Richard Sherman

The Seahawks traded Michael Bennett to the Philadelphia Eagles last night, and they’re expected to release Richard Sherman this week unless they can trade him.

I’m sad to see them go, but Seattle Times columnist Matt Calkins might or might not be:

“Do you hear that? Yeah, me neither.

And that silence is something we’re going to have to get used to. The once-brazen, boisterous Seahawks just got a whole lot quieter.

No more Michael Bennett? So long, Richard Sherman? Transcribing quotes is suddenly going to be a lot more tedious.

But the two most polarizing players in the Seahawks’ locker room were also the most interesting.”

From there, Calkins offers more lukewarm and backhanded praise of Bennett and Sherman. Calkins doesn’t make much mention of their impressive in-game work, which earned both men high professional honors, two Super Bowl appearances, and one Super Bowl trophy.

Instead, Calkins mentions Sherman’s “arrogance” and says that “Sherman first grabbed the nation’s attention by clowning anyone who dared to diss him. …Whether you were grinning or cringing, you were definitely watching.”

Calkins’ appropriation of hip-hop derived slang is as forced and cringe-worthy as the tepid praise he offers for Bennett and Sherman in the rest of the piece. The rest of the column positions Sherman and Bennett’s political advocacy and activism as “chaos,” or “stressful” and “polarizing.”

The tone of the whole column is dismissive of the two men: it reads like a gentler version of “shut up and dribble.”  But I’m not surprised: Calkins also said Marshawn Lynch “wasn’t classy” when he left the Seahawks.

The Seahawks aren’t getting along, but it’s not because of politics

Calkins isn’t the only commentator who’s tried to tie Sherman and Bennett’s activism to the actual dissension that the Seahawks have created in their workplace. Calkins may actually be correct that the Seahawks are cutting ties with Sherman and Bennett because they are key players in the discord. It’s started to seem like management favors Russell Wilson.

But the bad feelings on the team aren’t related to activism; indeed, activism seems to be one of the only areas in which the very Black, very proud Seahawks seem to agree. All the team’s prominent Black public figures, including Wilson, have publicly backed Colin Kaepernick and Bennett in their ongoing advocacy against police brutality and mass incarceration—something that Bennett knows all about from brutal first-hand experience.

Instead, the real problem with the Seahawks goes back to That Play in Super Bowl 49. The defense, personified by Sherman, blames Wilson and the offense for the interception and Super Bowl loss. The offense, meanwhile, would like to tell you about the way the defense blew a two touchdown lead over the course of the fourth quarter.

That moment is the Seahawks’ turning point: every other conflict in their workplace must be viewed through the prism of that play. Politics has nothing to do with it.

The real reason Sherman and Bennett got cut

Even if you do think that the Seahawks cut Sherman and Bennett because the team doesn’t want to deal with their activism any more, keep in mind that it’s almost certainly not the main reason. As always, the real motivation is money.

Bennett and Sherman have large salaries and are old by football standards. The Seahawks are looking for cap flexibility, healthy players, and youth—like every other football team in every other offseason past, present, and future. Do not read any grand conspiracy into these particular transactions. It really is just business.

If you do want to read political or historical motive into football transactions, make it this: football trades in Black and brown bodies. The language around the football business— the way workers are deemed to be “on the block” because they are a “good deal” or “too expensive” for the “owner” of their labor, determinations based on measuring the workers’ “production” in the “field”— is reminiscent of the language of America’s original sin, the buying and selling of Black people as property.

All the other major sports also use these idioms, but it’s particularly galling in football. Football players are paid much less than their peers in other sports even as they endure more brutal working conditions. As a result, they’re much likelier than basketball or baseball players to become broke, disabled, mentally ill, or dead soon after their brutal careers.

Football players often grow up in difficult circumstances. Their lives are organized around earning the scholarship, then getting drafted to the pros, and then negotiating a big money contract. That big money football contract is extremely rare, and players usually don’t get anything close to the eye-popping amount of money teams announce they will give them. Indeed, that’s why the Seahawks are going to be able to cut Sherman, who personifies that unlikely Horatio Alger story, in the first place—they don’t have to pay him all the money they promised him in 2015. Someone who complains about the “arrogance” and entitlement of athletes of color chooses to ignore all that context.

A fond farewell

I believe Michael Bennett and Richard Sherman deserve vast amounts of praise on their way out of town. They made me proud to root for the Seahawks, with one notable exception in Bennett’s case. They’ve contributed more than most to this city and country’s civic life, and achieved more professionally than most of us ever will.

Bennett and Sherman have transcended the roles that American society and their deeply flawed industry would have them play. Their decency and candor have kept me engaged in football, even though I’m deeply ambivalent about it. It has been a pleasure to witness their excellence. For all of that, I’ll be rooting for them no matter where they play next year.