Richard Sherman did us all a favor

JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- Richard Sherman showed up very fashionably late, through a back door, and walked into a battery of cameras and reporters sized for a peace-in-the-Middle-East news conference. His audience so dwarfed the one around the table occupied by Russell Wilson, you would have thought Wilson was Seattle's backup punter, not its starting quarterback.

Sherman slid his headphones off his ears, took his seat, and spent his first night in New Jersey, his first night at the Super Bowl, rightfully reminding the news media that he did his country a favor. By raging against the stereotype of the black athlete, he encouraged a helpful discourse on the language of race in sports. And by informing those who wouldn't guess otherwise that he's really, at heart, a nerd with a Stanford degree, Sherman showed kids in Compton, Calif., and other American cities like it that they should never let anyone hang a low ceiling over their dreams.

"Once the path is blazed," Sherman said, "kids believe they can achieve those goals. They believe they can get out of the city because they've seen it done. They've seen how it can happen. They've seen it happening right before their eyes. It's not a dream. It's not a far-fetched thing for them. It's something that's right there, right in front of them."

It's a great thing, too. You've got to believe that five or 10 years from now, some kid somewhere who had no idea where Richard Sherman came from, or where he went to school, until these past seven days will be inspired by his journey to achieve something he never thought possible.

But back to that conversation on race. Sunday night, after a long week that saw the word "thug" run through more tests than a draft prospect endures at the combine, I asked Sherman if he felt he'd inspired a healthy conversation about the language of white and black in sports.

"I think it did have some effect on opening up the channels of communication and conversation and dialogue," he said, "and I think I had some impact on it, and I want to have a positive impact. I want people to understand that everybody should be judged by their character, and who they are as a person, and not by the color of their skin. I think that's something we've worked to get past as a nation … and we're continuing to work on it.

"It's healthy, everything that happened. All the people who sent the messages, and who tweeted what they tweeted, it ends up turning around to be a positive, because it opens back up the discussion and people begin to get more education. And any time you get more knowledge, you're more powerful as a person."

We should all thank Sherman for that, too, for everything he said and did after he batted away that touchdown pass-to-be to Michael Crabtree, batted it into the hands of a teammate, to beat San Francisco and send the Seahawks to a Super Bowl matchup with Peyton Manning's Broncos. Sherman's rant into Erin Andrews' mike had come in the immediate wake of that spectacular play. Without the benefit of a cooling-off period in the locker room, and without any reason to avoid a Fox reporter who understood the cornerback is everything a TV rights holder wants (smart, quotable, emotional and fearless), Sherman acted no differently than, say, a rock star celebrating a memorable big-stage performance by smashing his guitar.

Sherman ended up smashing Twitter instead, and he was subjected to vile slurs in the process. The worst of the tweets told him, in his words, "that racism is still alive and well," a truth he described as "so sad." Sherman was compelled to say that the word "thug" had become "the accepted way of calling somebody the N-word nowadays," and to wonder aloud how the Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames can turn a hockey game into a prison riot without anyone fretting over the potential fall of civilization.

People are paid to punch each other out in the overwhelmingly white NHL, and the fighting is often viewed as part of the sport's fabric. The enforcers are cast as necessary tone-setters, and bodyguards for teammates who actually have a little, you know, skill.

But imagine if a couple of designated fighters were employed by each team in the NBA, where more than three-quarters of the players are black. Imagine the public outcry if NBA "goons" squared off and fired heat-seeking haymakers at each other's heads on a regular basis.

The double standard is there for every sports fan to see. Sherman made people ask themselves, "When's the last time anyone called a white athlete a 'thug'?" And he did something for many viewers who initially figured the self-celebrating cornerback was a thug before learning he was a high school salutatorian who aced Stanford.

He likely made them reconsider their assumptions about the next victorious black athlete they see screaming trash talk into their high-def TVs.

Only here's something Richard Sherman needs to understand: This productive dialogue works both ways, too, as the distinguished sociologist, Dr. Harry Edwards, pointed out Sunday night in a phone interview from his California home. Edwards described Sherman's takedown of Crabtree as "revealing" and "ridiculous."

"What drove Richard Sherman to go on this rant, that's where the discussion should take place," said Edwards, a professor at UC Berkeley. "Telling me there are white people in this country who don't like blacks is like telling me my nose has two holes in it. That's the same old dead end, cul-de-sac, box-canyon conversation.

"Let's broaden the conversation. Here you have in Mr. Sherman a middle-class, bright, academically and professionally accomplished young black man trying to gain street cred. It's not enough to be an outstanding student and defensive back; you've got to somehow meet the measure of black orthodoxy. I watch black students come to Berkeley who are young and bright, and they try to prove they are authentically black."

Reminded that Sherman, the son of a garbage collector and a social worker, had been raised in Compton, Edwards maintained, "In black society, two parents with two jobs, that's middle class."

Back at the Seahawks' Jersey City hotel, Sherman was seeing it a different way. His father had been shot years ago when caught in the middle of gang warfare, and Sherman's best friend in high school had been killed in a shooting.

"I came from a place not a lot of people make it out of," Sherman said, "and I'm just trying to affect the world in a positive way."

He succeeded this week, yes he did. An equal-opportunity antagonist, Sherman has been known to take on all comers from Crabtree to Jim Harbaugh to Tom Brady to Darrelle Revis.

Now he's taking on the division between black and white while willingly absorbing some bumps along the way. In other words, Richard Sherman has put the first points on the Super Bowl board.