Once my Green Bay Packers are out of contention, I’ll admit that my attention toward the NFL wanes considerably. Sure, I’ll spend a little time here and there catching portions of playoff games on these frigid January Sundays here in Wisconsin, but for whatever reason I can’t sit through an entire contest unless the Green and Gold are on the field (and even then, it’s 50/50). This trend continued this past Sunday, when I flipped back and forth between the Broncos/Patriots game, professional bowling and whatever reruns were airing on the Cooking Channel, and later had portions of the Seahawks/49ers contest playing in the background as I seared and then baked a stuffed pork roast for dinner.

Because of this relative inattention, I didn’t learn about the “interview” between Fox Sports sideline reporter Erin Andrews and Seahawks defensive back Richard Sherman until I checked my Twitter feed after the game and saw the considerable hubbub Sherman’s comments generated. Sherman’s brief interaction with Andrews amounted essentially to Sherman cutting a WWE-style promo about how he’s the best and 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree is weak. Sherman did not curse or use otherwise offensive language and did not appear to be trying to bully his interviewer (probably evidenced best by his direct-to-the-camera delivery and quick exit). Nevertheless, Sherman’s comments became as big a story as the Seahawks’ Super Bowl birth, with armchair commentators nationwide and beyond (including a surprising number in my Facebook and Twitter feeds) taking to their keyboards to call Sherman a poor sport, a thug (the go-to descriptor for athletes who behave in a way other than what “mainstream America” would prefer, it seems), or worse.

Sherman, in an act of candidness rarely seen by professional athletes (particularly those facing criticism for their actions), penned a column for Sports Illustrated’s Monday Morning Quarterback that appeared yesterday. As usual, context is key when it comes to controversy, and readers of Sherman’s column learned that before taking to the microphone and unleashing his inner Ultimate Warrior, Sherman offered up a conciliatory hand to Crabtree in a show of good will. Crabtree’s response, as illustrated prominently alongside Sherman’s MMQB column, was to shove Sherman in the face. This isn’t to criticize Crabtree’s behavior, but rather to place Sherman’s own heavily criticized actions into proper context.

That aside, though, the reaction sports fans continue to have in response to perceived acts of poor sportsmanship is somewhat baffling.

No…that’s not right.

I wish I could say it was baffling, but it’s really just another example of how sports fans so readily compartmentalize how they experience the events they watch in order to better justify their enjoyment. Football is an inherently violent game, and no matter what steps the NFL takes to sterilize its own match-ups, the goal of football is to physically dominate your opponent to either gain as much ground as you can or prevent them from doing the same to you. Until fairly recently, players could use basically any means necessary to achieve these ends, and the NFL and the television networks with which the league is partnered made the violence that resulted a centerpiece of their marketing. (Remember ESPN’s Jacked Up segment from not so long ago?) Players have to get pretty hyped up before stepping onto the field to inflict and absorb the sort of punishment required to play on football’s grandest stage, and the displays of showboating, trash talk and after-the-whistle dust-ups are the natural result.

Most fans don’t want to hear that, though. In their minds, these professional athletes who make their living imposing their physical will on other people should be able to turn it on and off at a moment’s notice, bringing the sort of intensity necessary to ensure the fans get their money’s worth during games but then immediately reverting to what those same fans deem as polite, sportsmanlike behavior afterward. This is completely unreasonable, and I’m going to tell you why.

First, most of these fans have jobs that require a small fraction of the dedication and emotional output required of professional athletes. Very few professions require absolute commitment from such a young age while also presenting such a narrow opportunity for success. When Richard Sherman defended that pass on Sunday night to ensure the Seahawks’ victory, fans were watching the culmination of at least a decade of nearly singular focus, all coming to fruition in front of millions of people. Surely Sherman recognized the significance of this moment, so to have Crabtree break Sherman’s metaphorical olive branch no doubt increased the intensity with which the Seahawks’ cornerback experienced it.

Second, a large number of fans themselves have trouble quickly switching back to the sort of after-the-game behavior they so fervently demand of the athletes they watch. In Sherman’s column, he takes Seattle’s fans to task for their treatment of an injured 49er, and that’s just one game. How many incidents of fan-on-fan violence have we read about just in the last few years? Specific to the Packers, there is a frequently cited (though mostly unsubstantiated) statistic saying domestic violence arrests increase after a Green Bay loss. Violence aside, we all know at least one or two people who have difficulty getting over a loss by their favorite team, whether that difficulty takes the place of outward anger or just plain sulking. Athletes are human beings, and fans would do well to remember how human beings react emotionally in certain situations.

Finally, sportmanship has its place, but it’s nothing but frosting on the cake that is professional athletics generally speaking. Sure, it’s nice when opponents come together after a contest to trade handshakes, smiles and well-wishes, but that’s not why professional sports organizations are the multi-billion-dollar corporations they are today. In the case of the NFL, violent competition is responsible for that consistent and ever-expanding financial windfall. When we’re kids, playing sports is supposed to be fun, and sportsmanship is a universally accepted method of demonstrating that fun. As we get older, though, those of us who stick with sports probably find them to be increasingly less fun as time goes on, and for the few people who are able to actually earn a steady paycheck through sports, the fun part is surely overshadowed by the money part. This is probably more true in the NFL than in a lot of other professional sports organizations, given the level of violence at which so many of its athletes must be willing to compete, and where the more physically dominant you are, the more money you earn. Given all of that, then, it’s no wonder Sherman allowed his less sportsmanlike self to get the better of him after a.) he just made the biggest play of his career and b.) his efforts to engage with his opponent gracefully were met with utter disrespect.

I originally had the idea to write this column after fans reacted so negatively to Ronda Rousey’s own show of unsportsmanship following her successful defense of the UFC women’s bantamweight championship on Dec. 28. Before that fight, Rousey was one of the most popular athletes in MMA and was selected to be one of the coaches on the 18th season of The Ultimate Fighter. Many probably thought that Rousey’s stint on TUF would bring her to even greater levels of esteem. Instead, Rousey’s unrelenting displays of animus toward opposing coach Miesha Tate sent a lot of fans in the opposite direction. On Dec. 28, then, Rousey’s entrance to the Octagon was met with abundant boos. The crowd’s turn did not seem to impact Rousey’s performance in the cage, though, as she’d lock Tate up in an armbar to secure the victory in the third round.

One might think that Rousey’s success in the cage would nullify her detractors, but when Tate stuck her hand out in congratulations to Rousey, Rousey left her hanging, dismissively returning to her corner to celebrate with her team. This unsportsmanlike snub sent fans into a tizzy, with those in attendance ratcheting up their booing as Joe Rogan attempted to interview Rousey after the fight and those online repeating each other’s exaggerated outrage ad nauseam.

Let’s be clear, Sherman and Rousey are far from the sorts of evil caricatures fans have reduced them to. Sherman has a degree from Stanford University. Rousey is an Olympic medalist. Neither has ever been in any kind of serious legal trouble and both have demonstrated their abilities by rising to the top echelons of their respective sports. Because both deviated from America’s entrenched obsession with sportsmanship, though, both have been vilified.

With Sherman, as with Rousey, fans don’t seem to take issue with the violence these athletes inflict on their opponents, only with their lapses in sportsmanship. That is, many of the fans who yell, “Hit him as hard as you can!” to Sherman or, “Break her arm!” to Rousey are the same ones who get all bent out of shape when an athlete talks some network-television-appropriate trash into a camera or is less-than-cordial to an opponent after a fight.

Perhaps their insistence on sportsmanship makes it easier for these fans to justify their enjoyment of watching sports in which people routinely tear ligaments, break bones and have their brains bounced around inside their skulls. When we’re kids, our parents tell us that these sorts of violent sports are okay because it’s just competition and the athletes don’t really dislike one another. This mentality seems to have stuck in the minds of most sports fans, given the level of outrage that results when an athlete in a violent sport does not adhere to this formula. Perhaps this insistence that athletes maintain this sportsmanlike ideal instilled in us early in our lives has increased with the ascendance of social media platforms and the echo-chamber opinions that come with them. Another thought is that the physical dangers of football and MMA have never been more evident or widely publicized, so sports fans must cling to this childhood lesson on sportsmanship even more tightly so as to balance out their enjoyment of violence. Either way, people seem to be getting up in arms more over athletes’ postgame comments than over the violence inherent to the sports in which those athletes participate, all because we’re taught as kids to be good sports.

Time to grow up.

  • Micha Jackson

    Well done, thank you!

  • annmariastat

    Applause, applause. Could not have said it better.

  • Ghana

    Rhonda Rousey conquered Tate exactly the way her fans expected her to in the fashion of a great fighter. In the fashion of the Marvelous Marvin Hagler; she defeated her opponent without a kind word after.

  • Matt

    Great post I could not agree more.