In my last post, I discussed the unfortunate description of “vernacular spin” by writer and comedian Neal Brennan, and how it related to the use of African American Vernacular English (AAVE).
What does this have to do with Richard Sherman? Well, Sherman is now famous–or perhaps I should say more famous–for giving a loud, boisterous interview of sorts with a sideline reporter immediately after winning the NFC Championship game this past Sunday:
– [Sherman:] “Well, 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.”
– [Andrews:] Who was talking about you?
– [Sherman:]“Crabtree. Don’t you open your mouth about the best. Or I’m gonna shut it for you real quick. L-O-B.” [L-O-B stands for “Legion of Boom”, the nickname for the Seahawks’ defense.]
There was much delight and handwringing over this short display of athletic confidence, which Sherman himself address, quite adroitly, in this column for Sports Illustrated. The word “thug” was passed around, his Q and A called a “rant,” the by-now obligatory racist tweets were tweeted. And yet he never threatened anyone (at least not in matters off-field) or, as many have pointed out, cursed. Some claimed sideline reporter Erin Andrews looked “frightened,” which doesn’t strike me as true; she looked surprised at the emotional display and managed a short follow up before the whole thing ended. And, anyway, Sherman never looked at her while shouting his piece; he stared at the camera instead. I can’t help but wonder why such a moment stirred so many people up in this way. The obvious answers about America still being fairly racist, about what Deadspin calls “The Plight of the Conquering Negro,” etc, may suffice. But do we not venerate Muhammad Ali for that very same attitude? The confidence, the smack talk, the refusal to be seen as anything other than the best ever? Don’t we love that about him, all these years after his career ended? In fact, a profile written about him from last year notes that a 12 yer old Sherman watched a documentary about Ali and specifically noticed the persona he built; it would seem, then, that he’s merely emulating an American hero with this attitude and behavior.
Additionally, Sherman was engaging in a Black vernacular tradition known as boasting, something closely related to The Dozens, in which the speaker makes outsized claims about themselves, sometimes in combination with insults to an opponent. (Warning: simplification ahead. The Dozens, in particular, is an exchange of insults back and forth; its most popular incarnation is “yo’ momma” jokes.) Ali himself used to do this with reporters, with opponents, with whomever would take the bait, which was usually everyone because he was so good at it. (There’s a lot to say about Ali’s style of trash talk, which involved rhyming, song, repetition, and a whole host of other AAVE components.) So why are people harshing on Sherman for this relatively mild display of athletic swagger? His short interview certainly marked the debut of a new superstar. I, for one, am really interested to see what he does next.