In what was perhaps one of the more nakedly honest, unmediated pre-Super Bowl moments since Joe Namath guaranteed a win while working on his tan, Marshawn Lynch, the Seattle Seahawks’ bruising running back, spent his league-mandated five minutes during Media Day saying nothing but “I'm here so I won't get fined" to each and every question.
That may seem counterintuitive, that by robotically refusing to respond and pretty openly mocking the entire proceedings, Lynch is in some way a bold truth-teller, but it turns out his glibly repetitive stand-up act hit the nail on the head. Had Lynch failed to show, the NFL was reportedly set to dock him a cool $500,000.
Why would such an exorbitant fine have been levied? Well, it’s partially due to Lynch’s history vis-à-vis press scrums. In brief, he really doesn’t like them. The league collected $100,000 for their troubles this season, when Lynch did little more than mumble variations on “yeah” or “thanks for asking,” and an additional $50,000 in 2013. He’s also lost $31,000 in total for his groin-centric touchdown celebrations, and might have been barred from playing in the NFC Championship had he worn too flashy shoes.
Really, the NFL threatened to drop the hammer because Lynch had the temerity to mock Media Day and the entirety of the bloated spectacle that is the two-week run-up to the game itself. By saying nothing, he was screaming about a patently silly, un-fun circus that no one really wants to attend, and that everyone involved—the players, the press and the fans—shares a mutual disdain for. It is an exercise in slogging through the tedium of asking pointless non-questions and hearing meaningless non-answers, or futility.
Nothing said here will in any way effect a fan’s understanding of the two teams involved, or compel a single additional viewer to tune in on Super Bowl Sunday. At best, you’ll get some tepid trash talk or random bits of weirdness, like a reporter proposing to Tom Brady back in 2008, oddball costumes or Rob Gronkowski reciting parts of a [clearly NSFW] piece of fanfic entitled, A Gronking to Remember: Book One in the Rob Gronkowski Erotica Series.
The league, though, doesn’t want weird, or at least a flavor of weird that borders on the human and in some way impinges upon their carefully crafted (if laughably boring) marketing strategy, one that reduces the people that play an addictively brutish game to comfortably sanitized, easily digestible merchandise. If you had any doubts, ESPN’s Adam Schefter is now reporting that Lynch could be subject to a significant fine “for wearing an unauthorized ‘BeastMode’ hat to Media Day.”
From the NFL’s point of view, Lynch thumbing his nose at an endless infomercial—even one that will pull in hundreds of thousands in revenue—is more or less the same scale of a violation they took from Bill Belichick’s pocket after he surreptitiously recorded the Jets’ practices. The fine, anyway, would be the exact same amount.
It’s why the full weight of their investigative powers have already come to bear to on the non-scandal that is DeflateGate, a two-week national scandal that will serve—at best—to ruin the life of a helpless ball boy. Here, to be sure, we have a possible instance of cheating, but not one that requires grimly serious talk from official spokespersons about “a thorough and fair investigation.” And, yes, this is where you might note the crushing irony of Goodell’s minions being able to rapidly uncover video footage when it suits their purposes.
This is the NFL in a nutshell: An incredibly profitable and powerful sports league that, in the arbitrary enforcement of its byzantine rulebook and branded insistence that the subsequent punishments represent a higher moral code, ends up functioning like “an entertainment brand that thinks it is a powerful nation-state, run by a defective Epcot ‘Hall of Presidents’ droid that believes itself to be an actual head of state,” as David Roth wrote at VICE Sports.
Within this paradigm, all transgressions are equal, and every instance of rule flouting becomes an existential crisis. The thing is, this particular mission statement-slash-worldview still works, if only because it appeals to a large segment of their consumer base: angry Facebook dad-types and power-humping fetishists.
In response Lynch’s low-grade act of defiance, you don’t have to look far to find grumping responses from actual fans or columnists doing their best blue collar cos-play, citing daily slogs through horrible, soul-withering jobs, where filing a TPS reports are the least of the dog-and-pony shows that must be endured in order to earn a scrap of food and a bit of shelter.
This spoiled brat won’t sit for five minutes to mouth talking points while making Y million dollars? Where’s the basic respect for the fans/the media/the game itself! If it weren’t for football, and the beneficent owners that let Lynch play, he’d be out committing terrible crime Z!
And yes, Lynch himself has been called a ‘thug’ and far worse, using the same thinly-veiled, coded language, for asserting even a modicum of power and autonomy.
It’s the money earned by the players themselves—not the unimaginable pile of ducats that the non-profit NFL rakes in, mind you—that engenders this low-bore, simmering resentment. That’s the shield the league has always used to defend up this ersatz tin-pot dictatorship—one that has ground up its employees like so much meat, doling out Toradol like Tic Tacs, and spending decades dodging the concussion crisis by suborning bad science like Big Tobacco or Big Oil.
Perhaps the reason the NFL comes off looking so panicky is that things are changing. Despite his so-called antics, Lynch is one of the most recognizable and popular non-quarterbacks in football. In fact, his refusal to be branded is a damned effective brand. “Every time the NFL fines him, he becomes more sympathetic to fans," Bob Dorfman, an executive creative director at Baker Street Advertising, told ESPN’s Mina Kimes. "They tend to take his side."
As recently as twenty years ago, this would be unimaginable. Take ex-Senator and former Milwaukee Bucks owner Herb Kohl’s very own Sister Souljah moment. Half-off-the-cuff bragging and half slinging what had to be a PR-sculpted, juicy sound bite, he boasted of getting then-rookie Glenn Robinson to take far less than his initial demand of $116 million.
“I was thinking of telling Mr. Robinson, ‘I’ll tell you what, I’ll take your contract and you can have my franchise,” Kohl said. As David Shields wrote in Black Planet, “This line was widely credited with helping him get reelected.”
The “joke” here is that an employee might actually be worth more than the owner. Get it? No, of course not, because the idea that by demanding reasonable compensation for his labor, Robinson was some kind of greedy, insubordinate child. Not funny. Any yuks to be had go straight to the heart of a plantation mentality that isn’t entirely dissimilar from Donald Sterling’s far more openly bigoted musings.
Luckily for Lynch, he’s arrived at a time when telling his bosses to take their fines and threats and shove ‘em won’t result in excommunication. Instead, he’ll happily do a faux-presser for one of the fine companies that actually pay him to answer questions, like Skittles.
Here, he’ll tell you that he prefers cat videos to dog videos online, and, that all things considered, he "wouldn't want to hang out with nobody that talks at all."