NFL’s Richard Sherman on Social Media: “You Can Only be Yourself”

[Updated 4/24]
He’s one of the best players on the NFL’s top defense, and just won the first Super Bowl in his team’s history.

But Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman might be just as well-known for another skill: highly entertaining online smack-talk with other NFL players.

There’s more than a bit of calculation behind his bravado—you’ll notice that Sherman sells t-shirts emblazoned with his famous taunts on his own website.

Maybe that’s why Harvard invited Sherman, along with three other NFL veterans, to speak to students at the school’s Innovation Lab about how they leverage their outsized public personas for business and philanthropic pursuits. [Clarified location of event.]

Much of the discussion revolved around social media, particularly Twitter, which has become a very popular tool for athletes to interact with each other, the media, and fans.

“If you pay attention, you can start to get a feel for how your brand is doing. How people judge your suit, your shoes,” Sherman said. “All of that information is valuable. It’s social capital—it’s something that you can turn into monetary value.”

Sherman noted he doesn’t, however, get paid to tweet about one of his favorite candies, Gushers—but “they do send me lots of Gushers,” he said to laughs from the crowd.

Sherman’s penchant for using social media to tweak his opponents really began to turn heads when Seattle beat the New England Patriots in a close game in 2012.

Shortly after that game ended, Sherman took to Twitter and turned his postgame meeting with star quarterback Tom Brady into an instant classic Internet meme. He took the photo down pretty quickly, but it was up long enough to live forever online:

U Mad Bro original

Since then, Sherman’s also engaged in verbal jabs with former Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount, who had the audacity to suggest former teammate Aqib Talib was the best cornerback in the game.

He also locked horns with Washington Redskins corner DeAngelo Hall, for no real reason.

Another top NFL corner, Darrelle Revis, also found himself embroiled in one of Sherman’s regular sparring sessions.

But as fans around the country found out after Sherman’s lengthy, public defense of his now-legendary postgame rant following this year’s NFC championship, Sherman is a complex, cerebral guy—he’s got a degree in communications from Stanford, after all.

Sherman continued that discussion on Wednesday.

“People judged off a knee-jerk reaction: `Oh man, he’s that guy. It doesn’t matter what he’s done in life, who he’s helped as a person … he’s one of the worst. He’s worse than a criminal,'” Sherman said. “I can judge everyone in this room off a bad moment, your worst moment, and catch it on tape.”

But on social media and in the public eye generally, Sherman said, his philosophy is to avoid scripts and talking points: “You can only be yourself, because everybody else is taken. So you can’t make up stuff.”

Former NFL player and players’ union president Domonique Foxworth, now a Harvard Business School student, said the broader cultural reaction to Sherman’s outburst and a lack of nuance in debate about public figures was a big part of why he wanted to organize Wednesday’s panel discussion, also attended by Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald and Houston Texans running back Arian Foster, both active social media users.

“Regardless of how you try to portray yourself on Twitter, its only 140 characters,” Foxworth said. “Richard’s story is `He’s a shit-talking thug,’ because that’s what people want to think about him.”

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