What’s in a Word and What Makes a Thug?

by Garrett Coble
opinions editor

     In case you haven’t noticed, I love words. I enjoy the diverse sounds the same group of letters can produce if only rearranged. However, the disconnect between denotation and connotation probably interests me most. For the less definition-inclined, denotation references a word’s definition, while connotation includes the images and social constructs the word typically conjures. Usually we relegate such facts to trivia and nothing more. However, last week, a cornerback from the Seattle Seahawks propelled the issue to the forefront of sports and cultural talk.

     For those living under a rock, Richard Sherman, a member of the Seattle Seahawks, played an excellent game in last week’s conference championship and followed it with an even better interview, at least from a writer’s perspective. While the Stanford grad managed to keep his word choice acceptable, the manner in which he crowned himself the league’s best, and his attack on an individual player, ruffled lots of feathers in the sports world. This ruffling bled over into social media and ESPN, and Sherman soon became synonymous with the word “thug.”

     Literally, thug means “a violent criminal” according to Webster. Unlike many of his peers (see: Jovan Belcher), creating such a charge against Sherman would prove difficult. Yet other equally important meanings lace the word. Instead, in my mind, thug has also come to mean anyone conducting themselves offensively and in contradiction to the expected set of manners. While Webster fails to mention anything of the sort in the word’s definition, some believe racial overtones are inseparably entwined with the word. Thus, many objected to labeling Sherman, a man who volunteers in his old neighborhood and graduated with a 3.9 GPA, as a thug. Sherman’s actions set social media ablaze as the public tried to decide what exactly to call him. So who is right? Is he a thug, or is that just racism rearing its ugly head again?

Full disclosure, I am a Seahawks fan. As such, I’ve weighed in on this time and again. The arrogance and lack of decorum Sherman displayed makes him a thug, regardless of race, under the first connotation I associated with the word; significant portions of the public (myself included) expect top caliber athletes to let their game speak and zip their lips. Such an idea has long been present in sports, with recent competitors such as Michael Jordan and Ray Allen providing prime examples.

Now the question becomes the validity of holding Sherman to this definition. Regardless of the answer, from my perspective one can’t discount his positive actions with one postgame speech any more than excuse his narcissism because he volunteers in Compton. Next the question becomes whether or not to ignore the racial connotations some hitch to the word; I refuse to shy from the word for racial reasons and would label Wes Welker the same should he mouth off following this week’s game. I would include Bieber here also if not for length concerns. Perhaps ignoring this part of the word proves foolish on my end. Thus, maybe another word would fit better. If we are to believe Webster’s thesaurus, he might also be a punk, though I find him too lacking in the spiked pink hair department to warrant that label.

But I digress.

The real tragedy of such discussions, especially those on the Internet, remains the lack of progress. To question the use of a word or its racial implications can spur positive action, but it can also retard it. Eventually both sides of the discussion close their ears and rip the opponent for racism or crying wolf, depending on which side you fall. As such, the original situation remains unresolved and hatred spreads further. I typically abstain from remarking on issues such as this for a simple reason. Whether I try to contend if something seems racist, or if I point out the stupidity of such a claim, those opposing me rebuke with the same statement: “You wouldn’t understand, because you aren’t from around here.” A strange claim indeed.

I don’t pretend to harbor the quick fix to racism; all the facts mentioned above have helped it persist for thousands of years. Discounting opinions, vilification and attacking the speaker have served as faithful weapons to both sides of the discussion of Richard Sherman. Whether his actions off the field should matter represents a different question entirely. Regardless of his behavior, he is undoubtedly a fine cornerback. Nevertheless, when you are the best, spectators will expect you to act as such. Instead, for me Sherman acted as a thug.

Yet given the connotations and implications, you probably don’t want to say it.

     Disagree with what I’ve said? Post a comment below to express your opinion.