We have been recycling the same culture war for nearly 50 years, since Cassius Clay filled the once quiet air with bombast—“I must be the greatest!”—after shocking the world by beating Sonny Liston. The man who soon changed his name to Muhammad Ali ran to Liston’s corner to taunt him, shouted down his journalistic doubters, and repeatedly interrupted Joe Louis during a post-fight interview. The compliant Louis was said to be a credit to the human race, which made White America all the more aghast at Clay—just like they were at Richard Sherman at the end of the NFC title game. After Seattle’s cornerback broke-up the potential game-winning pass, he taunted Michael Crabtree and praised himself to the heavens– “I’m the best corner in the game”—leaving Erin Andrews speechless.

It is easy to understand why so many people were offended by Sherman’s outburst. Since Victorian times, the prevailing belief has been that athletes are supposed to compete strenuously but fairly, keep a stiff upper lip if they lose, and exhibit humility should they be fortunate enough to win. Humility, however, has not always been part of the equation since Ali.

On the surface, the view just outlined seems obvious and unassailable, but let’s look at the presuppositions that underlie it. 19th century reformers did not believe that sports had any intrinsic worth; the purpose of playing was to teach non-cognitive skills, such as the value of planning and preparation, effort, teamwork, and sportsmanship. What’s more, sports was just supposed to be a minor part of life, that would benefit participants (and spectators) because it taught lessons that could be used at work and benefit one’s community. Finally, since this project was inaugurated in prep schools and universities, it presumed that most of the players would graduate to reasonably productive, successful, and comfortable lives.

But what’s left of these ideals if these presuppositions do not apply to the players or are obsolete? Sports is no longer a minor part of life, or schooling, and many players are fully aware that succeeding on the field is their only chance of leaving poverty behind.

The common rebuttal is that sports represents equality—the level playing field—and thus athletes from disadvantaged backgrounds should be grateful because they are getting a fair chance to compete for all the goods society has to offer. Sherman embodies this hope perfectly. He may be straight out of Compton, but he was ranked second academically in his high school class and his athletic prowess earned him a scholarship to Stanford, where he is currently pursuing a Master’s degree.

So why can’t he comport himself like a good Victorian? Actually, he checks off most of those non-cognitive boxes: he is thoroughly prepared for every game, his effort is unquestioned, his teammates and coaches swear by him, and none of his peers have accused him of being a dirty player, let alone a thug. Most importantly, he has also given back a tremendous amount to his community. He chose then mediocre Stanford over USC because he wanted to send the message that a kid from Compton could go to an elite school, and he has helped many of his high school teammates apply for college. Football appears to really be just a means to the larger goals he wants to accomplish.

So why can’t Citizen Sherman take that last step and exhibit humility? Only he can answer that question, but I will hazard to guess.

The conventional worldview assumes that there is a level playing field, both inside and outside the lines, but most members of the African-American underclass do not experience equal opportunity in the larger society. Sherman is proof positive that success is possible, but he is also probably keenly aware of how many obstacles stand in the way of the average person from Compton: poor schools, rampant gang culture and crime, drug use, high unemployment, lack of cultural capital, all adding up to lots of hopelessness.

Legendary coach Paul Brown famously advised his players to ‘act like you have been there before’ when scoring a touchdown. The classic Victorian point being that succeeding at a game should be kept in perspective. By contrast, Randall Hill, one of the more infamous players on the infamous University of Miami teams back in the day, once defended the fact that he celebrated even short completions:

People complain about me celebrating after a four-yard catch. I look at it like this: If you were poor and you didn’t have a car and God blessed you with a Yugo, wouldn’t you be happy with the Yugo? Why not be happy with everything you can get on the field?

Brown argued for perspective because most of the people he came into contact with went on to live reasonably productive, successful, and comfortable lives. Most of the people Hill and Sherman grew up with feel quite justified in celebrating game-saving pass break-ups, or even four-yard catches, because they have overcome such long odds.

Sherman acknowledged that he learned what a powerful combination intelligence and confidence were from Ali, but his actions Sunday night, and comments since then speak to a more fundamental point the Greatest made: “I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.”

Apparently, that reality has not been accepted, even after all these years.

–Ken Pendleton