By Jason Keidel
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It’s easy to frame the Marshawn Lynch affair as the quiet athlete pummeled by the press, the self-righteous media wronged by an entitled player who should be honored to be there and to be coveted by the masses. But it’s hardly the case.
Lynch has done plenty to perpetuate his image as an ornery football star who wants to limit his exposure to 60 minutes on Sundays, collect his check and go about his business.
And he did little on Media Day to change the perception of him. His testy, truncated responses — all ending with a caustic “Boss!” — was the story out of the Prudential Center, which, ironically, is in downtown Newark, as violent a city as any in America.
To say it’s a place where hope died presupposes that it ever lived.
One could argue that Newark still never really recovered from the riots in 1967. Cory Booker appeared on Boomer & Carton countless times, spinning a very different montage. But there are hundreds of open air drug markets, and if you spend any time tuned to channel NJ 12 you’ll find a morbid roll call of the murders, and countless camera shots of a dark, wet street, the rainbow of police lights spinning light on the houses with bars drilled into their windows.
If anyone can relate to a city that has surrendered to the violence and galling poverty of the ghetto, it’s Lynch.
Lynch comes from an appalling part of Oakland, flanked by drugs, gangs and guns, the template commerce of the ghetto. A major network recently ran a special on Lynch, and lifted the curtain on the reticent star’s life. And they didn’t hold back. Lynch admitted his mistakes, with the Bills and beyond. He’s been arrested several times since entering the public domain, and he’s vowed to rebuild his image as someone who left the ‘hood, but the ‘hood never quite left him.
Lynch works with kids, donates countless hours at youth football camps, drops endless knowledge on those who are just like he was at 15, on the thin adolescent line between flinging a pigskin or slinging drugs on a dark corner, where the demons congregate. Under his big chest is an even bigger heart. It’s just a shame he chose not to share it with America.
It’s easy to say Lynch is paid millions of dollars to play a game, thus the least he can do is show a little gratitude a few days before the biggest game of his life. Countless thousands of NFL players would give a limb to be where Lynch is right now, as would millions of Americans, who undoubtedly see Lynch as a pampered brat to whom the rules don’t apply because he carries a football with the skill and will of a weapon, perhaps the closest thing to Earl Campbell we’ve seen since, well, Earl Campbell.
But football players literally bleed, risk life and limb to play professionally. No sport demands more of its players, and no league exploits its stars more than the NFL. Adding to the insult, NFL players aren’t even guaranteed the money in the contract they sign.
Aside from a signing bonus, something very few players get, Lynch could be cut tomorrow and never pocket another nickel for the rest of his career.
Some of the greats are just more gregarious than others. Quarterbacks, like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are perfect pitchmen. Brady for his high, Hollywood cheekbones and GQ lifestyle; Manning for his blue-collar ethic and hard-hat persona.
Aaron Rodgers, though incredibly intelligent, tends to be a bit more ornery, while Russell Wilson seems born with wisdom beyond his brief years in the league and has charmed the nation in just 30 games.
There’s nothing wrong with Lynch not being as naturally affable or articulate as his peers. We can forgive anyone for not being or feeling so chatty. But there’s something wrong with not trying.
Every NFL player contract specifically states he must give a modicum of his time to the media. And, believe it or not, it’s not designed to irritate the athlete. The NFL isn’t new to this marketing thing, and it realizes that with a dearth of decent exposure on the field, each player mummified in pants and pads and helmets, the public can’t identify with the players until they undress and unload into a microphone.
It’s laughable to hear people frame this as a First Amendment issue, that Lynch is merely asserting his right to free speech, or, in this case, a lack thereof. He was simply performing a function for his employer, specified in his agreement with his employer. None of this was sprung on him while he was in the shower that morning.
Lynch was expected to expose himself for less than 45 minutes, and he was more than able to accomodate. Certainly more than the six or seven minutes he wound up giving the media. Even the few answers he gave were dripping with irritation. What’s sad about the whole saga is Lynch isn’t the person he’s portraying in public. Which begs the question: why do it?
A certain ignorant segment of America is already quick to brand black athletes as blunt-puffing, gun-wielding thugs who spend their millions on ice and vice and strippers, among the accoutrements that have no value five minutes after they’re purchased. And since Lynch is not that guy, he should make more of an effort to clean his stained reputation, using the largest stage in the world — the Super Bowl.
Despite a DUI arrest (with weed in his car) a few years ago, and a reputation as a malcontent who demanded he be jettisoned from Buffalo for the more fertile climes of the West Coast, Lynch has a good side, which shouldn’t be cloaked by his stubbornness. His performance on Tuesday was just silly, and if he gave more than six minutes, he probably would have realized it.
It takes a naturally focused, if not maniacal man to play pro football in the first place. And at some point they develop an internal switch between Saturday and Sunday, flipped again on Monday.
It’s all right to be a beast on most days. Just not Media Day. If anyone should understand that, it’s the man who invented “Beast Mode.”
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel
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