The subversive brilliance of Marshawn Lynch

The Seahawks star has brought Beast Mode to labor activism

With the sports media obsessing over the precise degree to which Tom Brady and the Patriots' balls were inflated in the AFC Championship game, Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch's brief conversation with reporters might have slipped past the notice of all but hardcore fans. But like one of his legendary runs, Lynch managed to make something out of nothing.

Having been fined $100,000 over the last two seasons for refusing to play nice at press conferences, Lynch showed up at Media Day in a cap and dark sunglasses with one answer for reporters' questions: "I'm here so I won't get fined." He gave that same answer some 25 times.

Rumor had it that Lynch was threatened with a $500,000 fine if he didn't show up for the conference; instead, he made it very clear that his appearance was compelled, and that there was only so far the NFL could push him.

Lynch's steadfast refusal to answer questions beyond a tight-lipped "Yeah" is beginning to look more and more like a job action. By showing up and saying, "I'm just here so I don't get fined," the Pro Bowl running back was engaging in what labor activists call "work-to-rule." Let autoworker and author Gregg Shotwell explain:

The slogan 'work to rule' has a double meaning. Work to rule is a method of slowing production by following every rule to the letter. The aim is to leverage negotiations. Work to rule is also an invocation for workers to govern collectively, to control the conditions of their labor. Work to rule means power to the people. [SocialistViewpoint]

Lynch may be alone in his actions at the moment, but it seems fairly clear that in following the letter of the NFL's law — showing up to the press conference, and verbalizing an answer to a question — he's demonstrating that he, not Roger Goodell or anyone else, controls the conditions of his labor.

Lynch is a huge reason why the Seahawks were at Media Day in the first place. The Seahawks played like anything but a championship team for the first three-quarters of the NFC championship, but Lynch was the bright spot, running for 157 yards in his bright-gold cleats. He'd been threatened with even more fines if he wore solid-gold shoes; his compromise cleats meant that the people who got the best view of them were the ones behind him, fruitlessly trying to catch him. He is thrilling to watch — they call it "Beast Mode," but that term seems too simple for the way he moves down the field, sometimes dragging a defender or two. His play is brutal, but beautiful.

There is no doubt that Lynch gives the game everything he's got and more — we should always remember when we watch football or any other physical, contact sport that we are watching people literally putting their safety and lives on the line for our entertainment. So why, on top of all that, does the NFL demand that its players show up at press conferences and answer the same inane questions with a ready smile? 

Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild defines "emotional labor" as the work we do to manage our emotions so as to produce a desired emotional state in others. We expect pro athletes to paste on a smile and explain why they won, how they lost, what it felt like to fumble the ball or throw that interception that put the other team ahead, minutes after they've been pounded within an inch of their lives.

The NFL doesn't only demand emotional regulation at press conferences, though. It wants its players to behave a certain way on the field as well. Remember last season, when Lynch's teammate Richard Sherman was fined for taunting San Francisco 49ers players and excoriated by the (mostly white) press for an emotional interview in which, among other things, he crowed to reporter Erin Andrews, "I'm the best corner in the game!" 

Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

This is a league that fined him $20,000 for a brief crotch grab in celebration after scoring a touchdown in that championship, yet was embarrassed publicly when reporters pointed out that the league's official, $150 commemorative poster for that game prominently featured a photo of Lynch, hand on groin. The NFL pulled the poster.

After many in the media branded him a "thug," Richard Sherman embarked on a press tour in which he mostly made mincemeat of his critics, but public debating is a particular skill that few people have mastered. It's not surprising that Lynch, who has heard the T-word a few times in his life (and even, when playing in Buffalo, was stopped so routinely by police that he finally called a meeting with a local chief to discuss the problem) wants no part of it. His job, as he sees it, is on the field. When he wants to give back to the community, to the fans, he does it with his charity in his hometown of Oakland.

While petulant reporters complain, as Mina Kimes at ESPN noted, refusing to talk to the press has garnered Lynch plenty of popularity. Reporters who want to get a good quote to slap into their story might think he's a "disrespectful, unprofessional dick" or a "pampered brat" but fan polls show that the people like what they see. Most people, it seems, can sympathize with being asked to slap on a grin and pretend everything is great because the boss demands it. They agree with Tom Ley of Deadspin that by ramping up the fines on Lynch, the NFL mostly looks like it's trying to bully its player into submission.

It's clear that for Lynch and for the league, the question of whether or not he'll talk to reporters at press conferences isn't one of money. It's about who's in control. Sherman, asked if players should be compelled to talk, reminded us that the commissioner, after all, isn't required to speak to reporters.

As the league and the commissioner suffers from continued bad press, it's unlikely that beating up on Lynch is going to work out in the NFL's favor.


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