Commentary: Richard Sherman’s Just Being “Me,” Not Somebody’s “Thug”

America should let the Seahawks defensive back play whatever life’s role suits him best.

Posted: 01/28/2014 10:59 PM EST

Now Richard Sherman is a “thug.” How does a Stanford man go from being the star defensive back in a big NFL win to thug overnight? Is that his price for being “me”?

His journey from free, candid speech to thuggery is a treacherous one, and Black folk ought to be cautious about joining him in making that trek. Some seem to be; some not as much.

On opposite sides of the Sherman-is-a-thug debate are Roland Martin and Clarence Page, two prominent Black journalists. Both men have bona-fide credentials in reporting on the affairs of Blacks, which makes what they say worthy of hearing.

In his TV One broadcast last week, Martin dismissed outright the notion that what Sherman said should earn him the label of thug. Page, the longtime columnist for The Chicago Tribune, didn’t hesitate to tie the thug label to Sherman, who plays for the Super Bowl-bound Seattle Seahawks.

“I don't care how many degrees you've got,” Page told Martin, “if you're going to behave like a thug, you're going to invite that kind of … ”

Wrapped inside Page’s criticism are the underpinnings of a more troubling word: the n-word. In polite company, no one dares to say that Sherman acted like a you-know-what in his post-game interview on Fox Sports, because that would traverse territory that nobody wants to cross.

So instead of the n-word, journalists, TV commentators and ordinary folk have grabbed “thug,” a word as loaded with racial baggage as any other in this context.

Martin sensed as much in his exchange with Page.

“How did he behave like a thug?” Martin said of the 25-year-old Sherman. “He didn’t cuss anybody out; he didn't swing at anybody. I've seen baseball managers sling bases, throw coolers, go nuts, and you know what they say? That's the game.”

And that is the game – a game Blacks must play too often. They can’t be what they are; they must be what others want them to be. Their game of pretend has led to the dismissal of hardcore rappers as anything but entertainers. They might come from the ‘hood, but it doesn’t mean they are predisposed to thuggery or to being you-know-whats.

It’s strange how two intelligent brothers can see what Sherman did (and said) through lenses so different.

Page, the old-line journalist, brought old-school sensibilities in his viewing of Sherman as uncouth. While not significantly younger than Page, Martin cast his view of Sherman in a more contemporary light.

But why does a man have to be a “thug” — or that other word — if he’s just trying to be himself? Do we have to conform to what other people want us to be? No, writer Zora Neale Hurston argued in her 1928 essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me.”

“At certain times I have no race, I am me,” Hurston wrote. 

What Richard Sherman, a man from Compton, California, a man who beat those odds that Black men face, did was just be his “me.” Is that a crime? Is Sherman’s being “me” any worse than Muhammad Ali’s being himself, Jack Johnson’s being himself or Barack Obama’s being himself?

If it is, are we, the ancestors of slaves, any freer today than we were when we wore shackles, when someone else owned us? We aren’t free at all if we’re not allowed to be “me,” no matter what others think of “me.”   

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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Follow Justice B. Hill on Twitter: @jbernardh

(Photo: AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

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