There's a lot about Richard Sherman that feels contrived. Like a host of brashly great athletes before him, he seems to be self-consciously constructing a public identity that's so outsized and simple it couldn't possibly be real. During his postgame press conference this past Sunday, he twice asked facetious questions about past Seahawks wins with a sort of Bueller? Bueller? Bueller? expression on his face. He once told Skip Bayless "I'm better at life than you," and got into a Twitter beef with Darrelle Revis. On the field, he's talkative and preening. It's not a particularly fresh take on villainy; I'm reminded of Osi Umenyiora quoting lines from Talladega Nights and referring to LeSean McCoy as "she" (because retrograde gender politics are hilarious). The Arrogant Winner isn't a new archetype, but Sherman may be the foremost example in sports right now.
This isn't to get Costasian and characterize Sherman's approach to the game as somehow unholy. A football field should not be a gentlemanly place, what with all the people-smashing going on, and what's appealing about demonstrative athletes is they usually elicit strong feelings one way or another. We either delight in their antics or mutter profanities into our beers about them. Cris Collinsworth mentioned on Sunday night's broadcast that Sherman's self-regard has a certain strategic element as well, in that he feels like his trash talk gives him something to aspire to. His body and mind are motivated by his mouth. This, if you've watched Richard Sherman play, is apparently a very effective self-motivational tool.
The thing about watching Sherman play is that you usually don't see much of him, if you're watching on TV. His job is to make other players -- wide receivers, the odd tight end - invisible, and in doing so, he makes himself invisible as well. Unless you're watching a game in which the color commentator is particularly infatuated with secondary play, you might not hear his name for quarters at a time. Then, all of a sudden, Sherman reminds us he's there. He undercuts a route or knocks the ball off of a receiver's fingertips. He usually milks this moment of notoriety for all it's worth, gesticulating towards one sideline or another, dancing exuberantly. Perhaps when doing your job well means being ignored, and you have an ego that needs to be sated, you celebrate your rare outstanding plays with additional vigor.
Football leaves less room for expression than, say, basketball or soccer, in that outcomes are decided mostly through tactics and execution as opposed to flashes of improvisational genius. There are occasional, glancing moments where a running back moves through a defense like a sheet in the wind, but success is usually about something more concrete and flawless -- a pulling guard demolishing a linebacker, a quarterback fitting the ball into a one-foot window. If you're freelancing, you're either Ed Reed in his prime or about to get yelled at by your position coach. In other words, eccentricity, both in terms of personality and one's style of play, is generally discouraged. The ideal NFL team is an affectless machine. The plan is sound; the players execute the plan; the Lombardi Trophy gets hoisted. I would imagine this is what Bill Belichick dreams about, if I wasn't positive Bill Belichick has trained his mind to dream only of perfect darkness.
This can give football a certain antiseptic feel, only furthered by the fact that the league legislates expressions of joy, like those brought about by the fleeting sensation of invincibility a running back must feel after he breaks four tackles in pursuit of a first down. The boundaries around flamboyance and self-expression seem to creep further inward each successive offseason. You can, as Sidney Rice learned on Sunday night, no longer spin the ball at a defender after a catch or run. There's no reason this action shouldn't be in the game other than that it crosses some arbitrary line between good, clean fun and taunting. The explanation as to why adult men cannot direct some angry-gleeful aggression toward their opponent in the midst of a game that involves beating the hell out of one another, I'm sure, contains words like "decorum" and "unseemly" and is based in a stodgy stupidity with which I don't care to grapple.
Roger Goodell and company have also made a habit of introducing rules -- either because of safety or aesthetic concerns -- that make a defense's job more difficult. You need only glance at the passing totals quarterbacks have accrued over recent years to understand the implications of the various laws against inhibiting receivers mid-route and punishing pass catchers who go over the middle. This makes for more shootouts, which the NFL has decided its fans want, but it also posits defenders as antagonists. They are what stands between the NFL's imagined fan and a 42-35 scoreline. From browsing Twitter on Sunday night, I gleaned that most people weren't enjoying the Seahawks and Niners combining for five points in the first half. Offense wears the white hat in the NFL. Defense, if it doesn't belong to the team you're rooting for, is in some sense contemptible.
Richard Sherman seems to sustain himself on contempt from others. He's evidently fond of Googling himself and/or checking his Twitter mentions because he seems to read and hear most of the criticism that gets thrown his way by crusty shield-defenders and leatherette-faced debate show hacks. He internalizes these frivolous reprimands and, either through self-delusion or a sincere misreading, transforms them into something he can use as motivation. Then he stands up at a press conference and talks about "doubters." Even if this schtick is tiresome, Sherman is a compelling figure in that he is anti-everything: the league, its mores and objectives, his opponents, his critics. He's the type of player the league would run from if he wasn't exceptional.
Watching an athlete succeed in a way that proves a point -- I'm me, and I'm great in my own way -- is something to behold. Defining oneself in opposition to everything that surrounds you is an annoying quality in a person, but interesting and a little bit admirable in a character, which is all athletes are to most of us. It's fitting that Richard Sherman hates Jim Harbaugh, not because of the details of their now-nonexistent relationship, but because Harbaugh is the NFL's paradigmatically authoritarian coach--smart, successful, and endlessly praised, but also a red-faced jerk whose anger could easily be confused with that of an indignant three-year-old. (We can get into why the NFL allows its coaches to act like children, but won't let its players perform certain types of sack dances another time.)
Sherman patted Harbaugh on the butt as he ran off the field on Sunday, having sealed the game for Seattle by picking off Colin Kaepernick in the fourth quarter. He danced with the Seagals on the sideline, and called out the "ignorant idiots" who picked the Seahawks to lose. This is the sort of hate-able stuff Sherman does, not just because he can, but because it's how he wants us to understand him. Say hello to the bad guy.