Will white Americans ever get past their obsessive fear of the “big, black brute”?
Seattle Seahawks football player Richard Sherman’s fantastic post-game victory interview with Erin Andrews on Sunday night after they beat the 49ers inspired a million think pieces, even more tweets, and gave sports commentators an endless amount of fodder to fill the airwaves between now and the Super Bowl in two weeks.
While most of the pieces have talked about whether it was okay to call Sherman a thug (it’s not), why we still call black men who speak with confidence “thugs” (racism, duh), and whether it was unsportsmanlike conduct (perhaps, but still entertaining), one thing that hasn’t been mentioned is that this tempest in a teapot has to do with who Richard Sherman was talking to.
Because many of the headlines after the event focused on Andrews’ supposed reaction:
The Huffington Post ran this piece, with the headline: “Richard Sherman’s Rant May Have ‘Scared’ Erin Andrews, Definitely Bothered Some on Twitter.” Reporter Christ Greenberg reports that Michael Strahan cracked to Sherman, “I think you scared Erin Andrews.”
Business Insider’s story, headlined “Richard Sherman Screams At Erin Andrews During Awkward Post-Game Interview,” wrote that “a clearly stunned Erin Andrews held her composure long enough to ask a follow up.”
And Breitbart ran with the headline: “Richard Sherman Frightens Erin Andrews.”
At one point “poor Erin Andrews” was even trending on Twitter. Some of those tweets were accompanied by a picture of Sigourney Weaver with her face next to the terrifying Alien Queen from Aliens.
If you’re not familiar, Richard Sherman is a six foot three, 200-pound black man built of solid muscle. Erin Andrews is a comparatively petite blond white woman who is about five foot ten and weighs 125 pounds.
The tenor of the headlines led me to think: What if Richard Sherman had given that interview to Pam Oliver, a veteran reporter who is black? Or, more to the point, what if he’d given that interview to a man, of any race? Would we be talking about this so much? At all?
The narrative that came out of the Sherman-Andrews interaction stems from the fact that the visual imagery of a big black man yelling while standing next to a petite white woman still upsets many Americans (59 million of whom watched that game and saw that interview). Faster than you can say, “Mandingo stereotype,” Twitter blew up.
Perhaps another part of the issue here, is that along with racism, America’s still not gotten a grip on its sexism issues either, especially when it comes to female sports reporters who are damned if they do, damned if they don’t.
Erin Andrews is a quintessential all-American pretty blonde who has been covering football for over 13 years—she started in 2000 in Florida. But according to sportswriter Jeff Pearlman, she’s basically a Kardashian—talentless and only famous because of her looks. Pearlman is among those who are blaming Andrews and her interview skills as the reason Sherman came off badly. Because she didn’t ask the “right” questions, she somehow allowed Sherman to make a fool of himself because she didn’t ask a better follow up. (Others seem to think that Andrews’ reaction to Sherman was “condescending.”) The “reasoning” goes that Andrews’ supposed incompetency is the reason America is having a racist response to Sherman.
And pretty little Erin Andrews still needs protection from big, yelling men.
Incidentally, her fellow sideline reporter that night, 52-year-old Pam Oliver, who has been a sports reporter since 1991, also fell prey to the social media’s wrath on Sunday. Apparently no one liked her new hairdo. Cue totally racist meme comparing her to Chewbacca. Really.
Female sports writers still suffer many indignities that their male counterparts don’t—like getting kissed on the field by men when they are just trying to do their job (Some infamous incidents: Joe Namath to Suzy Kolber in 2003, and more recently, 50 Cent to Andrews).
So to review: If you are a female sports reporter, if you are too pretty, you are clearly not smart enough to do a postgame interview with the players (let alone commentate. But players will still want to kiss you. And if you are not pretty enough, the public has the right to trash your appearance. (P.S. Brush up on your Ernest Hemingway quotes.)
As for Andrews: Was she really crying after the game? Listen to what she said in her several post-game interviews, in which she praised Sherman, and clarified a few things:
She explained that she knew who Sherman’s rant was directed at: the 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree. Like a good interviewer, Andrews just wanted Sherman to say it, in his own words. And no, Andrews was not scared of a big, black man. That would be the media’s projecting a very loaded image that dates back to Reconstruction—there is a long tradition of black men being wrongfully accused of sex crimes against white women, and subsequently lynched (e.g., the Scottsboro boys, who were wrongfully accused—and hanged—for the rape of two white women).
“I don’t want this to look like I was upset with him, ‘I was frightened,’ ‘I felt threatened.’ We all like Richard Sherman a lot at Fox,” Andrews told USA Today’s For the Win. “At that moment I saw how crazy it was going to blow up, and I wanted to make sure people knew it wasn’t a situation where I’m a victim and he acted like an idiot.”
On Dan Patrick’s radio show she said: “He lost his mind and it was awesome for once. He never threatened me, or cussed at me or the camera, and I never was frightened.”
Maybe America should take a cue from Andrews, who knows how to do her job—capturing a player’s postgame adrenaline-fueled revelry—and stop projecting our own racist and sexist fears onto her.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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