Sunday, January 26, 2014

Saluting Two Bad-Asses from the Pacific Northwest

One of the most critical principles of Empathic Rationalism is that you have to recognize your biases.  Another such principle is that when appropriate, you had better announce them.
So here’s my bias: as a big supporter of Stanford football, I’ve been a Richard Sherman fan for years.  Ever since he began playing cornerback for my alma mater back in 2008, I’ve loved the guy’s skills and his style.  I used to call him “the Shermanator,” after the character in the American Pie movies who wet his pants at the senior prom.   I always thought of that character as a hoot, and that’s how I viewed Richard Sherman as well.  I didn’t know his life story.  I just knew that he had long hair, lots of flair, and a nose for being around the football.    

Three years ago, when Sherman left Stanford, he was known to virtually nobody outside of that college.  In the last year or two, however, he became known by football fans all over the United States.  And now, he is known by virtually every American who is tuned in to pop culture.  Unquestionably, the Shermanator is the best cornerback in the world, but that doesn’t get you noticed.   (The job of the cornerback is to shadow world class sprinters and make sure they don’t catch the ball, even though they know where they are running and you don’t.  But since cornerbacks play defense instead of offense, they tend not to become household names.)   What does get you noticed is when, after you make the critical play that leads your team into the Super Bowl, you get on national television and show the kind of raw emotion that you need in order to play that position at the highest levels.  That is precisely what Sherman did, and for a couple of days, he was the talk of the sports world, and beyond.

Sherman’s epic rant wasn’t his only public outburst that afternoon.  Shortly after his game-winning play, he turned to the opposing quarterback and made a choke sign.  Then, perhaps a half hour after the game was over, he addressed the media again and referred to an opposing receiver as “mediocre” several times.  It was the kind of braggadocio that we’ve all come to expect from Muhammad Ali and pro wrestlers, but not from competitors in team sports.  Sure enough, critics have come out of the woodwork, chomping at the opportunity to discuss Sherman’s lack of class, respect for the game, and respect for those who play the game.  Others have been even less kind, making racial statements and calling him a “thug.”

Then there are folks like me.  I loved the rant.   I loved the raw emotion.  I loved the reminder that these are gladiators, not rabbis.  They play a sport known for violent collisions – a sport where you are encouraged to pulverize your opponent, as long as you do so with certain parts of your body colliding with certain parts of your opponent’s.   Richard Sherman isn’t known as a particularly violent player.  What he does, he does with finesse.  He’s a big man who runs like the wind and who has epic hand-eye coordination.  Plus, he is a student – a hell of a student – and he seems always to know where his opponent is running because he studies game films.   Richard Sherman is a beautiful player who gets himself so hopped up on adrenaline that he is ready to explode at all times.   But that’s only when he is dealing with the world of sports.  In the game of life, Richard Sherman is a man from Compton, California, a part of South Los Angeles known primarily for producing gang-bangers, who graduated second in his class, went on to earn a degree from Stanford, and now devotes a lot of his time to helping people in poor communities.  That is who Richard Sherman truly is – not some character who rants after a big game.

My dad would have liked Richard Sherman.   Dad was a prototypical Jewish intellectual.  He grew up poor in Brooklyn, but studied hard and was able to get a degree from Columbia University.   He was also a sports fan.  And one of the things that this humble, quiet man taught me about sports is that it’s OK to rip on professional athletes when they play badly.  He thought that was the fan’s prerogative – one of the benefits of paying the price of admission.  Dad recognized that part of the entertainment package of professional sports is that fans are allowed to release their raw emotions by calling the players “bums.”  And if fans can do it, why can’t the players?   

Seriously, is there really a problem when athletes who make several million dollars a year engage in smack talk against each other?   Or is that just part of the fun of watching gladiators in the ring?  My dad would have opted for the latter alternative.   

So, apparently, would Steve Novick.  Those who have read this blog for many years know the name.   We are close friends who went to law school together back in the 80s.  The school was Harvard, and Novick started there at the age of 18, having gone directly from middle school to college when his local high school was closed for a month due to lack of funding.  Today, Novick is a City Commissioner in Portland, Oregon and an extremely progressive voice in local politics.   He was moved by Sherman’s outburst and the ridiculous reaction to it.  So here was Novick’s response, which was posted on his official blog, and which took an incredible amount of guts to write :

Just as Sherman is a bad-ass athlete who fights for the little guy, Novick is a bad-ass politician who fights for the little guy and isn’t afraid to tell truth to power.  The difference is that Novick truly IS a little guy – 4’8” in fact, which is only about 19 inches shorter than Sherman.  But both of these men haven’t forgotten where they come from and how they have responsibilities to help out others who don’t have the same privileges that they have.  

They also have great senses of humor.  And a faculty known to the ancient Greeks as spiritedness, or “thymos.”  The interesting thing about the faculty of thymos is that it manifests itself in two very different ways – megalothymia and isothymia.  The former refers to the drive to be superior to others; the latter refers to the drive to make sure that the “self” or the “other” gets its just deserts.  Obviously, the former is commonly associated with dictators and lunatics, and you can see why.  But we tend to forget about the latter – and it can manifest itself in a wholesome and socially-invaluable impulse to fight for victims of injustice (including oneself, if appropriate) or other blessed causes.

Sherman is now commonly associated with megalothymia.  And perhaps there are those who have done battle with Novick over the years who would say the same about him.   But I know that’s not an accurate word to use in Novick’s case, and from what I can gather, it doesn’t do justice to Sherman either.  More precisely, it pertains only to a superficial side of the guy – one that is associated with the way he psyches himself up to perform shut-down-corner island.  If my sources are correct, Sherman typically manifests his thymos as iso-thymia.  And that is a point worth thinking about, because as long as that quality is harnessed sanely (meaning with some degree of self-control), it can produce society’s true heroes.

I am not here to knock those athletes and politicians who speak guardedly when a microphone is put in their face or a pen is inserted in their hand.   We all have to choose our battles in life, and spontaneous outbursts often come back to haunt us.  If you think Sherman has faced ridicule this week, just wait to see what will happen if he plays poorly in the Super Bowl.  As for Novick, it is fair to say that some of his more outspoken criticisms against beloved figures like then-candidate Barack Obama and U2 frontman Bono might have cost him the nomination for U.S. Senate when he ran in 2008.   

Still, when all is said and done, I salute both of these rebels for their authenticity and for having their hearts in the right place.  They will surely continue to make enemies and not a few mistakes.  But at the end of the day, our world will be way better off because they’re in it.

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