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How Did Russell Wilson Get To Be So Hated?

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - NOVEMBER 27: Russell Wilson #3 of the Denver Broncos confers with teammates on the sideline during their game against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium on November 27, 2022 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Russell Wilson has been in the news again. On Friday, The Athletic reported on his tumultuous first season with the Denver Broncos, sharing tidbits about his big-boy office with an "open door policy," his personal staff and input on the playbook, and his penchant for mixing inspirational quotes into the huddle, as if he's starring in his own personal Rudy film. It was reported that, prior to being traded to Denver, he had gone to Seahawks ownership asking for the dismissal of head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider. Wilson was quick to refute that particular assertion, but given the way he and Carroll's professional relationship fell apart, it's not a hard one to believe.

There have been a lot of assertions made about Russell Wilson over the past few years: He's kind of a diva, he has a huge ego, he associates himself more with management than with players, he's too focused on his brand, he's a cornball. But after having his worst year as a quarterback since he was drafted in 2012 and leading, along with coach Nathaniel Hackett, the sinking ship that was the 2022 Denver Broncos, the knives have really come out. There have been subtle digs from his former coach, less subtle digs from his former teammates, and even a kicker getting in jabs. Add to all of that the usual collection of pundits holding up every game as a referendum on how much Wilson's position in the league is slipping.

The type of pile-on is typical—when you don't win, all of your flaws and issues become magnified. In Wilson's case, however, it can all feel a bit excessive at times. There is more than just disagreement with how Wilson conducts himself at play here. Those who know him and those who do not both seem to direct genuine vitriol towards him.

No one seems to be enjoying Wilson's downfall more than Richard Sherman, his former teammate who played a key role in their Super Bowl 48 win as the most vocal mouthpiece of the Legion of Boom. He's never had any qualms about sharing his issues with Wilson. Much of those problems can be traced to the infamous final play in Super Bowl 49, in which Wilson threw a goal-line interception while the whole world was screaming for him to hand the ball off to Marshawn Lynch. It was a bad call, but bad calls happen; to Sherman and many others, it was a symptom of an organization showing favoritism to Wilson—who in their eyes had become separate from the team and more or less aligned with management—above all else. Whether that's completely fair or not doesn't matter—they feel that way. Much of the animosity towards Russell Wilson seemed like an extension of the resentments the team had towards their head coach, and as things fell apart between Pete and Russ, Sherman, armed with a new podcast, began an "I told you so" crusade about the Seahawks' front office's loyalty to Wilson.

To be fair to Sherman, it doesn't really seem like he's wrong. The theme that keeps coming up in all these stories about Wilson is that he's separated himself from the guys on his team, behaving almost as a second coach on the field, or even worse, the "cool boss"—the type of guy who will throw three interceptions and then bring in a frozen margarita machine on casual Fridays to seem like he's still your pal. It's annoying, sure, maybe even lame. Is it that different from Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady? I'm not totally convinced.

If there is a reason that can be pinpointed as to why there seems to be so much ire directed as Wilson, it's that he comes across as a phony. The one thing people universally respond badly to is fakeness. Aaron Rodgers and Kyrie Irving might be actual kooks, but they are earnest about it, and while earnestness is easy to laugh at, it's equally easy to respect. Everything about Russell Wilson feels like it has been market-tested by a controlled panel of image experts. From his insistence on having a slogan for whatever team he's playing for, to the inspirational quotes in his office, to stunts like working out on a plane and making sure the press knows about it, it goes beyond being a try-hard into something ridiculously stage-managed. To paraphrase another image-conscious husk of a human being: there is an idea of a Russell Wilson, some sort of abstraction, but there is no real him.

Now, the question becomes why does anyone believe they are owed the "real" Russ. It's long been a bad habit of society to want access into the more personal aspects of our public figures in order to connect to them better. While many are happy to acquiesce, we tend to have a bad reaction to those that don't, particularly if what we get instead is a PR-friendly version. It happened with Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, just to name two. Neither of those guys were fake necessarily, but they were very particular about what they gave you, and it created a desire to dig up dirt wherever it could be found.

The only cool thing about Russell Wilson is that he's married to Ciara, and even this has fueled some of the mixed attitudes about him. Their relationship has been the basis for the very easy and tired argument about whether or not he's "corny" or uncool. Wilson is absolutely a cornball, but so what? It's fine to be corny; many people like corniness, particularly as you get older. This is the type of thing that only black athletes and celebrities have to contend with, as if being cool is some sort of black birthright. White athletes tend not to have their corniness used against them. Baker Mayfield’s corniness has only gotten him more commercials. There's always these sorts of lingering questions with regard to the black quarterback especially. We've grown used to their existence but there's still a racial dynamic with regards to QB play: the "pocket passer" or the "run/scramble first" guy. It's not the neatest division, particularly in this era of quarterbacking, but Wilson has certainly tried to identify himself as the former and in a lot of ways it has worked for him as a player and against him as a person.

Wilson doesn't have the cooler aspects that people (rightfully) like in Lamar Jackson or Jalen Hurts, but he also garners more respect for the more cerebral part of his game in a way those guys (unfairly) never will. Also, to go back to Wilson seeing himself as part of management: as unfair as it may be, a black man aligning himself with the front office (who are mostly if not all white) over being part of the team (which is mostly black) is going to send a distasteful message to people in a way that won't apply to Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. Let's be honest: If the Colin Cowherds of the world like you, that's not exactly going to endear you to most people.

All of this stuff, from his managerial position to the phoniness, to the brand overkill to the worsening play, creates a perfect storm of resentment and animosity that has finally found its opening to all come out. Plenty of it is earned but just as much of it is probably unfair. A lot of the things said about Russell Wilson have come to feel like overkill after while. Even former teammate Marshawn Lynch, who also never quite bonded with Wilson, intimated that he worried about Wilson's mentality throughout everything that happened last year on Sherman's podcast. He wished he could reach out to him out of kindness but more than insinuated that he'd have to go through Wilson's manager to actually talk to him, adding more speculation about the distance he kept with many teammates. But whatever the reasons for hating Russell Wilson, they are ultimately all circumstantial. He got the situation he asked for and had his worst year in the league. If he can play better under new head coach Sean Payton, it won't matter what reasons people have for hating him. Winning comes with silence.

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