturity. But big deal! He is four years into the league. I think it is much preferred for his immaturity to show in a verbal faux pas than a criminal transgression or some other celebrity embarrassment that we see pro athletes sometimes fall into. And, it occurred moments after the game. Sherman, who is clearly intelligent and articulate, explained away most of his behavior in subsequent interviews. But let us remember that he is playing a violent game where he uses his intensity to push him to do things that logic would advise against. Where larger and larger bodies are moving faster and faster causing more and more serious injuries. He harnesses his anger to help him in sports. Truth be told, the best football players are able to do this. He described it as turning a switch on and off. When working with athletes on developing these skills, I prefer the metaphor of a volume dial where you have to adjust the emotion necessary to what helps performance on a given task. Some athletes know this instinctively. Some never learn it and crash and burn. For many, they have been coached up to be drooling, savage killing machines and then sat on the bench for taking an unnecessary roughness penalty. In many sports, but especially football, that intensity is critical for success. The problems are a. there is a fine line. Anger can help your performance up until a point and then cognitive processing, fine motor coordination, problem solving, they all start to tank. So you need to be amped up, but over-arousal hurts performance. And b. the levels of anger that assist in playing football, don’t immediate turn off when the final whistle blows and when they haven’t cooled off, don’t lend themselves well to coherent interviews. Increase anger, insert foot. 

A lot of the criticism that Sherman faced was unfair. Did he look silly? Yeah, I thought so. Why? Because, man, you are one of the best players in the NFL. They threw your way twice the whole game because you’re so good. You don’t have to get so angry about it. But again, this takes maturity and is very difficult moments after the game-ending play. And the response on social media was ridiculous. Let me remind folks that former Rangers pitcher Kenny Rogers assaulted a cameraman during pregame warm-ups in 2005, and granted, there was no Twitter then, but it didn’t get a shred of attention compared to this. Being a pro athlete or any other celebrity means sometimes a microphone gets jammed in your face at the most inopportune time, but the reaction to Rogers was minuscule by comparison. Draw your own conclusions why. 

Unfortunately, some idiots out there could not contain their racism and threw all kinds of judgments Sherman’s way. As a side note, I don’t agree with his conclusion that people use the word “thug” euphemistically as a substitute for the “N” word. I think people think about out-of-control, primitive violence, sometimes with criminal tendencies, when people refer to thugs. And Sherman’s observation that a hockey fight that breaks out before the puck drops is a much better example of thuggery than his dramatic display. Nonetheless, there was some ignorant, and sometimes subtle, racism that permeated some of Sherman’s criticism and it was, in a word, classless. The same way as some Seattle fans threw food at Bowman when he was carted off the field from his gruesome injury was classless, and Sherman appropriately denounced it as such. 

Richard Sherman is a man who was seething with the passion that we glorify in football and then we damn him for acting it out for us. For the psychologists keeping score, it is a classic projective identification. In the minutes, hours and days since “THE INTERVIEW," Sherman has shown himself to be well spoken and self-reflective regarding his behavior and pensive about how others have reacted to him. Not the least of which was his acknowledgement that his actions detracted from the great performance he (which he now magnanimously leaves out) and his teammates achieved on Sunday. 

Oh, but there’s more. I have known and worked with athletes on the relationship between anger and performance in sports for almost twenty years now, and we still don’t want to talk about it. We don’t talk about how athletes are coached. How some parents and coaches are horrible role models for athletes on how to maintain composure and use their emotions to help them achieve their goals. And yet we get annoyed when athletes struggle. 

Which brings me to the furor that has been trending about Friday Night Tykes; a show on the Esquire Channel that highlights the trials and tribulations of youth football in Texas. People have been complaining about the horrors that are depicted in the show: from bullying coaches berating pre-pubescent boys to teaching them to maim their opponents. From using exercise as punishment and ignoring basic safety about tackling technique for concussion prevention to driving kids to vomit and return to play. One writer called it the “most depressing show on television”. Newsflash! What is displayed on this show is happening in every state in the country and it is not limited to football.

If you want to criticize Esquire for glamorizing poor coaching at the expense of children, then also applaud them for raising awareness of it and then look in the mirror and ask yourself what you’re going to do about it. Many coaches do not have appropriate education to coach. Coaches with good reputations can pretty much do whatever they want because the players all want to be a part of the program that will launch them to the NFL. Yes, I have heard coaches of seven year olds say those very words. 

Keep this in perspective. There are thousands of amazing football coaches out there who teach boys to become men. Who don’t just teach the fundamentals of the game, but teach them how to be leaders. How to be a part of a team. To be physically and mentally tough. Coaches who set expectations for how his team should carry themselves. We cannot let bad coaching overshadow the great work that many coaches provide on a voluntary basis; which often is underappreciated. 

That being said, football is a violent game. It always has been. The NCAA was originally formed to try to curb the violence in college football. It is both primitive and sophisticated. It represents an opportunity for dominance and confidence, as well as pain and resilience. It causes us conflict, because it is a reflection of us. It isn’t always a pretty reflection. I am left contemplating if I want my son to play football now that I know so much more of the damage it does to one’s body; not counting the impact inside the cranium. I would challenge you, when you think about football and you have a problem with it, to ask yourself what part of you do you see in football that you love AND can’t stand. Football is different that way.