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From Beast Mode to Least Modest: Muhammad Ali, Marshawn Lynch and Richard Sherman’s brief beef with Jim Moore

Tracing defiance and self-determination in athletes from the Louisville Lip to Marshawn’s media stiff-arm to Sherman’s latest outbursts

San Francisco 49ers v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

It was a Master who advised that we speak little, better still say nothing, unless we are quite sure that what we wish to say is true, kind, and helpful. But how can a poet, whose role is to speak, adhere to this advice?

~ Mary Ruefle, “On Fear”

Tuesday Richard Sherman closed a press assembly by threatening to “ruin” sports radio milquetoast Jim Moore’s career by cancelling his media credentials. Sherman’s comments last week criticizing Seattle Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell for calling a pass play from the 1-yard line had reopened a dialog about the controversial throw at the end of Super Bowl XLIX, about which there is still reasonable dissatisfaction among Seattle fans and within the national football culture. Whether or not Sherman was right to dislike the decision, however, his public and unabashed critique of Bevell and the offense raised new questions about the etiquette of any player (especially a player on the opposite side of the ball) challenging the coaches’ strategies or teammates’ execution. Moore had asked one of those questions.

But though those initial remarks and his refusal to retract them invited first waves of grief against Sherman and concern over its lasting effect on team chemistry, the attack on Moore became like the bobbing bird setting off the flame to spark an even bigger explosion in the movie Darkman.

On ESPN Danny Kanell called Sherman a “hypocrite” who just “likes to hear himself talk” and the Seattle Times’s Larry Stone used the words “dangerous” and “vigilante”. Many who had previously defended Sherman’s prerogative to speak his mind during and after the Thursday Night Football game now found the All-Pro cornerback had gone too far. I saw folks on Field Gulls say Sherman’s exchange with the reporter made him “arrogant”, “sad”, “off base”, an “annoying asshole”, “hurting the team”, “unprofessional”, “childish”, “wrong” and dozens of other bad words. On Deadspin, a commenter called Sherman a “stereotypical dick” and compared him to Shooter McGavin. Of course Sherman still had plenty of steady admirers and those willing to see his side of the matter as a response provoked by a bully (or at least instigating) reporter.

And Sherman indeed may have been wrong. Though he doesn’t necessarily owe any reporter his full cooperation in a line of questioning, he probably at least owes another human being the professional courtesy of not spitefully aiming to ruin his career. Sherman, even, seemed to recognize his error when he later said, “I let it get personal today and I regret that.” But there is a difference between feeling Sherman was wrong and saying Sherman should shut up.

When Muhammad Ali died in June, an article on the Seahawks’ web site revisited how Sherman spoke two years earlier about the way Ali had inspired his approach to speaking in public. “I tried to study his every move, his delivery,” Sherman said. “He had that much influence on me.”

Most people probably link Sherman and Ali because both were unapologetically boastful and willfully combative. Ali said he was the greatest before he had won a professional title. He disparaged his opponents to stir interest in his matches. Sherman said he was the best cornerback in the NFL before he probably truly was, and antagonized opponents like Tom Brady and rivals like Darrelle Revis. “People may have thought he was arrogant or cocky, but if you have the ability, how can you not believe that? It just made sense to me,” Sherman said.

For this behavior, Ali was divisive even before he became one of the most important political figures of the 20th century for his outspokenness against the Vietnam War and refusal to serve in it. He had already been hated by segments of America for his alignment with the Nation of Islam and his choice to change his name from Cassius Clay. But all these threads, and Sherman’s, are connected by Ali’s most radical act—a statement casually made to assembled press after he announced his religious conversion days after beating Sonny Liston in Miami for the world heavyweight championship: “I don’t have to be what you want me to be.”

Saying so out loud was a profound pivot from most earlier athlete idols, this self-determination, and it bothered reporters at the time who were used to being the ones mediating public images. Writers in Sports Illustrated and the New York Times, to name just two recognizable outlets, described Ali as “disgusting”, “rude”, “cocksure”, “helpless”, “blind”, a “mean and malicious man”, a “disgrace to America” and a “bad poet.” These portraits appear in strange relief next to the cuddly, eloquent version of Ali who shows up on YouTube clips and in the anecdotes of later reporters who knew him more intimately. But Ali’s will to be himself at every turn—this confidence, not the cocky attitude about his boxing or even the specifics about his religion or politics—were what struck fear into the men who up till then controlled the narrative.

“The power structure … knew that as soon as people began to identify with Cassius and the type of image he was creating, they were gonna have trouble,” said Malcolm X in 1965. “He said he was the greatest. All of the odds were against him. He upset the oddsmakers—he won.” And it is exactly such identification with confidence rather than submission that produces someone like Richard Sherman 50 years later. “He showed me how to be genuine, to be willing to step away from the mainstream and be thoughtful and insightful,” Sherman said in 2014. “Understanding the issues and not being afraid to give your opinion, right, wrong or indifferent, because you’ll be criticized either way.”

Now, you might say being cruel toward Jim Moore doesn’t meet the example of being “insightful” or “understanding the issues.” But Sherman, in that conversation about his inspiration from Ali, was the first to admit he doesn’t yet match Ali as a champion or as a humanitarian ambassador. And Ali could be cruel too: He notoriously abused Ernie Terrell in the ring, refraining from knocking the challenger out so Ali could continue to lash him inflicting brutal damage in retaliation for Terrell’s insistence on calling Ali by his government name before the fight. Ali also spoke defiantly in the face of interviewers, like when he famously shouted, “You my enemy! You my opposer!” at a college student inquiring why he refused induction into the draft.

I don’t agree with everything Sherman says, either. I’ve actually enjoyed his outbursts during and after games as part of his aggressive confidence, and thrilled at his will to make challenging statements. Then this summer Sherman blocked me on Twitter for criticizing his choice of words on an issue that won’t be discussed here (you can probably guess). But I’d also like, instead of having to work, to just get to eat one pizza after another. The point is, Richard Sherman doesn’t have to be what I want him to be—any more than the Seahawks have to win exactly all the games you want them to win, or Darrell Bevell has to call the plays Sherman wants him to call. No player, just as no person in your real life, is obligated to fit your imaginary wishes. (Naturally that doesn’t mean you let people off the hook who abuse women or drive drunk or other violent crimes—these are wholly different standards than personal preference.)

It’s possible that today’s media environment presents a different challenge for Sherman than it did for Ali with only three TV networks and a literal handful of major newspapers. Fans have more technology to directly make their voices public too, rather than relying on letters to editors or letting stern columnists speak for them. Sports Illustrated’s Greg Bishop, speaking on Brock & Salk after Ali’s death, said, “[Ali] lived in a world where he wasn’t as skewered for those beliefs as he would have been. There wasn’t Twitter stepping all over everything he said. If he lived in this era I think we would look at him a bit differently. Everything he would say or do would get chewed over ad nauseam on ESPN’s talk shows.”

That’s certainly an apt description as it applies to Sherman’s various “Ali” moments, from Skip Bayless to the Michael Crabtree diatribe to Tuesday’s humbug—which only really broke as a story as reporters present Tweeted about the confrontation. Against such a thicket of media scrutiny Ali may have been managed more guardedly, or more of his private flaws exposed. But the privileging of Ali’s period doesn’t hold up to the primary sources. “Wasn’t as skewered”? As cited above, it’s hard to imagine any contemporary athlete as skewered for his beliefs and outspokenness as Ali. Beside all the newspaper vitriol the man was stripped of his livelihood and prosecuted by the federal government before he won in the Supreme Court and was allowed to resume boxing. And in some ways limited media also worked against him: Many Americans had no more access to Ali than the newspaper and magazine portraits crafted to make him look like John Rocker.

But social media, arriving as it does entirely from a context of no context at all, continues to perform its peculiar work on Ali’s legacy even after he’s dead. This reference is pretty far out (I have another non-Seahawks life where I write often about African music) but in June the Ghanaian rapper Reggie Rockstone retweeted a comment by one of his followers that might be the purest form of internet:

Rockstone had initially posted a photo—a classic Bob Thomas image of Ali “gagged” by a strip of ring tape and a padlock—with Rockstone’s own message: “WE HEAR YOU KING”. The follower’s appended caption is a legend more fitting Bill Belichick’s gravestone than anything Muhammad Ali would ever say. Yes, the internet is filled with quotes incorrectly attributed to Ali and other historical figures, but let’s be accurate: The picture was originally a staged joke, from a 1963 weigh-in against Doug Jones, teasing reporters who complained about young Cassius Clay’s bold talk and pinpoint predictions. Rockstone’s follower interpreted the intention to honor workmanlike determination in the boxing ring: Results speak for themselves, or something.

It’s a disappointing mixup: Holding in mind Ali’s public and very vocal battles later in the 1960s, the directive to “keep silent” seems disrespectful at best. (Not unlike, in fact, those aged sportswriters who admonished young Ali to hold his irreverent tongue.) Knowing how disease in later life actually cost Muhammad Ali his faculty of speech for 30 years makes it look downright offensive.

That’s just one wayward Tweet, not any worldwide misconception about Ali’s living example, yet we also know someone who antagonized reporters by keeping silent. Marshawn Lynch, Seattle’s favorite nonconformist running back, performed his protest against establishment scrutiny by refusing to speak or, when forced to address the media, answering in repeated catchphrases; “Thank you for asking”, “I’m just here so I won’t get fined”, et c. Most Seahawks fans enjoyed this spectacle, because after all the results on the field were worthy enough of respect, but the nonparticipation didn’t play so well with some folks across the country.

Bart Hubbuch, of the New York Post, called Lynch an “childish, uncooperative dick”, asked for a “Marshawn-to-English translator”, and went so far as to say “anything that inconveniences Marshawn Lynch is wonderful”. But this is a crazy paradox: Sherman becomes a “stereotypical dick” for expressing his candid frustration to a reporter (note: Moore never said this; a fan did), but Lynch is inconsiderate for keeping his mouth shut. Obviously there’s a way to act in between, but reporters historically don’t like those typical responses either, because they don’t yield the sensationalism that generates new content. It’s a spiraling triple standard.

Regardless, Lynch’s approach is notably different from Ali’s and yet it was considered outrageous for the same reasons—by following the outline of self-determination, radically departing from the expectation that he speak and act how others wanted him to act. And Lynch was ingenious at using the tactic to create demand for his voice and capitalize on it with his endorsements and his Beast Mode brand in the way that Muhammad Ali, the Louisville Lip, was a pioneer in athlete media sensationalism and “developing his brand”.

Ali basically created the sports-morality complex and social media by grabbing every microphone he could find. “A man once told me to quit talking so much,” Ali told a group of students at UCLA in 1971 (Ali started a second career as a college lecturer while banned from boxing). “‘Quit bragging,’ he said. ‘You’re intoxicated with greatness.’ He said many people get intoxicated—not only just wine and alcohol but some are intoxicated with different activities in life. And when a man’s intoxicated in life he’ll do something that he wouldn’t do ordinarily. I’m so great it was just hard to be humble.”

Sherman may have been overcome by a desire to deflect the divisive inquiry by Moore, a desire actually to “protect the team” as his head coach counsels by not furthering the offense-defense rift, and said something he wouldn’t say ordinarily. But that doesn’t mean he should quit talking. Definitely not. Tuesday Kenneth Arthur suggested Sherman take a page from Lynch’s manual by simply not answering Moore’s question. It’s sensible advice—in today’s media era that is probably the prudent thing to do. But Sherman established himself as Ali did by being outspoken and refusing to back down from verbal sparring.

As for “protecting the team”, well-intentioned fans may insist they don’t care if Sherman argues with Moore or even what he says about Bevell—they’re not trying to silence Sherman or tell him not to be himself. They too only care about the actions on the field, but worry that this sideline controversy will cause a football distraction for the Seattle Seahawks. Here I’m inclined to fall back on this quotation by the Undefeated’s Domonique Foxworth:

I’m using it a bit out of context, since Foxworth (a former NFL cornerback) was talking about the style of Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh, but I think the statement is a good all-purpose reminder for humility from coaches, writers, myself—in any situation when it comes to judging athletes making decisions for themselves, in their own circles. The frequently-invoked fable of “distractions” becomes in football culture, as Kevin Clark puts it, “a vague term that can mean anything” and gets often used disingenuously as a substitute for “anything [coaches] don’t like”—and by extension a way for fans to describe anything they disapprove of within the scrim of football propriety. But as Clark points out, such distractions rarely really impact teams in any fathomable way, and Pete Carroll is probably better than anyone at limiting or even utilizing such internal conflicts.

I trust Carroll, and more importantly I trust the players—Sherman included, or especially—to know how to keep focused more than I know what’s best for the Seahawks locker room.

And believe me, being a journalist myself, I’m very sensitive to a possible chilling effect of any public figures threatening to end the careers of reporters trying to ask them questions. And yet in May 2002, I was in Madison, Wisconsin, at a convention of alternative weekly newspapers (yes you’re learning a lot about me today), when I heard Vanessa Leggett describe the six months she spent in federal prison—longer than any reporter in U.S. history, longer than anybody in the murder case she had investigated—for declining to hand over her notes or identify her sources, which confidentiality is usually a requisite for a reporter’s opportunity to gather information. The FBI tried to pressure Leggett into giving up her materials and eventually the U.S. Attorney prosecuted and jailed her in violation of Constitutional protections and Justice Department guidelines.

Richard Sherman, for all his celebrity, has no power like that over Jim Moore—he’s not the FBI, he is not even Dave Pearson, the team’s media relations coordinator—and therefore his “threat” contains nothing to threaten. In trying to lighten the mood at the end of the day Tuesday, Sherman had the humility to admit this detail.

That makes his warning to Moore a rude, perhaps even a cruel statement as I’ve said, but not an abridgment of press freedom. It won’t put any prior restraint on Moore doing his job and more importantly (because of broader implications of press intimidation) it doesn’t create a future dilemma for reporters at football press conferences or any trying to serve the public in more serious venues, the way the example made of Leggett does.

Being of so little actual consequence, the Sherman-Moore gaffe should have ended its news cycle the moment the Pro Bowl rosters came out Tuesday evening. Judging from his apology to Moore, Sherman seems to have already learned from the encounter. But that doesn’t mean changing who he is. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard defines education as “the curriculum one had to run through in order to catch up with oneself,” which is interestingly the same verb Marshawn Lynch uses when he says, “If you just run through somebody face, a lot of people aint going to be able to take that over and over and over and over and over again.” That’s a classic soundbite, but in the longer exchange Lynch’s interviewer asks: “Think there’s a deeper metaphor there?” to which Marshawn repeats: “Run through a motherfucker’s face.” In case you think I’m taking this too far, by insisting on the literality of what he’s saying Lynch approaches Kierkegaard’s sense of self-realization. Meaning is action, and we already know Lynch is all about action.

Unfortunately for Jim Moore, Moore’s face (representing the face of “media”) is just one “curriculum” Sherman ran through on his way to catching up with himself as a defiant voice like Muhammad Ali who won’t keep silent. In so doing, perhaps he even ran through barriers on both sides, in the locker room and in the public—that can help rather than undermine his football team, together on the field, and in its relationship with us, the fans, who might do better at viewing the Seahawks as self-determined individuals who don’t have to be what we want them to be.