Marshawn Lynch drops his heavy body into a folding chair. His hair, hanging loose in long braids, bounces off his shoulders as he settles in. His face lights up, not from some inward glow, but from the flash of the surrounding cameras.
“When does my time start?” he asks, shifting forward, speaking to no one in particular. His face is half-obscured by large, white-rimmed sunglasses and a grey hat with the brim pulled low. You can't see it to confirm it, but it feels like his eyebrows are arched up in irritation as he leans in and speaks. The reporters have five minutes to ask their questions. The clock’s already ticking.
Lynch, like every other athlete in the NFL, is required to speak with the media. It’s written into the league’s labor agreement. Everyone at Super Bowl media week is aware of this, and also presumably aware that despite this rule they won’t be getting much of a quote from Lynch. In an inverse relationship to the growing spotlight that’s followed him around this season, Lynch has managed to duck the aim of the reporters.
In this scrum, he answers each question with, “I’m just here so I won’t get fined,” or some variation of those words. He says it 29 times in total, which eclipses the benchmark of repetition set by Allen Iverson's infamous practice rant, wherein he exclaimed PRACTICE?! 22.5 times in three minutes.
This ongoing dance between Lynch and the media has become something of an unfortunate high school prom. The media awkwardly sidling up to Lynch, blowing their noses into their sleeves, and then offering their hand for a dance. In rejection, they appear confused, if not entitled.
On Thursday, Lynch finally opened up. To scold them:
I mean all week, I done told y’all what’s up. And for some reason y’all continue to come back and do the same thing. I don’t know what story y’all trying to get out of me. I don’t know what image y’all 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 that I look in the face—my family, that I love—that’s all that really matters to me.
On Sunday, the dance will end, at least momentarily. After the Super Bowl, win or lose, Lynch will be gifted the exodus of the off-season. Until then, those in support of Lynch—and his refusal to play the pre-ordained role of celebrity athlete—are challenged by those who believe he’s making a mockery of the game. The latter position insinuating that the NFL, as an institution, has any sort of moralizing high ground to shout down from (they do not).
There’s a seismic divide between the two camps, but, in the spirit of togetherness, a unifying force has emerged, something we all know and recognize: consumerism.
Despite not engaging in the scrums during the day, Lynch found time in the evening to do interviews with both Maxim and E! where he discussed his personal clothing line: Beast Mode. After that, he taped a segment for Conan O'Brien’s show, along with New England Patriots tight-end and human hair-follicle Rob Gronkowski. If you tuned in, you might have also caught Lynch starring in a Skittles commercial, followed by his ad for Progressive Auto-Insurance.
This is all well and good, to be sure. In a league that demands conformity, Lynch is getting paid by being the anti-hero. And why not? It’ll help offset some of the fines the NFL has levied against him. In a stunning act of hypocrisy, even by NFL standards, the league found a way to scold Lynch while also reaping benefits from the very action they were scolding him for. (They fined him $20,000 for an inappropriate touchdown celebration, and then began selling images of said celebration for $149.95.)
Despite this, there’s a degree of disappointment in seeing Lynch so adamantly buck the system only to then shill auto insurance. In the deluge of bland celebrity athletes, Lynch is something different. He’s a character, and a needed one. That’s not all lost when you start selling Skittles, but it does change things. The veneer has started to crack, and for most, that means it’s only a matter of time until the inside is hollowed out and re-stuffed with dollar bills.
In the hyper-commodified world of sport, Lynch, for a moment, jammed up the factory conveyor belt. His curt attitude—his reluctance to play the game away from the game—has irked the base of football, while simultaneously delighting others. Most importantly, though, it’s made Lynch a recognizable figure.
This route to popularity is problematic in a few ways. Mainly, it takes attention from the NFL’s many glaring problems. Instead of discussing the sport’s concussion issues, for example, the media is busy trying to figure out if they’ve been offended or not. Fittingly, during this circus, the NFL proclaimed that concussions were down 25 percent, and then exited the room by flying pig.
Less glaring, though, is the fact that this whole spectacle has overshadowed Lynch’s incredible production on the field. It’s easier, after all, to recite a catchphrase then it is to remember rushing statistics.
Lynch has reached his current level of popularity with an image of attitude and authenticity. Maintaining either of those traits though, while dwelling in the world of celebrity, is akin to brushing your hair with your head out a car window. You can keep it up for a while, maybe even have some success, but eventually time and circumstance will grind you down. You’ll give. Lynch went up the mountain alone and unencumbered, now he’s sliding back down the other side, on a sled made of gold.
During last season’s Super Bowl media week, Deion Sanders, a former player turned broadcaster, landed a one-on-one interview with Lynch. Included was this exchange:
Sanders: You camera-shy? You just don't want to talk, really.
Lynch: I'm just about that action, boss.
The phrase instantly entered the popular lexicon and now, for the price of $26, plus shipping, you can buy a shirt directly from Lynch’s online store with those words on it. You can also buy his hat, for $40.
Branding an image, especially in the world of sport, is standard practice. The cultural currency of rebellion—of authenticity and coolness—is as enduring as it is lucrative.
Some of Nike’s earliest clients were athletes who spouted an anti-corporate stance, or at least an attitude of irreverence. John McEnroe, Lester Hayes, Charles Barkley: Uniquely skilled and gifted players who were very, very good, but not the best. Whatever they lacked in star power, they made up for with personality.
In McEnroe, a tennis star, Nike had an athlete that entered the public consciousness not solely on athletic skill, but also through his ability to uncork rage as adeptly as he could swing a backhand. McEnroe didn't need to win all the time—though he did often enough—because his outbursts kept the attention focused. The images become mass mediated, and so did the attitude. The shoes sold.
The fans, the consumers, get to know athletes through highly stylized and controlled images. It’s often interpreted that the entirety of a person can be gleaned this way. That in a 30-second commercial for toilet cleaner or granola bars the viewer gets a complete glimpse into the athlete’s inner being. This is false, of course, but it’s not always an easy trap to avoid. These advertisements are deliberate—the trick, after all, is getting people to believe them.
Sport is one of the most significant institutions for popular culture, and the line between celebrity and athlete in today’s global sporting marketplace has mostly disappeared. The sporting heroes of the past, once championed for their valor, have become something else in modernity: they are celebrities, championed for their celebrity.
In the media-made phenomena of sports—where selling products and lifestyles has become just as important, if not more, than the game itself—Lynch has risen to prominence in his own way. Now he’s just cashing the check.
The Sports Lens is a running series exploring the intersection of sports and culture.