Before the Seahawks and 49ers playoff game, the average football fan had never heard of Richard Sherman. Now, people won't stop talking about him and whether or not he's a thug.
In case you somehow missed it, Sherman, a Seahawks cornerback, broke into a post-game rant after breaking up a 49ers end zone pass to receiver Michael Crabtree that sealed a 23-17 win for the Seahawks and a trip to the Super Bowl.
Sherman was asked to describe the final play of the game by Fox Sports interviewer Erin Andrews. His response:
"Well, I'm the best corner in the game! When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that's the result you're going to get. Don't you ever talk about me."
She asked him to whom he was referring, to which he said:
"Crabtree. Don't you open your mouth about the best, or I'll shut it for you real quick. LOB!"
"LOB" refers to the nickname of the Seattle defensive squad, "the legion of boom."
In the old days of the NFL, such trash talk was considered part of the game and an exciting way to build rivalries between teams. However, this kind of trash talk and bad mouthing has been curtailed by today's NFL.
Many official football pundits considered Sherman's comments to be a perfect example of the kind of bad taste and poor sportsmanship the NFL is attempting to eliminate.
Other commentators found Sherman's rant to be an open, frank and passionate expression of excitement from a young man who's key play was sending his team to its second Super Bowl.
To this sports writer, Sherman's in-game excitement was appropriate, if a bit self-aggrandizing. Perhaps he didn't need to put down another player so harshly to express his excitement, but that's between the two of them.
Besides, the knife edge cuts both ways. Post-game video has shown that Sherman attempted to shake hands with Crabtree after the game, but was only rebuked by a shove from an emotional Crabtree.
I find no problems with these emotional outbursts, as they are part of a highly competitive game from two volatile and exciting football teams.
Neither Sherman or Crabtree were being thugs. They were simply emotional players reacting to the exciting end of one of the biggest games of their careers.
Sherman's comments naturally became a huge debate on the nascent social media scene. Thousands of Twitter and Facebook profiles lit up with pro-Sherman or anti-Sherman statements.
Some of these comments were relatively free of insult or the horrific language that plagues social media comments.
For example, Tony Dungy tweeted: "Richard Sherman made the play to win it. But show a little class Richard. Sets up a great Super Bowl. Offense vs Defense."
Meanwhile, Twitter user Dan Levy expressed positivity at Sherman's statements: "People who are upset at Richard Sherman for his post game interview didn't watch the same game as me. I appreciate the passion, honesty."
However, a darker subset of the social media world decided Sherman's rants deserved the full range of their inchoate racism, with many stooping as low as using the n-word.
People that stoop to using such language are sad reminders that racism is still a persistent problem in this country.
The comments that really hit me were the ones that masked racism with less immediately offensive terms. Many of these commentators tried to mask their statements as "humorous."
These "funny" posts used phrases that may seem harmless, but which reinforce harmful racial stereotypes. Common phrases used by these "clever" posters to belittle Sherman were "monkey" and "ape."
"Lol don't mess with Richard Sherman, he will go bananas. Guys a fricken jungle monkey" went one typical response.
Posters like this try to play the "ironically racist" card. They claim that they know these terms are racist, but are simply using them to be make fun of racist though. Often, these users create a hashtag such as "#notracistjustfunny" to indicate the humorous intent of their statements.
A third group of angry social media commentators avoided the n-word and crude ape metaphors, but drug out the shopworn thug insult. Thug is a slur that has become increasingly common in today's racist lexicon.
Comments like "Sherman came across like a straight up thug" were used by many people to indicate distaste for his behavior.
Thug may not seem like a racial slur to many people. In fact, many gang members compliment each other by calling themselves "thugs." However, thug has a lengthy, and racist, etymology.
Hundreds of years ago, India was terrorized by the Thuggee gang. Members of this gang were called thugs. They were robbers and murderers that often posed as harmless travellers to lure in victims.
As a result, thug has connotations with plenty of nasty and unpleasant terms such as "thief," "fraudulent," and "scoundrel."
This term, which was is used people in India as a racially charged slur, now seems to mean "loud, scary, dangerous, black man" in America.
It is also used to insult non-African Americans whose appearance and behavior is similar to the "loud, scary, dangerous, black man" stereotype. For example, murder suspect and former Patriot Aaron Hernandez has been described as a thug due to his tattoos and large collection of guns.
Thug has also become a common insult thrown at our current president. Rush Limbaugh has referred to Barack Obama as a "Chicago thug" while Karl Rove has described his political actions as "some form of political thuggery."
I'm not picking political sides with these comments. Instead, I am simply pointing out the way that "thug" has evolved into accepted short hand for the n-word.
These commentators often claim they were unaware of the racial connotations of thug. I don't believe that for a second. They knew what they were saying and used the word on purpose.
The problematic nature of the word is not lost on the African American population, least of all on Sherman. After all, Sherman was Salutatorian of his high school class and graduated from Stanford as a communications major.
"The reason it bothers me is because it seems like it's an accepted way of calling somebody the N-word now," he said. "It's like everybody else said the N-word and then they say 'thug' and that's fine. It kind of takes me aback and it's kind of disappointing because they know."
According to a Deadspin article, thug was used 625 times on television the day after Sherman's remarks. The article claims that number is higher than its use any other day in the last three years.
The problem with the widespread use of this word is that it is indicative of a more subvert, secretive level of racism that does not and should not sit comfortably with anybody concerned with America's race relations.
Thug may not be the n-word, but it spreads the exact same message. Loud. Scary. Dangerous. Not to be trusted. The dreaded "other."
Richard Sherman's outburst will quickly fade from the memories of all but the most devoted sports nuts. After all, his post-rant behavior indicates a thoughtful and intelligent young man looking to move past the incident.
However, the reactions to his rant and the readiness of many people to racially stereotype and profile an excited and eager young black man indicates a mindset that won't disappear as quickly.