In the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLVIII, once it was clear that defeat — in fact, an ass-kicking — was imminent for the Denver Broncos at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks, Fox Sports’ Joe Buck attempted to put Peyton Manning’s career in perspective. Buck argued that, though unfortunate, a blowout of this magnitude should not drastically detract from Manning’s legacy. That Manning’s poor performance Sunday — two interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown — and now his losing win percentage in Super Bowl contests only represent a small part of who Manning is and what his 16-year career has meant to the game of football. Buck also reverently called him “classy,” a term often used to describe the five-time NFL Most Valuable Player.
Whether or not you believe Buck’s statement, the fact that he gave Manning’s legacy such a benefit of the doubt is a matter of privilege. It is a privilege that goes beyond competitive advantage and marketability (although those are certainly a privileges he enjoys) and beyond likability and the politics of respectability. As a white athlete, Manning has the privilege of not being defined in absolutes.
Following his epic Erin Andrews interview two weeks ago, Richard Sherman was labeled a “thug” by both newscasters and Twitter users. In response to the condemnation, numerous supporters rushed to his defense, decrying racism and lauding him for his impressive résumé — his Stanford education and his community service. Marshawn Lynch was excoriated by the Pro Football Writers of America who were “appalled” by his lack of cooperation on Media Day. As he told NFL Network’s Deion Sanders, “I'm just about that action, boss ... I ain't never seen no talking winning nothing." Some journalists, and fans, defended “Beastmode” — a nickname Lynch earned due to his resilient running style — for his minimalist approach (which met league obligations), even declaring it a teachable moment we all could learn from. Others saw it as an extension of his devious behavior, back-handedly complimenting Lynch for not being one of those “blunt-puffing, gun-wielding thugs who spend their millions on ice and vice and strippers” while denouncing him for failing to “make more of an effort to clean his stained reputation.”
Indeed, Sherman and Lynch’s actions may have contributed to their own public perception. However, no matter what they do, they seem to be reduced to one label or another. Peyton Manning, no matter how stellar or atrocious his performance on the field, isn’t confronted with such a dilemma. We see him for the complex being that he is.
It doesn’t take much to see Manning’s brilliance at the line of scrimmage; he orchestrates plays like a conductor would a symphony (Omaha!). His endearing personality and refreshing humor are center-stage in his multimillion-dollar commercials. The way he fields scathing questions following tough losses with dignity and earnestness is as easily recognizable as his knack for play-calling and his on-the-field vision. He is also a brother (to Eli) and a son (to Archie). He is a leader. And he is flawed. But he is not one or the other. He has the privilege of being everything at once. He is irreducible. There is seemingly no way to simplify him to a label.
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, one of the league’s most-liked players, hasn’t faced media or public criticism, perhaps in part because of how humble and reserved his persona is. Then there is Derrick Coleman, the league’s first legally deaf player. Before Sunday’s game, Coleman handed out free hearing aids to families in New York. He also invited two hearing-impaired girls, Riley and Erin Kovalcik of New Jersey, to watch the game after exchanging letters on Twitter. Despite playing one of football’s most bruising positions, fullback, Coleman has a reputation as a gracious, pleasant player. But what if Wilson and Coleman weren’t as conventionally palatable? What if their personalities were more brash or aggressive? How would the public respond? Would they become the villain? The thug?
The nature of racism is not simply a matter of of explicitly or implicitly expressing skepticism toward a particular group or social class. It is also an aversion to digging beneath the surface so that one can acknowledge the complex fabric that makes up the individual experience. To reject the impulse to form simple conclusions — assumptions — is to open oneself to seeing the man behind the helmet, as a whole human being. As Richard Sherman has noted, there is a time and place for everything: humility, confidence, reservation, aggression, shit talking and focus. That is who we are. “I really don’t know how to be anybody else,” Sherman said. “I can only be myself.”
Ironically, on the biggest stage in America, Bruno Mars capped off his Pepsi Halftime performance with his hit song titled “Just the Way You Are.” It is one of those old-school, hippie, unconditional support joints, an upbeat love overture that aims to upend our obsession with trivial imperfections — our human flaws — that envelop our daily interactions and relationships. The official music video has more than 361 million hits on YouTube, but in case you’ve never heard the song before, the hook is worth noting:
When I see your face (face face…)
There's not a thing that I would change
‘Cause you're amazing (amazing)
Just the way you are (are).
Following the lights dimming on Mars’ performance — which included a collaboration with the shirtless Red Hot Chili Peppers — play resumed and a parody Twitter account, @FauxJohnMadden, tweeted: “Bruno Mars ... because nothing says NFL Football like ‘I love you the way you are’ #SB48.” Although the account is satire, the message is a keen take on our failure to see the individual brilliance in the athletes, to give them the benefit of a thorough look into who they are.
In the coming weeks, we will surely test both the words of Joe Buck and the vision of Bruno Mars as we hear more about Manning’s legacy. Analysts and pundits will get in the weeds on who he is and what his career has meant to the game. To give Manning such an in-depth evaluation is the least we could do for a man who has impacted the game the way he has. But such illumination shouldn’t be reserved for the privileged white athlete. It should extend to everyone.