Here’s advice every athlete should heed: “Let your play speak for itself.” Instead, Richard Sherman, the outspoken cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks, is at it again, this time in a media sparring match with Patrick Peterson, an All-Pro cornerback for the Arizona Cardinals. Peterson said he was the best cornerback in the NFL, even better than the lauded Sherman, whose job Peterson said was “easier.” Sherman fired back publicly and a who’s-better-than-whom debate ensued, even causing ESPN’s analysts to add their own two cents. Such debate is fun when it happens between fans in a sports bar or when Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon shout each other down on ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption.It’s far less pleasant when players do it publicly.
Verbal sparring is entertaining on the field and in the locker room. It’s part of sports culture and the life of the game. When an interviewer asks a blunt question to an athlete it’s refreshing to hear an honest answer, not the canned, boring clichés most often proffered. But when the self-touting and arguments happen through the media it comes off as arrogant posturing and in poor taste.
When I read the back-and-forth between Peterson and Sherman it reminded me of the story from Luke 9 when the disciples were arguing about who was the greatest. Jesus responded, “He who is least among you all is the one who is great.” Of course, He was talking about a kind of spiritual greatness, a deeper greatness that doesn’t match this world’s understanding. But it can work in sports, too.
Think back to a couple weeks ago when Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player. In his acceptance speech (see video clip below) Durant thanked every Thunder teammate by name, and not only by name but also for something specific each player did to help or uplift him. Durant then poured out honor on his mother, a single lady, for doing what it took to put him in a position to succeed. Durant received the highest individual award in the game and spoke nothing of himself and his achievements.
Durant exemplified that being great means seeking to be the best, not at the expense of others but by bringing them along with you. To be great is to recognize the role others play in your success. No one is a self-made man (especially in team sports)—there is no such thing. Greatness comes from the pursuit of goals while helping others achieve theirs. If an athlete, or anyone else, rises to the top without realizing others helped put him there he is missing an aspect of true greatness.
The truest greatness is that which is seen by others not proclaimed by one’s self. That is part of what it means to be “least”—you are motivated by that which you must do and what others need you to do, not that which you have done. You let your work brag while your mouth encourages and teaches.