With 55.9 million television viewers watching the National Football Conference championship game on Jan. 19, Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman sealed his team’s dreams of going to Super Bowl XVIII by tipping away a last minute pass to San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree in the end zone. This game-changing play occurred within seconds of the end of the game. This tremendous show of athleticism should have been the main headline, but due to the corporate media, the attention of millions of people was diverted to his postgame interview.
Sherman’s comments were a simple expression of normal trash talking in the heat of the moment when he stated, “I’m the best corner in the game. When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that’s the result you’re gonna get! Don’t you ever talk about me!”
For the following week, people across the media called Sherman a “thug” or many other terms that deemed him less than human. These reactions epitomized the racist cultural attitudes toward outspoken Black athletes, which have happened countless times to many other professional and amateur athletes. Even the great Muhammad Ali — an idol of Sherman’s and also known for his brash talking — was demonized and robbed of his heavyweight boxing title for almost four years for refusing to fight in the Vietnam war during the late 1960s.
In many articles online, Sherman has been both defended and humanized. The son of a sanitation worker from Compton, Calif., Sherman graduated from Stanford University with a 3.9 grade point average. Sherman lives the dream of a young Black man who has beaten the odds compared to millions like him who aspire to avoid poverty and incarceration. He has become a successful professional athlete who graduated from one of the top universities in the world.
Defending himself in a press conference days later, Sherman talked about people calling him a thug: “The only reason it bothers me is because it seems like it’s the accepted way of calling somebody the N-word nowadays. It’s like everyone else said the N-word, and they said ‘Thug’ and they’re like, ‘Ah, that’s fine.’ That’s where it kind of takes me aback and it’s kind of disappointing.” (Huffington Post, Jan. 22)
It is right to defend Sherman from racist attacks. And many people have. Yet we know that this will happen again. Another bold Black superstar will defy the racist standards of becoming a so-called “model” citizen, whether during an end zone dance or in a postgame interview. And more racist reactions will occur in the media and by fans. But why?
NFL: rich bosses, exploited workers
A deeper analysis of the attitudes toward Sherman must take into account the social dynamics of sports under capitalism. What are the values of sports under capitalism, to people and to the 1%?
If we believe that racism is not inherent, but rather a poisonous ideology that was pushed upon us by the ruling class and reinforced by the media, we have to understand how it is profitable for the rulers to promote racism and how it is possible to change these attitudes.
According to an Aug. 14 article in Forbes titled “NFL Team Values,” the combined value of all National Football League franchises is more than $37 billion. This number is more than the budget of 31 states and ranks the NFL behind Arizona in national rankings. On the Forbes 500 list of corporations, it ranks around number 80, just ahead of Delta, American Express and Phillip Morris.
The NFL, the most popular U.S. professional sport, is more profitable than any other sport, with a 15.4 percent profit margin. According to Business Insider, the lowest valued team, the Jacksonville Jaguars ($725 million), is still worth more than every professional basketball and hockey franchise and all but five pro-baseball teams. (http://tinyurl.com/ld36mml)
According to Forbes, the highest paid NFL player, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, made $51 million between June 2012 and June 2013, not counting his numerous endorsements. Contrast his salary with the minimum annual salary of an NFL player at $405,000.
While these athletes may be well paid as a whole, they are still workers. Every player is a member of the NFL Players Association, which is a part of the AFL-CIO. The union has fought for players’ rights for safety on the field, compensation for injuries that linger long after retirement and basic working standards under a collective bargaining agreement.
Several times the NFLPA has gone out on strike or been locked out by the team owners. In a 2011 lockout by the bosses, the players stood firm with their demands to get a bigger share of the profits made by the owners — many of them billionaires — from the players’ ability to perform on the field.
One of the most contentious aspects of any contract is the player salary cap — the maximum amount each team is allowed to pay its players.
Players pay heavy price
Karl Marx came up with the concept of surplus value to explain the difference between the value created by workers and the payment the workers receive for their ability to work. The NFL is an extreme, yet crystal clear example of the extraction of surplus value rooted in worker exploitation. Each team has up to 53 players. The salary cap is $133 million per team. The 53 players, as well as the coaches, referees, low-wage concession stand workers, and other support personnel make up all the workers and managers who either work for the owners or the NFL hierarchy, either specifically or collectively.
Without these players and staff, there is no NFL and no surplus value, or profits. The highest earning team, the Dallas Cowboys, brought in $539 million in revenue in 2013. After paying everyone and all the bills, the team had more than $250 million in profit. The median team, the Carolina Panthers, made around $29 million in profit. As a whole, Forbes reports that the owners of the league’s 32 teams collected over $1.4 billion in profits in 2013.
Meanwhile, the players pay a huge cost to play this brutal game. According to the NFLPA, the length of an average player’s career is only 3.5 years. The average life expectancy of an NFL player is 58. Recurrent concussions, broken bones and torn ligaments are facts of life for an NFL player — devastating injuries that last long after they leave the game.
To maintain this exploitative and profitable game, the ruling class and the owners of the NFL need to portray the players, a majority of whom are African American, as less than human. This ties in deeply with exploitation and oppression throughout society, including the oppression of women, lesbian-gay-bi-trans-queer people and people with disabilities.
For many, the NFL is a favorite pastime, a game they enjoy with friends and family when not working. Yet such a testosterone-driven and violent game is a product of the times. At the center of world imperialism, a system led by the banks and corporations in the U.S., the game represents the values of this society. Whether you like it or not, the essence of the game represents capitalist exploitation and greed. Racism is an important part of sustaining capitalism, because it destroys personal integrity and respect for humanity.
To change a society’s culture, you have to change its social and economic relations. Primary to this is to replace capitalist relations with ones that value human life, not as a commodity that makes money for the rich, but rather that serves the people. Then popular sports will show the strength and beauty of humanity — and of such tremendous athletes as Richard Sherman — free from racist demonization.