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Richard Sherman’s GPA and “Thug” Label: The Codes That Blind

While media hype certainly plays a role in the lingering focus on Sherman after the on-field interview, the responses offer important moments to consider.

Three aspects of the public and media focus on Richard Sherman after the NFC championship game on January 19, 2014, are notable.

First, the images of Sherman tend to be like this one:

Next, after his much replayed and discussed post-game interview with Erin Andrews, Sherman was labeled a “thug,” as well as directly slurred with overt racist labels throughout social media such as Twitter.

And then, most of the mainstream efforts to explain the so-called real Sherman include his GPA, such as this caption in a photograph:

A student at Dominguez High, where Richard Sherman compiled a 4.2 grade-point average and played football and ran track.

Or this from Getting to Know Richard Sherman:

Classroom Superstar

In 2005, Sherman’s excellence in the classroom was the centerpiece of a profile by Eric Sondheimer of the Los Angeles Times. Compton gained a national reputation as the epicenter of Los Angeles’ gang and crime problems in the 1980s and 1990s, and the state ran the failing school district from 1993 to 2001. Sherman, though, knew he had the ability to excel in the classroom—and that his teammates did too.

“I’m trying my best to get them where I’m going, to the college level,” Sherman told Sondheimer. “I’m helping them study for the SAT. A lot of people come in blind in what they need to know, not knowing one day they could be a top college prospect.”

Sherman talked the talk and walked the walk, telling his teammates to “quit making excuses” for poor academic performance while posting a 4.1 GPA—more than good enough to be accepted into Stanford, the first Dominguez player in over 20 years to be good enough athletically and academically to earn an invite there.

While media hype certainly plays a role in the lingering focus on Sherman after the on-field interview, the responses offer important moments to consider.

There is some comfort, I think, in a growing recognition that responses to Sherman have been at least fueled by racism—including the coincidence of Justin Bieber’s arrest and the resulting confrontation of how Sherman has been labeled a “thug” while Bieber’s wealth and white/male status shield him from a number of verbal and legal consequences that African American males experience daily.

And beginning a dialogue on the use of “thug” as code for racial slurs and racism also adds to a social effort to reach race and class equity in the U.S.

But I haven’t seen yet any consideration of using GPA to justify Sherman; his GPA has become a reflexive association, especially among mainstream, white, middle-class media.

Sherman did well in high school. (And he grew up in Compton.)

Sherman went to Stanford. (And he grew up in Compton.)

Sherman had a high GPA in high school and Stanford. (And he grew up in Compton.)

And while I haven’t heard or read it, I imagine Sherman has been discussed with the standard, “He speaks so well. (And he grew up in Compton.)”

Each time these justifications are used, I recognize a level of racism and condescension not unlike the use of “thug”—not toward Sherman, but toward a hushed suggestion of those real thugs (he grew up in Compton) with whom Sherman is being unfairly confused. You know, those others who do poorly in school. His GPA becomes a tool in wink-wink-nod-nod public discourse that is just as poisonous as the use of “thug.”

For me, Sherman is a highly skilled athlete in a sport filled with other highly skilled athletes—many of whom happen to be African American.

Setting aside the slurs aimed at him, Sherman is also triggering a social taboo (grounded in racialized norms) against a certain type of bravado. Sherman isn’t Muhammad Ali, but it seems fair to note how white mainstream America responded to Ali—not for the substance of his vision, not for the power of his athleticism, not for his eloquence and showmanship, but for his bravado.

Having been born and raised in the South, I am old enough to recognize the warnings in negative responses to bravado by African American men—a warning about being uppity, a nastiness of lingering racism.

So when many rush to justify Sherman by his GPAs, I see the same white faces explaining how Barry Sanders and Jim Brown did it the right way, meaning they displayed an understated character on the field. No spiking the ball after a touchdown, no thumbs to the name on the back of the jersey, no chest thumping.

And it all sounds to me like praising the other for knowing his place, a place decided for him.

Let’s not allow the conversation about “thug” being code for a racial slur disappear behind the next wave of media hype, but let’s also unmask the many other codes being used to justify Sherman—such as branding him with the confirmation of GPA and attending the right university.

Richard Sherman is a highly skilled athlete, competing in a sport made up of highly skilled athletes.

That isn’t simple, or even meant to be simplistic, but there are credible ways to praise Richard Sherman for the content of his character without taking veiled swipes at those people we continue to marginalize as Others.

Yes, there are codes behind words, but there are codes behind numbers as well. GPA (and SAT scores) may be waved to justify an athlete unfairly slurred, but those numbers are also masking how GPA and SAT serve to perpetuate privilege and gate-keep—a mask of objectivity that hides racial, class, and gender biases in those numbers.

No one should be justified by a number, in fact. Thus numbers must not continue to carry the weight of such justifications, the false veneer that they are objective or fair.

We have much left to do, including uncovering the codes that blind, both the words and the numbers.

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