Roger may be commissioner, but Marshawn is king
As some of you may or may not know (*cough*Saul*cough*), there’s a bit of an important football game on Sunday. Usually, the two weeks before the Super Bowl are spent pouring over the Xs and Os, player injuries, and the interesting match ups for the championship game. But not this year. Something else has been dominating the news this year (and, no, it’s not the fact that the Patriots got caught cheating…again). Marshawn Lynch, Seattle’s star Running Back, has been the story–whether it’s about his reticence to answer questions from the media, his crotch-grabbing or the fines he may be facing for wearing his “Beast Mode” hat to media day.
These may seem like inane little stories, but there’s something more significant going on. The Seahawks are launching an assault on the league, itself, and just like on the field, Lynch is leading the assault.
Lynch’s troubles began last year. He’s never been one to speak much to the media, and for most of his time in Seattle, that was fine. Local beat reporters didn’t bother Marshawn, and why would they, when you have people like Richard Sherman, Michael Bennett and Doug Baldwin to talk to?
But during the playoffs last year, someone complained. If the media requests to speak with a certain player, the player is contractually obligated to do so. At first, Lynch refused, but the NFL has ways of forcing players to conform, and Lynch eventually participated in media sessions as little as possible. But leading up to last year’s Super Bowl, Lynch decided he didn’t play the NFL’s game.
Interestingly, his unwillingness to conform led to the most (only?) memorable interview from last year, when he told Deion Sanders he’s just “‘bout that action, boss.”
This year, Lynch wasn’t even doing that. He showed up to Media Day, answering every question with, “I’m here so I won’t get fined”. He said it 29 times during five minutes. When the five minutes was up, he left. The NFL, locked in a power struggle with Lynch declared that he had done enough to fulfill his media obligations. (Never willing to lose control, though, the league has now said they’re going to investigate the situation and might still fine him.)
The next day, Lynch responded to questions with, “you know why I’m here.”
The NFL establishment–including Commissioner Roger Goodell–doesn’t take too well to a player who refuses to dance once they’ve begun grinding the organ, and so we have complaints from sports writers and analysts decrying Lynch’s unprofessionalism. It’s insulting and juvenile, apparently. It ignores who really pays his salary. It disrespects the game and the fans. (Even though fans clearly love him all the more.)
There are layers to this story, and they get nastier the more you peel them back.
First, it’s just stupid. No one, other than hack sports reporters and analysts, really cares whether or not Lynch talks. There’s no shortage for soundbites coming out of players. Most of them are on Twitter and Instagram, so fans have tremendous access to players. The guy who needs a player to spout a handful of cliches to fill his word count for his print column is a relic of a dying industry. He’s a gnat screaming into a thunderstorm.
And, of course, all these Very Important Sports Writers are raging hypocrites. There are so many stories about Marshawn Lynch either not talking, or not talking appropriately. They’ve filled dozens of columns and generated thousands of clicks. Make no mistake, Marshawn Lynch is the storyline, and there has been no scarcity of material.
But this isn’t really about media accessibility, it’s about power. Certain members of the media want control over the players. The league, too, wants control. Roger Goodell is locked in a power struggle with Lynch, one he cannot actually win, and he can’t let down. Because the players belong to the league.
When you watch the NFL, you see a number of young (or young-ish) men mortgage their physical well-being for a game whose primary purpose is to make (even more) millions for 30-odd (predominantly old white male) billionaires. That’s the purpose of everything that happens Sunday afternoon, and the owners don’t want anyone to forget who is really in charge. So, through their commissioner, they’ve picked a fight with Marshawn Lynch.
A quick aside, Goodell, himself, is an interesting case study. He’s the commissioner, but he’s not really in charge. He works for the owners, and his job is to make sure they keep making as much money as possible. It is not his job to do what is best for the game, the players or the fans. He must Protect The Shield, as they say.
The Patriots were caught cheating…again. Sure, it doesn’t detract from their ability as a team, but they have a track record for cheating. It is what it is. So, after all this comes out, the Patriots’ owner, Robert Kraft, heads to a press conference and gives just an absolutely disgusting performance. He lashed out at the media and the league and anyone who would dare to think that the saintly Patriots would ever do something so underhanded as
steal opposing teams’ signals record opposing teams’ practices record opposing teams’ line calls deflate footballs, and demanded that everyone apologize after his league does an investigation of his team.
This, of course, is a warning to Goodell, who tends to leap tall buildings when Kraft yells “jump”. Goodell may get paid $44 million a year, but he needs to know his place, just like those players.
There’s more to this issue, though, than just toeing the line. What the NFL establishment is telling Lynch–and what they’ve been telling many players–is that there is a proper way to comport oneself. There are ways to speak and ways to behave, and it just won’t do to violate NFL etiquette.
It shouldn’t be surprising that this dynamic is playing out between the uber-affluent (again white male) ownership class and the predominantly black workers. There’s a whole lot of respectability politics wrapped up in the dictums of Goodell, Kraft and their cronies.
Take Lynch’s crotch, he sure does. Lynch is being fined for the inappropriate gesture. You see, we wouldn’t want anyone to see that, especially not the kids out there. But Lynch’s crotch-grab occurred during a telecast that generally features multiple up-skirt shots of cheerleaders and violence-packed adds for UFC fights. The NFL partners with beer companies at the same time as they suspend people for (legally) consuming alcohol. They woo the female demographic with pink ribbons and Katy Perry, while the NFL Network runs a fantasy football ad talking about bikini models getting into men’s underwear.
I am, of course, incredibly late to the party when it comes to the hypocrisy of the NFL. Earlier this season, Lynch’s teammates (the Stanford-educated) Richard Sherman and (the Stanford-educated) Doug Baldwin put on a little skit for the press, pointing out all the ways the league tries to control them, and all the hypocrisy tied into it.
You may remember Sherman from last year’s pre-Super Bowl controversy when he acted like a “thug” by yelling into a microphone after winning the conference championship. As Sherman, himself, noted, calling him a thug wasn’t really what people were doing. They were calling him something else.
Interestingly, Lynch was not the only person fined for his crotch grab. Teammate Chris Matthews was fined, also. For shaking Lynch’s hand. The league didn’t like it. I guess it was a little too close for Goodell’s comfort. Seattle Defensive End Michael Bennett had this to say about the second crotch-related fine:
“They just made that up, man,” Bennett said. “It’s funny because the NFL, you’ll see a guy say something to the ref and he won’t get fined or something. But if another guy says it, he’ll get fined.
“So it’s all about who they like and who they don’t want to fine to me, I think. But I told [Matthews] he was guilty by association and sometimes that happens, especially when you’re black.”
And he were at the crux of what’s going on during these last two weeks. The Seattle Seahawks are taking on the league. They’re taking on Goodell. They’re taking on sports writers. And they’re taking on a lot of the ugliness that hides just under the surface. It’s an amazing sight to behold.
There has been no team or player that has taken on the league in this way since Jim McMahon, Quarterback for the Chicago Bears in the 1980s, of course, McMahon’s rebellion tended to take the form of sporting a mohawk and wearing a head band. Also, the Bears were a storied franchise, owned by the legendary George Halas and coached by respected Mike Ditka.
The Seahawks have no such cover. Paul Allen isn’t a giant in the NFL. He’s not the “assistant commissioner” that Kraft is. Pete Carroll was (unfairly) laughed out of the league a couple of decades ago, then laughed at again when he returned. And that team from Southern Alaska has only been around since the 70s. They have no Paytons or Butkuses or Starrs or Bradshaws in their history.They’re not a darling of the establishment. They don’t get the favourable treatment that teams like the Patriots or Giants get.
And that’s part of this whole story. The establishment is threatened because the Seahawks don’ t toe the party line. They’re brash. They talk trash. They do yoga. They play music at practice. Snoop and Macklemore and Drake hang out with them. Their coach is too nice and too new-agey. Some people still think Bear Bryant is the only acceptable coach.
So this team of outsiders, with insufficient pedigree and insufficient deference to the establishment, aren’t willing to just roll over to the petty demands of a would-be tyrant. They see the truth and they speak the truth. And, in doing so, they have exposed a lot of the ugly racism that resides just below the surface*:
Looking forward to the Marshawn-to-English translation from this morning’s press conference.
— Bart Hubbuch (@BartHubbuch) January 29, 2015
I’m not saying you should root for the Seahawks (but you should). I’m not saying they’re the better team (but they are). I’m not even saying they’re going to win (but they probably will). I’m saying that regardless of your on-field allegiances, this is a group of players–a group of people–who are fighting the good fight against the NFL.
Whether it’s Lynch not talking to the media (and then calling them out when he does), whether it’s Sherman highlighting the cozy relationship between Goodell and Kraft, whether it’s Bennett and Sherman decrying the corrupt nature of the NCAA, these players are using the spotlight to make some important statements, and that’s worth rooting for.
Even if they don’t say a damned thing.
*One thing that I find interesting in all of this is the way so many established NFL voices rally around the Patriots, while denigrating the Seahawks. Tell me, who are the biggest stars on the Patriots? Brady, Gronkowski, Edelman and Revis–three white players and one black player. Who are the biggest stars on the Seahawks? Lynch, Sherman, Wilson and Thomas–all black. The closest thing Seattle has to a white star player is their punter, Jon Ryan**. I don’t believe this is just coincidence.
Take Patriots Center Bryan Stork, who doesn’t like talking to the media, either…but he gets glowing praise for it. You know, he’s just a blue-collar, lunch pail guy doing all the grunt work. We should appreciate that.
Or take Tom Brady, the NFL’s golden boy. What do you think would be said about Cam Newton or Colin Kaepernick if they adopted Brady’s procreative habits?
**Whom you should all love, not only because of the superior spelling of “Jon”, but also because he’s Canadian.