Richard Sherman and the death of sportsmanship

Much of America’s senseless sports chatter leading up to the Super Bowl has centered around Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, which is pretty remarkable when you think about it.

Sherman is among the best at his position and made a clutch defensive play at the key moment of last week’s NFC championship win over San Francisco, but no one really wants to talk about those elements of the game.

The prevailing topic is sportsmanship, or lack thereof, and how Sherman fits into the “look at me” culture of the modern pro athlete, where individual motives and brand management supersede the sanctity of taking one for the team.

Much of the hand-wringing stems from Sherman’s postgame interview with sideline reporter Erin Andrews, in which he denigrated 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree (whom he had deftly defended on the climactic play, leading to a Seattle interception) and shouted his greatness with unnerving emphasis into living rooms and bars across the land.

If that was all Sherman did, of course, this would be an empty discussion, and we could spend more time bemoaning the fact that an outdoor Super Bowl in New York in early February includes the possibility of a chill.

Talk is cheap when it comes to postgame adrenaline, and so is the outrage that accompanies it.

If proclaiming one’s greatness while diminishing opponents are the actions of a thug, then we might need to reconsider the legacy of some of our most cherished sports icons, starting with Muhammad Ali.

But Sherman’s transgressions went beyond that, and that’s where the well-spoken Stanford alum will have trouble defending himself, no matter how many guest columns he writes or TV interviews he does to try to shape the story.

Sportsmanship sounds like such an old-fashioned term, like something James Naismith tacked up on a gymnasium wall while boys in crew cuts nodded solemnly.

But it remains the crux of athletic competition in many respects, and without its tenets — most of which revolve around how to properly approach the action and treat an opponent — we are thrown into a sort of anarchy that threatens the precious (and profitable) bond between society and sport.

Much worse than Sherman’s postgame rant was his behavior following the play in which he lunged out and tipped the ball away from Crabtree in the end zone, setting up the Malcolm Smith interception and effectively ending the game.

His reaction to this moment was to run over and pat Crabtree on the behind, chirping away the whole time before the receiver finally pushed him away.

It was not enough for the star defender to make a clutch defensive play and celebrate with his teammates after sealing just the second trip to the Super Bowl in franchise history.

His need to taunt the opposition after the outcome is decided has tainted his reputation around the league and drawn the ire of coach Pete Carroll, who was forced to repeatedly address his player’s actions when he should have been celebrating the biggest win of his pro career.

Sherman did the same thing to Tom Brady last season, chasing the New England quarterback down and jawing in his face after the Seahawks had downed the Patriots. “He’s that kind of guy,” Brady said this week, with wry understatement.

But the worst was yet to come for Sherman, who decided to throw the “choke” sign at San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers sideline, drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and a look of disgust from Jim Harbaugh, Sherman’s college coach at Stanford and a cut-throat competitor himself.

Other than blatant cheating or trying to injure, it’s tough to come up with a more egregious breach of athletic etiquette than making hand gestures at the opponent in the moments directly after an outcome is decided.

It’s cheap, cowardly, childish and selfish. Let’s make it clear that Sherman is not a thug. He’s just a jerk.

Knute Rockne once said that one man practicing good sportsmanship is far better than 50 others preaching it, and the same math applies to the bad stuff.

The endless replay and analysis of Sherman’s antics has dominated more discussion than Peyton Manning’s near-perfect outing or the impending Super Bowl matchup, which doesn’t bode well for the future.

As a volunteer coach in youth sports, I’ve considered what I would do if I saw kids start to emulate Sherman by throwing the choke sign at the opposing sideline after a game. I’d step in immediately, of course, end the foolishness and make it clear that our actions on the field say a lot about us as individuals.

Then I’d consider where the kid would get such an outrageous notion to begin with, and I would recall the sterling example of Richard Sherman, who only wanted people to pay attention him, and unfortunately got his wish.