Fisher: Sherman redefines traditional sports boundaries

Jan. 21, 2014, 10:07 p.m.

“To those who would call me a thug or worse because I show passion on a football field — don’t judge a person’s character by what they do between the lines. Judge a man by what he does off the field, what he does for his community, what he does for his family.”

Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman ’10 wrote these words in response to his now-famous postgame interview with Fox’s Erin Andrews after the NFC Championship game Sunday. I’ve been fixated on them, more than the interview itself, ever since.

Sherman has a point. There is sufficient precedent that America can separate a player’s on-field and off-field actions when it judges character. Take Brian Dawkins, for example.

Dawkins was a nine-time Pro-Bowl safety for the Philadelphia Eagles and Denver Broncos. During that time, Dawkins developed a reputation for being a very dirty player. One of his most infamous plays, a late hit that ended Giants wide receiver Ike Hilliard’s 2002 season, drew a $50,000 fine 10 years ago, well before player safety became a priority.

But off the field, Dawkins was — and is — a model citizen. As a result, you never hear Dawkins called a “thug” — except maybe by Giants or Cowboys fans.

Switching between these personas is not an easy task. It is remarkably close to controlled schizophrenia. Dawkins created an alter ego, which he called “Weapon X,” to help with this transition. On the field, Brian Dawkins is Weapon X, a creature willing to sacrifice blood, sweat and tears to deliver pain to opposing receivers. Off the field, Brian Dawkins is Brian Dawkins, a loving father, husband and charitable member of his community.

Another player from Dawkins’ era who was known for his dirty play is Cincinnati Bengals linebacker James Harrison. In nine seasons with the Steelers, Harrison went to five Pro Bowls. He also picked up fines totaling six figures for dirty hits.

Harrison was always defiant in the face of these fines. Harrison was never apologetic — he often proclaimed that he would never change his style, only increasing the fine totals levied on him by the NFL. Harrison, many fans would say, was a thug.

Richard Sherman is somewhere between these two, and that is what makes him such an interesting case. Part dominant cornerback, part WWE wrestler and part Stephen Colbert, Sherman’s character will never fully be understood by those of us who do not know him personally. That doesn’t mean we can’t try.

From my viewpoint, it doesn’t seem like Sherman is doing anything radically different than people like Dawkins. On the football field, he is about as cocky as they come. Far away from the football field, he is, by all accounts, a quality human being.

What is different about Sherman is that he has moved the boundary between these two realms. For Dawkins, the boundary was simply his helmet. With a helmet on, Dawkins was Weapon X, but as soon as he took his helmet off, he went back to being Dawkins. So by the time postgame handshakes, interviews and press conferences began, Dawkins was back to his normal self, ready to warm fan’s hearts.

Sherman is much more like Colbert. In his entire football sphere, from midweek media sessions through postgame interviews, he is in character. You have to get him far away from the field to see the other Sherman.

This is radically different than everything else we see in sports, and, unsurprisingly, America responded with a corresponding collective shock.

But will that shock be the permanent response if Sherman has other NFL players join him? I really don’t know. Critics, I’m sure, would respond that the NFL had become too much like professional wrestling, and that players like Sherman were degrading the integrity of the game. To be fair, they might be right—but they might also be missing out on some great entertainment.

In the new world where Twitter and the non-stop media cycle have taken over our lives, it only seems natural that people like Sherman appear. Sure, some athletes will take advantage of their increased face time with fans to promote their off-field endeavors. But shouldn’t there also be opportunities for athletes to promote their on-field personas 24/7?

The news cycle isn’t going to stop, and people like Sherman could actually keep conversations from getting painfully stale. I, for one, think that world sounds a lot more fun.

Sam Fisher is sick of the bombardment of silly arguments surrounding Richard Sherman, so he chose to take a different approach . Let him know if he hit or missed the mark at safisher ‘at’ and follow him on Twitter @SamFisher908.

Sam Fisher is the managing editor of sports for The Stanford Daily's Vol. 244. Sam also does play-by-play for KZSU's coverage of Stanford football, Stanford baseball and Stanford women's basketball. In 2013, Sam co-authored "Rags to Roses: The Rise of Stanford Football," with Joseph Beyda and George Chen.

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