Why Richard Sherman Was Called A 'Thug' And Justin Bieber Wasn't

by Aaron Kaufman

Richard Sherman might have secured a spot on the Internet’s GIF Hall of Fame with his post-game rant after Sunday’s NFC championship game. However, the commentary surrounding Sherman's comical outburst has prompted a national discussion about whether or not aspects of our nation’s vernacular are inherently racist.

Given a night to digest Sherman’s epic eruption, countless commentators dissecting the incident came to work Monday with the same noun on their lips, ready to pin it to the elite Seahawks defender: thug.

And pin it to him they did.

According to iQ Media, the word “thug” was uttered 625 times across all markets, more than on any other day in the past three years. By Tuesday, that number climbed to more than 1,500, as sports analysts and news reporters alike sought to package Sherman’s entire identity in four letters.

The shutdown cornerback, who has admittedly stirred up his fair share of controversy since entering the NFL in 2011, exhibited contrition for his actions Sunday, while expressing frustration and anger for repeatedly being described as a thug, a word he equates to the N-word.

“The only reason [being called a thug] bothers me is because it seems like it’s an accepted way of calling somebody the ‘N-word’ nowadays,” said Sherman during a press conference on Wednesday. “There was a hockey game where they didn’t even play hockey. They just threw the puck aside and started fighting. I saw that and I’m like, ‘Wait, I’m a thug? What’s going on here?’ So I’m really disappointed in being called a thug.”

When one considers the word’s origins, it’s difficult to argue that Sherman is off-base with his analysis.

The term "thug" originates from the Hindi word "ṭhag" and the Sanskrit word "sthaga," used to describe a “thief” or “rogue,” and it is believed to date back to the mid-14th century. It was coined for well-organized professional assassins and Mafioso-like gangs found throughout India for several centuries.

Call Sherman bombastic, arrogant, or even unlikeable, but the man is no thug -- at least not by definition. In fact, he’s about as perfect an antithesis to the word as you’re likely to find.

After graduating as salutatorian from his high school in Compton, California (yes, that Compton), Sherman attended Stanford University, currently ranked the fifth-best overall university in the nation by US News and World Report.

There, he received a degree in communications, returning for a fifth year to get his master’s degree. By the way, he did this all while competing in both football and track and field at one of the country’s foremost programs.

Furthermore, Sherman doesn’t pride himself on his athletic ability, but rather, on his extensive preparation and study of the game:

“I feel like I’m a decent athlete, but my tape study and my meticulous attention to detail are what make me a good ball player,” said Sherman. “A lot goes into it man, a lot more than people think. Some dudes play with pure athleticism; I’m not one of those guys.”

So why, then, has a word that should be reserved for hardened criminals been used to define one of the NFL’s most studious players?

Richard Sherman’s publicly stated abhorrence of Michael Crabtree warrants such a description, while Justin Bieber virtually gets a pass after being arrested for drag racing while under the influence? I haven’t seen any Beliebers tweeting about him with #thug attached.

Shamefully, we must accept that certain words we have embraced as a society are actually racially coded substitutes for those we now consider repugnant.

However, just because the words themselves become unacceptable does not mean that the feelings behind them don’t linger in our minds.

Richard Sherman was labeled a thug simply because he was angry and black. Had Peyton Manning greeted Erin Andrews with the same intensity and tone in his post-game interview, we would have called it "passion."

Photo credit: Getty Images | Getty Images