In my little corner of the world — the conservative commentariat, where, I don’t think Coates would protest too loudly, greater concentrations of racial angst are purported to exist — I was surprised by how thoroughly mixed the reaction to Sherman was. There were those who shared my annoyance at Sherman’s want of grace but also plenty who were quick to remind that the NFL is about entertainment, or to assert their preference for raw emotion over tired sports clichés, or to see the lament over Sherman’s comments as evidence of American pansification (the black conservative pundit Jerome Hudson was among those to voice this last view).
I agree with that sentiment as far as it goes, and I have written in this space about the NFL as an institutional outlet for the sublimated warrior instincts of a nation of gentle accountants, one that is “ritualized, highly choreographed, and controlled [with] . . . elaborate rules and a heritable culture that prevent it from spilling into pure gladiatorial combat.” But I think the “Sherman haters are just whiners” misses the point. One of the unwritten rules of the NFL, and of sportsmanship in general, is that it’s at least open to debate whether trash talk is permissible before or during a game, but it is never done after a game — much less a win.
There are those who think talking trash ahead of a tough game can get you inside your opponent’s head, though many of the greats have believed the opposite to be true, that trash talk motivates opponents. Bill Belichick is of that school and has a zero-tolerance policy with his players. But wherever you come down on that, there can be little competitive advantage to trash-talking enemies who have already been crushed. Football is perhaps the most martial of the major American sports, and it imports from American military culture — or at least it used to — our conviction that even the bitterest of enemies, once pacified, should be treated with dignity. Even William T. Sherman, America’s most infamous practitioner of total war, understood this distinction. And that’s what General Sherman’s namesake missed.