"How do you feel about your reputation as a thug?"
Richard Sherman's not the household name Peyton Manning is, but he's taken an early lead in the race to be the most-discussed topic ahead of Super Bowl XLVII. Sherman is the stud cornerback who clinched Sunday's NFC Conference Championship with a gorgeous, leaping deflection, and then thoroughly upstaged himself minutes later with a loud, fiesty, staring-daggers-into-the-camera bout of trash-talking against the San Francisco 49ers, receiver Michael Crabtree, and everyone who might still question how good Sherman really is.
"Don't you open your mouth about the best, or I'ma shut it for you real quick!" And back to you, Joe Buck.
Sherman's post-play celebration got him penalized and got him slapped in the face. His post-game outburst made him the subject of an online uproar that called into question everything from trash-talking to race to whether or not Richard Sherman is actually good at football. But the whole thing almost felt pre-ordained, seen months ago by Sherman himself. His latest Sports Illustrated column on Monday addressed "those who call me a thug or worse," but it didn't need to — he has a rich endorsement deal to do that for him.
On Sunday, timed obviously around the high-stakes game, Beats released the latest in its series of "Hear What You Want" commercials. It's Sherman, at his locker in a T-shirt, headphones perched on his temples, patiently answering questions. His trash talk isn't distracting, he says, it's motivating. Not every kid from Compton is a gang member, he reminds reporters, barely suppressing an eye roll. One reporter leans over to another, in the back of the scrum, and says, "he thinks he's so fucking untouchable."
Sherman puts up with everything until someone asks if he's a thug. Then he, ace student and Stanford graduate, Sports Illustrated columnist, incorrigible trash-talker and controversy-stirrer, puts on his headphones and walks away as Aloe Blacc's "The Man" drowns out everything else.
Sherman is the man, statistically the NFL's best cornerback, and he wants everyone to know it. He especially wants Michael Crabtree to know it. This is the Beats message, the one it's promoted with everyone from Sherman to Kevin Garnett to Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback who threw the ball at Sherman on the last play of the game: just be yourself and play your game. (And listen to a lot of self-promoting, chest-thumping music.) No one does that better than Richard Sherman.
A lion doesn't concern himself with the opinions of a sheep.— Richard Sherman (@RSherman_25) January 20, 2014
Even Sherman's celebration, including a choking gesture to Colin Kaepernick, was itself a not-exactly-subtle call to another Beats commercial — of, appropriately, a Seattle crowd hurling food and insults in Kaepernick's general direction. (Though this week the crowd threw food at the injured Navarro Bowman, not Kaepernick.) Beats gets football, and Richard Sherman gets marketing.
Immediately after the game, "What do you expect? Sherman is a thug" lit up Twitter. Get out those headphones, Richard.
Are people surprised about Sherman? He's a thug, it happens— Blaine Stewart (@BlaineStewart41) January 20, 2014
Sherman is a thug. I can't wait to see him get blown up by Peyton and the Broncos receivers.— كء Nutts كء (@Nutts__) January 20, 2014
Sherman is a thug. Worst sportsmanship I've ever seen.— Clayton Fegett (@RedPandah) January 20, 2014
The other "Hear What You Want" commercials are standard overcoming-adversity fare — nobody believes in you, you're too old, and the like. Ads like Kapernick's are fine but forgettable, but Sherman's was something different. He knows exactly how people think and talk about him, and he's smart and brash enough to respond. Beats wound up a rare mix of lucky and good, its headphones on the ears of the epicenter of conversation ahead of the year's most-watched event.
It's almost surprising Sherman didn't finish his tirade, throw on a pair of Beats, and strut off the field in blissful silence, as the stadium's PA system blared "I'm the man I'm the man I'm the man." Hey, there's still the Super Bowl.