Even the best of good sports understand that the rules of hospitality are suspended when championships are at stake. Unleashing a year’s supply of fireworks, splashing through Gatorade and champagne, thanking God for, in effect, ignoring the prayers of the opponents who are quite often physically crumpled on the ground—before they’re hustled off to make room for floats and trophy presentations and Disney World commercials and more praising God—all of this is entirely institutionalized, broadcast many times each year without a peep of objection. In fact, it’s an even rarer privilege when your celebration is seasoned by the silence and sometimes even tears of tens of thousands of enemy fans. Maybe we can recover something of the strangeness of all this by imagining celebrating any triumph in our own lives with as little concern for bystanders and losers, let alone in our enemy’s living room. What is grotesque everywhere else is standard in sports, and we love sports for it.
Celebrations are often more interesting than victories. I think back on the laughable blowout of a Super Bowl from a month’s distance, and I can barely remember a play—but I still remember an act of celebration. Two weeks earlier, a moment of individual excellence won the NFC for the Seattle Seahawks, and sent them on to a Super Bowl they would dominate: Richard Sherman’s outstretched, leaping tip of a would-be game-winning touchdown pass with half a minute remaining. You probably know what happened next: a fake handshake offered to the wide receiver he beat at the decisive moment, followed by “I’m the best corner in the league,” followed by a choke sign for the opposing quarterback, capped off by a furious TV interview: “Don’t you open your mouth about the best, or I’m gonna shut it for you really quick!” All of this made Sherman, at least for a moment or two, the most hated man in sports.
Hate moves on, of course; it has to. But there is a sense that Richard Sherman was only worth talking about when he was actively inducing aneurisms, and I think that leaves us dumber and poorer. Go back to those two minutes of righteous fury—they’ll be on video forever—and you’ll still find some questions worth staying awake over. How is a winner supposed to behave? What kind of hero do we want?
I was about five when Michael Jordan hit his game-winning shot over Craig Ehlo—probably the one moment of his career that stands the best chance of remaining on immortal replay when we’re all dead—and I’ve seen it hundreds of times since. For most of that time, it’s seemed vaguely frightening; or maybe the word is fearsome, or terrible. Why frightening? Because physical dominance is always frightening, and because Jordan’s screaming, chest-pounding, arm-flailing celebration always seems on the verge of breaking through the screen and pummeling you. Because there is none of the modesty and good manners that usually wraps success in gauzy piety—only blind, consuming joy. Because this joy is juxtaposed with the humiliation of another human being, who sinks to the floor and stays in the frame, beaten—who is literally triumphed over.
And also because this, for much of our history, is just what heroism has looked like. Do you think heroes just leap tall buildings and save school buses full of children? Watch Michael Jordan. Watch Richard Sherman. Heroes also triumph over. Heroes also humiliate. (And yes, a firefighter’s life-saving heroism is non-fictional in a way that an athlete’s is not. But we’re human because we can act as if fictions—literature, myths, rituals, games—matter. For the same reason, the best reference-points for the heroes of games are the heroes of stories and myths.)
Why does Achilles become a hero? Not to vindicate the just cause. Not to “give back.” But only so “my fame will be immortal.” How does he become immortal? By killing Hector and humiliating his corpse.
Why does Beowulf become a hero? So he can brag about his greatness as loudly as he pleases: “Truth I claim it, that I had more of might in the sea than any man else.”
Boasting is not some unfortunate distraction from this kind of heroism: boasting is heroism. Heroism is the warrant for boasting: the right to speak as loudly as you please about your greatness is the right of the stronger. And boasting is the reason for heroism: you risk your comfort, your limbs, and your life so that others can take up your boasts and carry on your fame long after you’re dead.
And if you think that this model of heroism is some kind of pagan relic, consider the ways in which it has been taken up and translated by the monotheistic faiths. The Abrahamic Lord isn’t just the Psalmist’s shepherd, leading him gently through green pastures: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows!” The Lord’s favoritism means eating meat and guzzling wine while your enemies watch—feasting in their faces, as it were—and their exclusion makes the wine taste sweeter. What are the pleasures of the Christian heaven? The church father Tertullian taught: “At that greatest of all spectacles, that last and eternal judgment, how shall I admire, how laugh, how rejoice, how exult when I behold so many proud monarchs groaning in the lowest abyss of darkness; so many magistrates liquefying in fiercer flames than they ever kindled against the Christians; so many philosophers blushing in red-hot fires with their deluded pupils.” So the rewards of the saints, the heroes of the Church, include a front-row seat for the humiliations of their enemies: heaven is the Colosseum of the righteous.
We wouldn’t tell and retell these stories if the idea of a dominant, boastful, humiliating heroism didn’t touch a deep part of our souls. And we wouldn’t single out a few exemplars for hate if this we didn’t also find this heroism fearsome, repulsive. We build multimillion-dollar industries of triumphing-over, factories that turn out glory and agony on a yearly schedule. And we hate Richard Sherman for making their premises a little too explicit—for saying out loud that might makes right.
We find this model of heroism so repulsively compelling that we created a competing one: the hero who painfully disciplines himself into sportsmanship and charity; the servant hero. Or even better: the suffering hero. For centuries, the ideal knight wasn’t Achilles, but Roland. Roland’s job is to die: his job is to be ambushed by infidels and blow on his famous hunting-horn with his last breath—not so we’ll know his glory, but so we’ll know his death.
Of course, the perfect gentle knight is as much a myth as the lion-hearted Achilles, son of a goddess. But myths are worth knowing, because they are the markers of our anxieties. It’s why the mythology of the world’s most popular religion says that the greatest power in the universe would lay aside the right of the stronger and spontaneously humble—humiliate—itself, to the point of torture and a criminal’s death. It’s why the movies offer us Superman in chains and the passion of the Batman.
About eight minutes before Sherman’s game-saving moment, NaVorro Bowman, a linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers, forced a fumble at his team’s goal line and scooped up the loose ball. A Seahawk fell onto his left knee, and it buckled sideways; Bowman fell to the ground and still held the ball tight to his chest, saving a touchdown for his teammates even as his knee was destroyed.
The tear in NaVorro Bowman’s ACL was a signal for a small ritual of its own. The on-field microphones were muted; no one at home heard his screams. A circle of men took to their knees on the field, some surely resting, others praying, all looking like it. We watched Bowman’s knee collapse in a series of near-silent replays, backed by the hum of the crowd. A tasteful cut to commercial, and a shot of Bowman being carted away: the suffering hero needs no speaking role—only his body matters. And, as if to make the sacrifice complete, the referees wrongly reversed the fumble call, rendering the whole thing pointless, except for the suffering. We all know the attitude to take up in response to humbled power.
But for power that refuses to humble itself: confusion, fascination, and rage. And all of these are intensified, of course, for racists who expect a black man like Sherman to be congenitally humble. So on the night of his outburst he was “cunt,” “douche,” “dickhead,” (and I’m sorry to repeat these, but I don’t think we should gloss over the kind of hatred on display here) “ignorant ape,” “typical nigger,” “cocky nigger,” “disrespectful nigger,” “gorilla nigger.”
But say this for sports, at least: it is one of the few institutions that gives us dominant heroism and suffering heroism within minutes of one another. That’s what it’s built for. The small ceremony around Bowman’s knee is every bit a part of the rite as Sherman’s rant, and as the self-disgusted backlash to the rant. (“I don’t do what I want,” said Saint Paul. “I do what I hate.”) Because we are rabidly inconsistent, and we demand both: both Christ crucified and the avenging, murderous Christ of Revelations; both “he sacrificed his body for his teammates” and “he imposed his will on his opponents”; both Superman in chains and Superman the killer; both Roland and Achilles; both the humiliated hero and the hero who humiliates; both Bowman and Sherman.
Rob Goodman has worked as the speechwriter for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Senator Chris Dodd. He has written speeches and opinion pieces that have appeared on the floors of both houses of Congress, on national television and radio, and in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal.