I woke up today pretty sure I wouldn’t be writing this blog. Stories like this one tend to die down after about 48 hours. But if my Twitter and Facebook feeds are any indication, Super Bowl stories have a longer shelf life. And this is indeed a Super Bowl story. It is a story about the best cornerback on the planet, who made one of the classic plays in championship history, bringing his team to the brink of the most coveted title in American sports.
Let me start with a confession. I am a life-long San Francisco 49ers fan. I grew up 50 miles north of the Bay Area, born in 1981. Growing up in the shadow of Candlestick in the heart of the Bill Walsh era, my affection for the franchise runs deep. But before I continue, let me tell you about my dad.
My earliest sports memory is from the mid-1980’s. The company my dad worked for used to celebrate the Super Bowl with these massive parties. I remember sitting in front of a giant TV with a entire bucket of Red Vines in my lap, watching grown men high five, yell at the television, chest-bump when something great happened, and bury their heads in dejection when something not-so-great happened. My dad was among these men in those rooms, but in a strange way he was also not among them. After a life-time of watching sports with my dad, I have learned that he views them differently than most American males. He is interested, particularly when I am very interested, but he doesn’t get too high or too low.
Another vivid memory from growing up watching sports with my dad is the mute button. I began to notice this at about age 12 or 13 when my dad would show his disgust over something occurring in a football game by muting the television. In these moments he was no respecter of teams or players. He wouldn’t mute it when a referee missed a call, when an announcer made a specific comment, or when the opposition pulled ahead. It was the things that happened in between or after the plays on the field that drove him nuts. He would mute the TV when players would show up their teammates or opponents through excessive celebration, trash-talking, or taunting. This was before such things were politically incorrect, or referees threw flags for every seeming glance in the wrong direction. I didn’t realize it as a young teenager, but what my dad was doing in those moments was instilling a value system in me that I wouldn’t be able to define or recognize until I became a man.
I played sports competitively all through my childhood and into my early twenties. I struggled at times with an over-competitive emotional immaturity, or “passion for the game” as they call it these days. I wrestled with that into my twenties, not simply in sports, but through the maturation process in life. But as I look back to playing competitive sports, something stuck with me on the field, which informed my attitude and behavior in victory or defeat. It was the mute button. At times in the car on the way home from a game or a few days after a game (win or lose) my parents would subtly (or not-so-subtly) affirm the importance of the mute button in my life. What were they muting? My arrogance. My sinful tendency to self-glorify. My perspective that my talents or ability to bring about a desired outcome in a given activity were worthy of worship. My knee-jerk tendency to want to denigrate an opponent or exalt my contribution above my teammates. Mute.
Another confession: I could just as easily have titled this blog “What My Dad Taught Me About Michael Crabtree” or “Colin Kaepernick” or certainly “Anquan Boldin,” but let’s be honest, you may not have taken the time to read it. My goal here is not to focus on one individual from one team, but on a systemic reality we witness in the world of sports. Go figure: a number of guys in their 20’s who are idolized for their athletic prowess, and paid millions to display it, have arrogance problems. It’s not exactly breaking news. When Kaepernick kisses his bicep or shows up an opposing player after a TD, or Boldin jumps around and does 7 back-flips after a 6 yard gain on 1st down, believe me, I roll my eyes along with the rest of you. I didn’t use their names in the title of this blog because no one is talking about them this week (except us die-hard 49ers fans who are really getting excited about the draft and the free agent market).
Here is the reason I’m adding my two cents to the noise on the Sherman thing. Of all the articles I’ve read on his post-game heat-of-the-moment actions, there is one thing I haven’t read yet (and maybe I just missed it). As the dust is settling and the spin machine has taken over (which started about 2 seconds after his interview with Erin Andrews) we are swallowing, hook, line, and sinker some pretty ridiculous angles on this story. We are jumping to his defense, making excuses for his actions, explaining it away as we say “you really don’t know the real Richard Sherman,” as if we play golf with him on the weekends. The Huffington Post informed me this morning that the reason I (and many in America) feel like he stepped over a line in that moment is because we’re “not ready for a kid from Compton to succeed.” So, it’s actually our fault for forming an opinion about something someone did, rather than theirs. In essence, Sherman’s background, amazing talent, and phenomenal life-story (it really is noteworthy) are a credit to him when he does something great, but make us all arrogant, oppressive, and close-minded if he happens to lack self-control in a heated moment.
I’m writing this post (as I do each post on this blog) as a pastor to readers who are primarily Christians, many of whom are in Christian leadership in a local church setting. I’ve seen so many come to the defense of Sherman in a way that is a little disturbing, to be frank. As Christians, I think we can validate someone’s amazing athletic talent and remain fiercely loyal to our favorite team, without necessitating that we validate and justify every one of their actions on and off the field.
That scene at the end of the game was ugly. It was as ugly as the scene that I make when my sinful nature exposes itself in an unbridled act of arrogance. You can love the player without ignoring that, and especially without glorifying it by attempting to justify it. I don’t know Richard Sherman. From what I have seen there are a number of amazing men in the Seahawks organization, even coaches and players who came out publicly before the last game to say that “Jesus is better than going to the Super Bowl.” That is awesome. For all I know Sherman could be that kind of guy in real life. But as I witnessed that scene (and particularly the spin on it the last 72 hours) I have been reminded about something my dad taught me. It is something that the Bible reveals to us about human nature. It is a fundamental doctrine that we must understand and get right in the church. It’s the doctrine of original sin.
Kevin DeYoung says it this way: “We are born into the world with a bent toward evil and in need of a Savior.” Even as Christians, we still struggle with that nature. We are, according to Martin Luther, “at the same time justified and sinner.” As the prophet Jeremiah said:
Jeremiah 17:9: The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?
As Christians we must recover a biblical understanding of original sin. If we miss the fact that we, as human beings, are “by nature children of wrath,” then we will not rightly understand or embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ. Only sinners are in need of a Savior. Only dead people need resurrection. If we are all simply “misunderstood nice guys” then the cross of Christ wasn’t necessary. If every sinful, self-exalting action can be explained away as “passion” or “adrenaline” or “not who I really am” or “someone else made me do it” then we’re probably OK without the gospel. In that case it’s not really the “good news,” it’s just news, take it or leave it.
So what was it my dad taught me about Richard Sherman? Well, it wasn’t really a lesson about Richard Sherman at all. It was a lesson about myself. When my dad muted the noisy gyrations of my favorite football players during their self-glorifying touchdown dances he was muting me. He wasn’t trying to make me give up on my sports heroes, he was teaching me to keep them in perspective.