On Marshawn Lynch and the shifting power dynamics in sports

By Aaron Leibowitz

lat-sp-marshawn-lynch-20150128                                         Christian Peterson/Getty Images

These are unsettling times for the old guard of the American sports establishment. Yes, money is flowing at unprecedented rates, and yes, more people than ever are tuning in: Sunday’s Super Bowl will likely be the most watched event in television history. But while business is booming, the well-oiled sports-industrial machine has been awful creaky lately. That’s because the wheels that drive it—the athletes—are squeaking.

Super Bowl media week represents one bizarro microcosm of this well-oiled machine. It’s a money-making circus for the NFL and its sponsors, where, for every reporter who asks a serious question, there’s another asking New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski to read erotica about himself. The players are props, almost literally, required to meet the press and cover themselves in NFL-approved apparel or face the long arm of the league.

Whether these requirements are fair has become a topic of intense debate this week, and for that we have only a prop named Marshawn Lynch to thank. The Seattle Seahawks running back does not like talking to the press, and during Super Bowl media week he fulfilled his obligations by showing up and answering questions only in catchphrases—most notably: “I’m just here so I won’t get fined.”

On Thursday, at his final mandatory session, Lynch spoke directly to the crowd of reporters as he took the podium: “I don’t know what story you are trying to get out of me. I don’t know what image y’all are trying to portray of me. But it don’t matter what y’all think, what y’all say about me. Because when I go home at night, the same people I look in the face—my family—that I love, that’s all that really matters to me.”

And then: “For this next three minutes, I’ll just be looking at y’all, the way y’all looking at me.”

At your typical NFL press conference, there is a clear power dynamic at play. Dozens of reporters, mostly older white men, swarm and question athletes, mostly young black men. Just about anyone would be somewhat uncomfortable with this arrangement; for Lynch, the discomfort is palpable.

On Thursday, though, Lynch turned the lens outward on the media and the league: Why, he asked, are you making me do this if I’ve told you I don’t want to? What do I get out of this? Why do I need you?

The league and the media need the players and need each other. As Bryan Curtis of Grantland explains: “In exchange for us pumping up the games, the NFL agrees to produce the players and conscripts them to talk to us. What offends us is that Lynch has backed out on the deal. He has turned us into PR agents waving blank press releases.”

Plenty of athletes play the media game. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson plays it and presents a squeaky clean image. Richard Sherman plays it, in his way, one moment telling you how blessed he is to be here and the next moment setting the sports world ablaze.

Marshawn Lynch simply does not participate. He is a talented, arrogant non-participant. The only game he plays is his own. He wants to wear gold cleats. He does the HMD gesture in the end zone. He does not like speaking to the media—and given the paternalism of some sportswriters toward black athletes who don’t speak like Shakespeare, why should he?

As a consequence—to borrow a phrase from The Nation‘s Mychal Denzel Smith—Lynch pays an “unapologetically black” tax. The league fines him for grabbing his crotch but sells photos of the act. Too many in the media call him a bad role model while overlooking his tremendous community efforts in Oakland.

As Denzel Smith points out on Rembert Browne’s podcast, when San Antonio Spurs coach Greg Popovich stiff-arms the media, people call him a curmudgeon, a mad scientist too immersed in his craft to have any time for this charade. No one calls Marshawn Lynch a curmudgeon.

It should come as no surprise that athletes are attempting to cut out the middleman. The best piece of sportswriting this week came not from a sports journalist, but from Josh Gordon, the much-maligned, oft-suspended Cleveland Browns receiver who taught us more about himself in one story than we could ever claim to have known before.

The wave of “unfiltered” athlete-to-fan media has been far from perfect. The Players’ Tribune, for example, is short on substance and critical takes and long on cliché-filled ramblings, such as Senior Editor Russell Wilson’s latest installment, “One Mission.” It’s the stuff that drives sports journalists insane.

But it’s part of a larger trend: Athletes are seeking ways to control their own narratives. They are looking—as Dave Zirin wrote of Lynch—to control their own labor. They are recognizing that, without them, the machine falls apart.

“There would be no money if not for the players,” Michele Roberts, the head of the NBA Players’ Association and the first female chief of a major North American sports union, said last July. “Let’s call it what it is. There. Would. Be. No. Money. If not for the players. They create the game. Thirty more owners can come in and nothing will change. These guys go? The game will change. So let’s stop pretending. We are responsible for the success of the game.”

At Super Bowl media week, the Seahawks seemed perfectly aware of this fact. They oozed braggadocio. They raised verbal middle fingers to the media, the NFL, and even the NCAA. The words “the NCAA is one of the biggest scams in America” were uttered.

The league, as always, tried its best to play thought police. Sherman’s comments on the conflict of interest that arises when commissioner Roger Goodell investigates Patriots owner Robert Kraft were apparently edited out of the NFL’s official transcript.

But the talent won’t shut up. They’re not afraid to call on the media and the leagues to treat athletes like full human beings. They’re not afraid to threaten boycotts of crooked owners or to proclaim that Black Lives Matter. They’re not afraid to stick up for each other.

The protectors of the shield should be shaking in their boots.

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