I’ve never witnessed such a massive campaign as that which is clogging my Facebook news feed today from people jumping to Richard Sherman’s defense. Some of it an all-out justification of his comments; some taking the more nuanced position of there being two sides to every story and that we shouldn’t judge a person by a few careless comments spoken in the heat of the moment when adrenaline is running high.
I have two observations on the latter, more nuanced position: (1) it’s a good and charitable one, and (2) it’s one quickly forgotten when assessing a rival team member. The campaign itself is a textbook illustration of the fundamental attribution error at work. How would our city be reacting if Sherman were on another team’s roster? How about a rival team’s roster? Approach the thought experiment honestly. It’s no different than political tribalism playing out in another domain—we are far quicker to attribute the antics of rival tribe members to intrinsic character flaws, and more quick to forgive and/or rationalize the antics of members of our own tribe to circumstantial factors such as adrenaline or momentary lapses in judgment that are an exception to the rule. (We also assume the rival tribe is more prone to this double-standard than we ourselves are.)
As a mere sports observation, this is neither surprising nor interesting. Because in the end, football is just a game (and as one friend reminded me today, falls as much, if not more, in the “entertainment” category as the “sports” category). We can agree in good humor on the inherent and accepted double standard in sports fandom that dictates we’d probably find a way to like players we currently despise if they were on our roster, just as we’d probably find a way to despise some of our own team’s players if they happened to be on our rival’s roster. There are of course exceptions—Russell Wilson is pretty hard to dislike, as is Peyton Manning, the only player I know of who, when caught on camera in a moment of frustration, looks like he might be mouthing “Dagnabbit.”
But as a broader-based observation about life, the fundamental attribution error has always fascinated me. Why is it that when I cut someone off on the highway, I feel momentary remorse that is quickly rationalized away by extrinsic factors (I was in a hurry for an important and/or noble reason, or distracted by traffic or other environmental factors that caused me to behave in a way that is outside the norm for me), but when someone else cuts me off, the exact same behavior is attributed to intrinsic character flaws (they are inconsiderate, perhaps even a jerk)? The inverse is true with positive events: a co-worker gets promoted over me and it’s all extrinsic (they were in the right place at the right time, had the right connections, etc.), but when I get promoted, it’s all intrinsic (I’m smart, a hard worker, and just that good).
What if we granted people the same level of charity afforded by Seattle fans to Sherman, but in higher stakes venues of life than a football game? Imagine what it would do to our own relationships, to our places of business, to our churches (ouch!) if we were able to conquer this attribution error. When it comes to assessing the character of sports figures, in most cases we know next-to-nothing about the 99% of their lives that are spent outside the public eye, how they interact with their families, where they spend their time, money, etc. What if, in humility, we recognized this same fact about the people we interact with in arenas of life that actually matter?
It’s a fitting question and a fitting reflection especially on this annual day of remembrance of Dr. King, who not only gave the benefit of the doubt where he was uncertain, but issued a bold challenge to love even those we know would wish to defeat us.
Somehow the ‘isness’ of our present nature is out of harmony with the eternal ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts us. And this simply means this: That within the best of us, there is some evil, and within the worst of us, there is some good. When we come to see this, we take a different attitude toward individuals. The person who hates you most has some good in him… And when you come to the point that you look in the face of every man and see deep down within him what religion calls “the image of God,” you begin to love him in spite of. No matter what he does, you see God’s image there. There is an element of goodness that he can never sluff off. Discover the element of good in your enemy. And as you seek to hate him, find the center of goodness and place your attention there and you will take a new attitude.
–MLK, from the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama on November 17, 1957
Perhaps sports fandom is a good training ground for this broader life application. With Seattle players and fans poised to garner more media attention in the coming weeks than in the past, maybe we can take advantage of the opportunity to set an example by rising above the biased moral grandstanding of our own and vitriol toward the other. Maybe if we’re faithful in the little things, we will be given responsibility over greater things (Mat 25:23). Far be it from me to want to foil anyone’s trash-talking in good fun, but I hope for a change in tone for a few reasons, not the least of which is that I don’t know enough about any of the Broncos players to be able to talk trash even if I wanted to, except for Manning.
But that jerk is just so likeable, dagnabbit.