As a sports fan, I loved the 49ers/Seahawks game. Two teams who have become the biggest of rivals over the past few years who play with unencumbered fierceness and passion. Two teams so equally matched and competitive. Also two teams with unique and flamboyant personalities. So, full disclosure… when Richard Sherman got on TV after the game and went on a little tirade, it actually made me laugh. I thought it was funny. It just didn’t bother me all that much. Apparently, many disagreed and took their opinions to social media. I wasn’t too surprised by this, but what people said about Sherman did surprise me a little.
I witnessed people I respect and many sports fans resort to character slurs and condemnations. I heard personal attacks on Sherman. I was a bit taken back.
But I paused and thought: maybe it’s just me. Maybe I am the crazy one for not attacking Sherman for his display. I let what I saw and heard simmer for a while before engaging the issue. I wanted to see where people’s heads were at first. After all, I have a pretty checkered history of liking sports’ “bad” boys myself and acknowledge I might be biased. And I am also a 20-year sports fan and have seen SO much undesirable behavior and words from athletes that I was thinking maybe I have simply built up a tolerance to it all. I mean my favorite sports player in the 90’s (along with millions of other Americans), Michael Jordan, is considered the worst trash talker in the history of the NBA by his peers. From reports from people who played against him, he literally talked trash all the time. All. The. Time. But trash talking didn’t start or end with MJ – we all know that Bo Jackson knows everything from baseball to football and everything in between. Usain Bolt is fast and is proud of it. Reggie Miller knows when you are choking and makes sure you know it too. Jim McMahon is wonderful, just ask him. Muhammad Ali didn’t think too highly of his opponents – to name a few high-profile examples. I have seen self-glorifying sports ads on TV countless times and have watched taunting take all forms possible on and off the field. So what was different this time to invoke so many responses? That is what I am trying to figure out. Here was my thought process….
During the Panthers/49ers game, Anquan Boldin couldn’t stop talking trash and glorifying his play. He did this continually throughout the game, barking and yelping after every big catch – so much so that it led commentator Troy Aikman to specifically point it out on air. Aikman went on to acknowledge, on national TV in front of everyone, that every 49ers game he did this season included Boldin acting this way and that something needs to change. Yet I did not see even ONE person blast Anquan Boldin’s character on social media. Not one.
Likewise, 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick (who is also a devout and authentic follower of Jesus), is known for his own form of self-glorification when he kisses his bicep after every TD run. But he took it one step further in the same 49ers/Panthers game. After scoring a huge TV, Kaepernick decided to perform Cam Newton’s (the opposing QB’s) TD celebration (the Superman) before proceeding to do his normal TD celebration of the bicep kiss (clearly showing up and taunting the opposing QB). Guess how many people took Kaepernick to task on social media? You guessed it. Zero.
In fact, San Francisco led the league in unsportsmanlike conduct penalties in 2013. So there is that.
Some might contend, as I overheard, that what Sherman did and does do is much different than everyone else. But is it really? Is there really much difference between a guy who makes a Super Bowl saving play who then gets on the mic and says “he is the best” and a guy who uses his opponents TD celebration and then kisses his biceps after a TD? Or a guy who needs to dance, scream, and shout at opposing players every time he gets a first down? Or a coach who hates another coach so much he wont shake his hand after a game? I personally don’t think so.
But let’s continue to be clear here. I am only bringing up two recent displays of self-glorification and/or taunting in sports. There are literally countless others. Thousands of examples. Tens of thousands. Even from some of my favorite players. Baseball players watching their HR’s, defensive backs dancing their way to the end zone after a pick, defensive lineman sacking a QB and dancing around like a kid, hockey players resorting to brawling, basketball players adding some shirt snaps after making a 3-pointer or a sick dunk, a coach unwilling to shake the hand of an opposing coach after a loss… but why stick to just players and coaches? How about fans that applaud and cheer when an opposing player lies in agony on the turf, or when they boo when an opposing player is slow to get off the field after an injury, or fans who assassinate the character of players they don’t even know – in public. Unsportsmanlike conduct is all around us.
But, what is the proper response – especially for Christians? This is what I think.
Don’t attack the person. When did it become ok to blast people’s character, their identity, on social media? What happened to “hate the sin, love the sinner”? Instead of remarking about how Sherman messed up, I heard strong and condemning adjectives describing who he is as a person. I am so thankful that every time I mess up (which is of course routinely) that I am not defined by those actions and then talked about on Twitter. If we consistently talked about others the way some folks talked about Sherman, we would have a non-stop cycle of judgment. You are bigger than your mistakes, even character flaws (real or perceived) – Gospel 101.
Go with grace. Grace is hard, isn’t it? It is for me. I would much rather draw (subjective) lines in the sand, point out flaws of others instead of my own, and to draw character conclusions about people if I think they deserve it. However, grace does not do that. One of the biggest lessons I have been learning over the past several years (particularly by living overseas and in other cultures) is that none of us is any better than anyone else. We are all the same. Different vices? Sure. Different struggles? You bet. Different sin issues on display? Of course. But the human condition is the same for all of us – we all war against ourselves and the flesh. So what gives me moral high ground to attack someone else’s character while forgetting my own lack of character? The answer is there is none. We leave Sherman alone (in terms of judging his character) because we need grace just as much as he does. Believe me, I am still learning this truth too.
One of my friends posted a response by Tony Dungy regarding Sherman. To me, it was a much better example of grace and addressing the behavior instead of attacking character. Dungy never called Sherman names or made broad generalizations about who he is. He only said he wouldn’t himself do something like that and addressed his actions – not his identity. He even spoke with a posture of kindness and gentleness.
Sherman’s teammate and follower of Jesus, Russell Wilson, took a similar road as Dungy and instead of focusing on how Sherman messed up and attack his character – talked about positives and moving forward and that Sherman simply “made a mistake.”
Here is to grace. May we know and embrace more – myself included!