The game within the game: Sherman, Manning and the Super Bowl

Workers shovel snow off the seats at MetLife Stadium as crews removed snow ahead of Super Bowl XLVIII following a snow storm, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014, in East Rutherford, N.J. Super Bowl XLVIII, which will be played between the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks on Feb. 2, will be the first NFL title game held outdoors in a city where it snows. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)


At first glance, Denver vs. Seattle looks like a matchup that offers little in the way of a Philly fan’s rooting interest. But the presences of Seattle’s Richard Sherman and Denver’s Peyton Manning will see to it that most fans will take a side in time for Sunday’s kickoff.

Sherman, Seattle’s Pro Bowl cornerback, became a household name in the wake of his live interview on FOX after the Seahawks’ NFC championship victory over San Francisco.

Calling himself “the best cornerback in the game,” Sherman, among other things, declared that his San Francisco adversary Michael Crabtree was “a sorry receiver.”

“Don’t you ever open your mouth about me,” Sherman told Crabtree, through FOX’s Erin Andrews, “or I’ll shut it for you real quick!”

In the aftermath, Sherman was labeled a ‘thug’, a poor sport and any number of other titles by incensed sportswriters, while an opposing faction lauded his honesty and intensity in a world where sports figures are almost without fail measured and calculated in their media interviews.

Dr. Joel Fish, Ph.D., director for The Center for Sport Psychology in Philadelphia, says he’s surprised it’s taken this long for an interview like Sherman’s to happen. “I’m always amazed how 99 percent of the time, even in the heat of competition, a reporter can stick a microphone in an athlete’s face—and that athlete says all the right things or responds with a cliché,” says Dr. Fish.

And that’s what one group of fans like about Sherman—his honest, very real personality in a world of measured responses. Sherman didn’t swear or physically threaten anyone, but he did give a glimpse into how a personal rivalry, real or contrived, can motivate a professional athlete.

After the game, it was revealed that Sherman and Crabtree have a bit of a history in terms of personal rivalry that goes beyond their on-field battles. “The game within the game can be fascinating,” Dr. Fish admits. “Michael Jordan’s probably the most famous example of finding motivation from opponents.”

Indeed, while no one would ever question Jordan’s credentials, there are dozens of examples of legendary Jordan performances that immediately followed on-court incidents or comments from opponents that Jordan perceived as a slight to him or the Bulls. If Sherman was employing a similar tactic for motivation, it’s clear where the impetus for his postgame rant originates.

“This interview was 30 seconds after the game ended,” continues Dr. Fish. “My initial reaction was that we shouldn’t over-read anything into Sherman’s personality based on an interview that happened seconds after what was probably the biggest game of his life.”

That doesn’t mean, however, that fans have to like it. “I’m not excusing his behavior, even if I do understand it,” clarifies Dr. Fish. “My initial reaction was that his behavior was inappropriate. I do a lot of my work with kids, and when children and other athletes see that example, I think it reinforces all the wrong things about sportsmanship and the way we treat opponents. It doesn’t teach the right things. So I understand it, but I don’t endorse it. In fact, I think it’s problematic.”

Across the field from Sherman on Sunday will be Peyton Manning, the future Hall of fame quarterback for the Broncos. If you were to poll NFL fans and ask them “which player is least likely to duplicate Sherman’s postgame interview?” Manning would likely finish at the top of the list. It’s quite possible the most interesting comments to come from Manning have occurred in a Papa John’s commercial.

“The positions require different personalities,” points out Dr. Fish. “A cornerback, a safety, needs to be fueled by intensity and emotion. As a quarterback, I believe that level of intensity would affect your decision-making over the long haul. So I’d be surprised to see any quarterback show that kind of emotion.”

(That’s not to say it doesn’t happen. Dr. Fish cited a Monday Night Football game earlier this season, in which New England’s Tom Brady literally followed an official off the field, berating him over what Brady felt was a missed call on the game’s final play.)

That doesn’t mean quarterbacks like Manning aren’t competitors—far from it. “If anything, Peyton Manning’s the most competitive player on the field, as are most quarterbacks,” says Dr. Fish. “It’s about channeling that competitiveness into your specific skill set.”

So in a society that claims to love the underdog, why does it seem that most otherwise neutral observers are siding with Denver on Sunday? Manning, the second-generation NFL quarterback with his record-breaking offense, is the physical embodiment of the expectation for success—while Sherman and the Seahawks embody more of a smash-mouth, old-school football approach to the game.

“I think the injuries, the neck surgeries he’s come back from, have humanized Manning quite a bit to the average fan,” says Dr. Fish. “Regardless of his pedigree, now he has overcome adversity. Fans respect the perseverance and courage that requires. It’s made it easier for people to relate to him, and as a result I think he has many more people rooting for him than he would otherwise.”

There’s no question than Manning and Sherman are both at the top of their professions. What was as recently as last week painted as a battle of “good vs. evil” may ultimately come down to which player—and which team—can effectively channel their respective approaches to competitiveness.

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