Now that some time has passed and we’ve seen the other side of Richard Sherman, it’s safe to say that his open mic performance of “Michael Crabtree, Mediocre Receiver” isn’t going to cost him much, if anything, long-term.

Sherman seems like a genuinely good, intelligent person with a moving backstory and a promising future. (Full disclosure: Like Sherman, I also went to Stanford, and his teammate, Earl Thomas, is one of my clients.) It’s unlikely that he’ll ever verbally pile-drive anyone else the way he did Michael Crabtree, and whatever future variations of his on-field persona show up, they’ll be mitigated by the person that everyone now knows is behind them.

The irony is that Michael Crabtree, not Sherman, is the one who stands to lose the most from this incident.

In a way, the Super Bowl bailed Sherman out of what otherwise could easily have been a significantly more damaging event. During the regular season, he wouldn’t have had much if any time to explain himself. He would likely have been pilloried by the media, and the “Don’t you ever talk about me!” side of who he was would have defined him as a new set of stories unfolded in a new week of games. Instead, Sherman got to spend two weeks explaining who he actually was at the one and only time that casual NFL fans care to listen. He pushed his Twitter following from under 300K to nearly 850K during that time. He likely created a ton of new endorsement possibilities. The timing could not have been luckier or better, and Sherman, to his credit, used those two weeks masterfully.

Things are going to be just fine — at least, for him.

The irony is that the target of Sherman’s ire, Michael Crabtree, is the one who stands to lose the most from this incident. After all, it was Crabtree’s talent that Sherman disavowed, and it was that dismissive proclamation — “ME-DI-O-CRE” — that ran tens of thousands of times across millions of screens for two weeks prior to the Super Bowl. Yes, we were all weighing in on Sherman, race, and the nature of sportsmanship, but all the while, one constant, unrelenting message played over and over in the background: Michael Crabtree is mediocre.

And the danger is that the message is going to stick.

I’m not going to debate Crabtree’s merits as a receiver because that’s almost beside the point. It’s not even clear that Sherman actually thinks Crabtree is mediocre; as Sherman explained, his anger stemmed from an alleged exchange between the two from the previous offseason. At its heart, this was about disrespect.

Yes, we were all weighing in on Sherman, but all the while, one constant, unrelenting message played over and over in the background: “Michael Crabtree is mediocre.”

Here are the takeaways for every athlete:

  • If you have the spotlight on you — and clearly, the number one receiver for the second best team in the NFC (and arguably the NFL) does — you need to have a voice in the conversation about you, and that voice needs to make itself heard on a regular basis, and speak to your strengths. Michael Crabtree led his team to the Super Bowl last season. He returned from a severe injury and nearly helped his team to the Super Bowl again. These are the sorts of facts that you need to remind people of in an artful way. There’s nothing mediocre about them.
  • If you’re hit with a broadside like the one Sherman delivered, you have to fire back in a way that comes off as confident and resilient. It doesn’t have to happen in the moment. But it needs to happen. This is one reason I’m a huge proponent of athletes having well-run blogs — it allows them to consider what they want to say carefully, and to say it precisely. For someone like Crabtree, who has a reputation for being “media-shy,” a blog would have been the perfect outlet. (It still could be.)

Crabtree did respond. First, in the locker room, where he said he “wasn’t a TV guy.” Then, he followed up on Twitter.

The failings of this response are obvious and total. It’s petty. It flies in the face of what actually happened (Sherman did make a great play), which was witnessed by millions of people. Posting on Twitter seems comparatively weak when juxtaposed with Sherman’s interview, particularly given the tone and content of the tweet. And his team just had its season ended by Sherman’s team. It’s a case study in what not to do — especially when you consider Sherman’s immediate and game-ending response:

  • When you don’t effectively counter a message like “Michael Crabtree is a mediocre receiver,” and that message essentially goes viral to the tune of a billion collective views (give or take), you allow that message to become established as a fact to be disproved.

This is the most troubling issue that Crabtree will have to deal with moving ahead. The resulting narrative, which we’ll likely see next season, isn’t too hard to imagine in headlines. “Crabtree Out to Prove He’s One of the Best.” “Crabtree Eager to Show He’s Anything But Mediocre.” The very notion of this is ludicrous since this “fact” is based on nothing, essentially, besides the globally broadcast opinion of Crabtree’s sworn enemy. But not only will this story play out — if Crabtree stumbles at all, the “Is Crabtree Mediocre?” stories won’t be far behind.

And even if Crabtree plays well, how good will he have to be to disprove his mediocrity once and for all?