Defining Moments: How Language Shapes Our Lives

Richard Sherman is a poor communicator

January 22, 2014 

Anyone who watched the end of this week’s NFC Championship Game saw it — and heard it. Richard Sherman, the Seattle Seahawks’ star cornerback, did what he does best (and as good as he is on the field, that’s not playing football): He embarrassed himself.

Sherman had just knocked the football away from San Francisco receiver Michael Crabtree and into the arms of a waiting teammate to clinch a trip to the Super Bowl. No doubt about it: It was an excellent play.

But Sherman couldn’t resist gloating: “I’m the best in the game. When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that’s the result you’re going to get.” Then he turned toward the San Francisco bench and made a choking gesture toward 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

What was Sherman thinking?

It’s impossible to get inside his head, but there’s obviously a brain in there. He boasted (the word seems highly appropriate here) a 4.1 grade point average in high school, and he graduated from Stanford with a degree in communications. Yes, communications. So he should know how to, well, you know, communicate.

But here’s one lesson he apparently didn’t learn at Stanford: When you denigrate your opponent, you diminish your own accomplishments. If Crabtree’s a “sorry” receiver, and Kaepernick’s a choker, what does that say about Sherman’s ability? Not a whole lot. Presumably, any barely competent cornerback could have done the same thing in the same situation.

If Sherman’s trying to enhance his reputation, he’s going about it all wrong.

He’s not even particularly original. He told Sports Illustrated in July that he wanted to be like Muhammad Ali, the three-time heavyweight boxing champion. Ali, he said, “created a persona” and “understood how to manipulate the world.”

Here’s another lesson Sherman must have missed: If you’re trying to manipulate people, it’s not a very good idea to announce it. Most folks don’t take too kindly to the idea of being manipulated, and if you tell them that’s what you’re doing, you’re not likely to be too successful.

Ali is his role model? Hmmm. I don’t recall Ali telling George Foreman before knocking him out in 1974, “Oh, by the way, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. I plan to manipulate you by leaning on the ropes until you get so tired from hitting me that you’ll drop your guard. Then, I’ll flatten you.”

Lesson No. 3: If you want to be like Ali, you need to be a little more creative. A lot of people didn’t like the champ’s braggadocio, but at least he tempered it with a sense of humor. One example: “I done wrestled with an alligator; I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning; thrown thunder in jail. Only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick. I’m so mean I make medicine sick.”

Sherman’s trash talk stands up to Ali’s rhymes about as well as a second-grader’s essay stands up to Shakespeare. You’ve got a communications degree from one of the nation’s elite universities, and the best you can do is call your opponent a “sorry receiver”? I don’t know whether that says more about Sherman or about Stanford’s communications department.

Still, maybe we should give Sherman credit. At least he’s trying … to manipulate people. He implied as much himself.

That means he had zero credibility when he tried to protest that his postgame rant was “adrenaline talking.”

Nope, that doesn’t fly. He’s acted the same way in studio interviews, too. He once told an interviewer during an appearance on ESPN: “I’m intelligent enough and capable enough to understand that you are (an) ignorant, pompous, egotistical cretin.” He also declared, “I’m better at life than you.”

Why is it so important that Sherman prove he’s better than some TV journalist? Maybe because he doesn’t really think he is. Perhaps the difference between Richard Sherman and Muhammad Ali goes beyond the arena of eloquence and into the realm of psychology: Maybe Sherman has to convince everyone else he’s the greatest because, deep down, no matter what his accomplishments, he still doesn’t believe it himself.

Like him or not, Ali was the real thing — in the ring and out. He was an original. Sherman’s a force to be reckoned with on the field, but as a communicator, he’s just a poor imitation.

Note: A day after making his remarks about Crabtree, Sherman sent a text message to ESPN’s Ed Werder in which he “apologized for attacking an individual.” Michael Crabtree was the one due an apology, but he wasn’t even mentioned by name in Sherman’s text. ESPN officials probably wondered why Sherman was apologizing to them, since the cable network has likely seen a boost in its ratings as a result of his rant.

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