John Feinstein Blog: ‘Thug’ Label For Black NFL Players Must End

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(Credit: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

(Credit: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

The simplest dictionary definition of the word thug is very direct: A criminal.

Criminals, as we all know, come in many forms. They can be five guys in an alley who beat you up and take your wallet. They can also be Presidents; CEOs on Wall Street or those who use power to treat people badly.

One person who doesn’t fit any of those descriptions is Richard Sherman, the Seattle Seahawks superb cornerback.

Sherman may be mouthy — or loquacious. He may be cocky — or supremely confident. He may be immature — or he may be a 25-year-old still learning to deal with the spotlight. One thing he absolutely is not is a thug.

And yet, a week ago, that word was being tossed around to describe Sherman on Twitter and the Internet. And, while neither is the be-all and end-all when it comes to passing judgments on people, each has a huge audience. Which means that throwing words like that around, especially when they describe a young African-American who wears dreadlocks and, by the very nature of his appearance makes a portion of the population uncomfortable, can be dangerous.

It can also be racist and, at the very least, it is irresponsible.

Sherman’s ‘crime,’ was screaming into a FOX microphone at the conclusion of the NFC Championship game. The angriest word he used was, ‘sorry,’ to describe the talents of San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree. While you might not agree with Sherman’s scouting report, there was absolutely nothing threatening in what he said or even how he said it.

He was loud. He was abrasive. But a thug? Please.

Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, is a thug. He is a man who routinely uses the power of his government to destroy people’s lives not to mention bully those who don’t fit his idea of how one should live one’s life. Few people would think to call him a thug because he doesn’t raise his voice during public appearances and he doesn’t wear dreadlocks.

On an entirely different — and less important — level, NCAA President Mark Emmert and the college presidents who pay him $1.6 million a year to spread their propoganda, are thugs. They believe if they use the phrase, ‘student-athletes,’ 27 times in every sentence people will believe that those who play college football and college basketball are amateurs. Which means they should have no say in the rules that govern them and they certainly shouldn’t be allowed to share in the billions that the athletes make for the schools for whom they perform.

That’s why they all became apopleptic on Tuesday when a group of Northwestern football players filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board seeking to form a union. That’s why it took about 47 seconds for both Northwestern and the NCAA to issue breathless statements insisting that ‘student-athletes,’ couldn’t possibly be viewed as employees and thus can’t possibly be allowed to unionize.

Of course they can’t. Why? Because we say so. WE get all the money, not you. WE give coaches the right to take away a scholarship if you commit the ‘crime,’ of not being a good enough player.

These people aren’t thugs?

Of course they are.

So is Mark Steinberg, who is Tiger Woods’ agent.

Steinberg’s MO is simple: Threaten people. Often he will do it through Glenn Greenspan, who is Woods’ public relations guy. Greenspan is constantly firing off e-mails to anyone who criticizes Woods in any way, shape or form. If he doesn’t get the response he wants — whether it be an apology or a ‘correction,’ or a backing off on whatever the issue might be, then Steinberg is apt to step in.

On this subject I speak from personal experience. Two years ago, Newsweek assigned me to write a piece on Woods. To be honest, I wasn’t that eager to do it because I didn’t feel there was anything especially new to add to the Woods conversation. Someday — maybe — he will sit down with someone and share his true feelings on life, on his father, on how he destroyed his marriage and on his golf.

Until then, there is nothing new or interesting about Woods to me unless he has a golf club in his hands. That’s always worth watching.

I accepted the Newsweek assignment because the editor assigning the piece said, “the fact that you don’t want to do this makes me more eager to have you do it.”

Plus, the money was pretty good.

So, I did my due diligence: I sent an e-mail to Steinberg telling him that I was writing the piece and I would like to talk to Tiger. I knew the answer would be no but I had to ask or risk being criticized for not giving Woods a chance to respond to whatever I was planning to write. Steinberg wrote back in under five minutes: “Pass.” Which was fine. We had both done our jobs.

Only it didn’t end there. Within 24 hours, Newsweek editor Tina Brown — Steinberg only goes right to the top — had received a note citing all the reasons Newsweek should NOT allow me to write the piece. Most of them were the same: John doesn’t like Tiger and Tiger doesn’t like John.

Sometimes thugs pick on the wrong people. Remember the scene at the end of Superman 2 when Clark goes back to the diner and takes on the thug who had beaten him up when he lost his powers?

Not only did Tina Brown not care what Mark Steinberg thought if there had been ANY doubt about assigning me the piece it went away the second Steinberg’s letter landed on her desk.

Like Emmert and Putin, Steinberg and Greenspan look good in expensive clothes. They are eminently civil to people — even me. But that doesn’t make their tactics any less distasteful.

Clearly, they learned nothing from the Newsweek experience. That’s why they screamed and yelled last fall when Brandel Chamblee had the nerve to question Woods’ ethics after he consistently found himself in ethically questionable situations throughout 2013.

They got their pound of flesh — an ‘apology,’ from Chamblee but — again — they damaged their boss by making him look like a bully. Had they advised Woods to pick up a phone, call Chamblee and offer to get together with him over a beer, they would have earned their salaries.

Instead, they played the bully card and, no doubt, walked away smirking—believing they had won. Perhaps they should look up the definition of pyrrhic victory in the dictionary.

The worst thugs are those who pick a fight and then don’t stick around long enough to give their opponent a chance to respond. Sadly, the internet and twitter promote that sort of behavior.

Richard Sherman isn’t close to being a thug. If those who used that word to attack him want to find out what a thug looks like they should look in the mirror.

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