Richard Sherman introduced himself to much of America on Jan. 19, shortly after his game-clinching tipped pass sent his Seattle Seahawks to Super Bowl XLVIII. In a postgame interview, millions watched as Sherman looked into the camera and hurled a mass of smack talk, proclaiming, “I’m the best corner in the game!” and calling one foe “sorry.”
Sherman’s rant solidified his reputation as one of the brashest and most candid players in the buttoned-up NFL. More important, it sparked a national conversation about race, stereotyping and sportsmanship. When critics labeled the dreadlocked defensive star a “thug,” Sherman, a Compton, Calif.–raised Stanford graduate, engaged the debate, asking if the term was today’s way of calling him the N word? In a heartbeat, Sherman altered the discourse and emerged as the smartest voice in the room.
At a time when most pro athletes flee social questions, Sherman tackles them head on. And he backs it up on the field too, leading the Seahawks to their first Super Bowl win. So keep talking, Sherm. We have much more to learn.
Gregory is a TIME senior writer covering sports and culture