Ali to Sherman: America And the Authentic Black Man
He's loud, boisterously so. He's brash. He's arrogant. He's good - correction - GREAT at what he does and has no problem letting you know it. And if you already know, he has no problem ensuring that you never have a chance to forget his greatness.
He's been called narcissistic, a coward and controversial.
In the week following the Seattle Seahawks' nail-biting win over their division rival San Francisco 49ers to secure a berth in the Super Bowl, it would be easy to presume I am describing Richard Sherman in the above lines. The truth is, I'm actually talking about Muhammad Ali, considered arguably the best heavyweight champion of all time.
It would be easy for many to forget that at the apex of his career, Ali was far from beloved by a majority of Americans. White Americans despised him for his refusal to be conscripted into the military. They resented his vocal opposition to the Vietnam War, and were absolutely infuriated by his conversion to Islam.
In an era marked by social upheaval, Ali came to symbolize everything that the old guard found objectionable. His brash cockiness grated at their sensibilities. Make no mistake, if Ali had been a white man, he would still have been considered an outcast. But his arrogance was even more vexing BECAUSE he was a Black man.
A Black man who had the nerve to proclaim himself "The Greatest" before it was evident that he was, in fact, the best at his craft.
A Black man who had the nerve to thumb his nose at the United States Industrial Military Complex and refuse to take part in a war he found objectionable because, "No Vietcong ever called me a nigger."
A Black man who had the nerve to appeal his sentence, and actually win.
A Black man who didn't know his place.
The reality is, Ali's current reputation is more a result of careful and willful rehabilitation than it is a result of his greatness always being acknowledged by his contemporaries. If Muhammad Ali had lived the prime of his career during the age of Twitter, Facebook and social media, he would have been a trending topic almost every week for the lion's share of his 20 years in the ring as a professional boxer.
Ali, in his prime, is remembered as being charismatic, fun-loving and a relentless trash-talker. But his outgoing nature was off-putting to many of his peers and those in the media who covered him. It would be very easy to imagine Ali being cast as the anti-American villain every time he stepped in the ring today. The reality is, Ali didn't fit the narrative of how a "Good Black Man" was supposed to act in the 1960s.
The same way Richard Sherman doesn't fit the narrative of how a "Good Black Man" is suppose to act in 2014.
Yes, he is an outspoken personality. Yes he is brash and arrogant and boisterous. But Richard Sherman is not a thug. Or a "bad winner". Or "classless".
Rather, Richard Sherman is the latest in a long line of outspoken Black men that make the American mainstream uncomfortable. He speaks his mind without reservation or apologies. And his "I'm sorry, but not really..." apologies are irksome to those who believe that an individual who makes his living in a violent and extremely charged sport should also be humble and meek.
They point to other great players who say the right thing, at the right time. But, let's be honest. Those players are boring. Those players don't grab our attention. Those players don't have us sitting on the edge of our seats, hanging on their every word. Because we know that those players are not authentic.
Love him or hate him, you have to admit that at least Richard Sherman is authentic. He is who he is. Period. No filter. No apologies.
And just as emotional white players never have to apologize for playing the game a certain way, neither should he. You see the problem that America has with Richard Sherman is not Richard Sherman. It is a problem that America has with authentic Black Men.
It was the same problem they had with Muhammad Ali.
It's a good problem to have.