Lynch, of course, is a solid Kerry name. So there is a pleasing serendipity about the notorious reticence and cuteness within the Kingdom football tradition when it comes to dealing with the media and the furore Seattle’s most celebrated member of the Lynch clan – their formidable running back Marshawn – has caused by not opening his mouth on Superbowl week.
The NFL contractually obliges its stars to show up for the gigantic and absurd orgy of promotional activities designed to feed the 24 hour global news and entertainment cycle in which the Superbowl can command endless airtime. For reasons he has declined to make clear, the Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch has politely but defiantly refused to answer the run-of-the-mill questions which require only the usual stock replies.
The results have made for fascinating and awkward viewing: already, Lynch’s five-minute (the minimum obligatory NFL press time) appearance in which he repeated “You know why I’m here” has become among the most memorable Superbowl lead-in moments of all time.
By saying nothing, Lynch has drawn an extraordinary powerful spotlight on himself and risked the ire of the perma-tanned, frosted commentators who front the networks. Tom Brady, the New England Patriots quarterback who spent last week answering uncomfortable questions about whether his team had used deflated footballs in their conference game, must be thanking the heavens.
Lynch has explained he is appearing at his press events only to avoid incurring further NFL fines. He has already been hit with two $50,000 knuckle raps for refusing to play ball, including a fine for a hilarious post-game dressingroom interview when he answered every single question with “Yeah” (come to think of it, that sounded suspiciously close to “Yerrah”) for three minutes.
You could hold Lynch up as contemptuous and rude. You could equally judge the journalists present as pathetic for not walking away after the first 20 seconds rather than stand there and taking it. You could, in fact, scorn the journalists present for not telling another jumped up jock to go **** himself and walk away and take their own fine or suspension or whatever it came to. Or you could interpret Lynch’s stance for what it is: hostility directed not so much at the people standing in front of him as against the bigger game and of the idea of American sport as consumerism.
Because the thing to note about Marshawn Lynch is that he is devastatingly articulate and honest when he chooses to be. Here he is in an ESPN interview describing his expectations when he learned he had been picked by the Buffalo Bills in the 2007 draft. Lynch grew up in Oakland battling through the obstacles made familiar by the stories of so many African-American athletes who have made it to the pinnacle of their sport: a child with an absentee father and strong mother learning about the world in a neighbourhood where drugs and prostitution were the only thriving businesses.
All he knew of the Bills was that they played in New York. "I didn't know what to expect. I just knew that I was going to New York, that I was going to be out there with Jay Z. And when I finally landed in Buffalo. Aw man . . . it was like slush on the ground. It had just finished snowing. I don't know nothin' about no snow."
Here was a candid admission of naiveté from a young man whose life experience had been limited to excelling at sport, staying out of trouble in his neighbourhood and then starring as U. In the same interview, when asked about the perception that developed over his five years in the NFL.
“The perception of me being a thug? I would like to see them grow up in project housing authorities, being racially profiled growing up, sometimes not even having anything to eat, sometimes having to wear the same damn clothes to school for a whole week and all of a sudden, a big-ass change in life, like their dream come true, to the point where they are starting a career at 20 years old when they still don’t know shit: I would like to see some of the mistakes they would make.”
That short answer gets to the heart of the abiding source of tension within American society: race. Last summer, the Atlantic published a long and unforgettable essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates entitled "The Case for Reparations". It laid out in stark terms the on-going – the right-this-very-moment – consequences of the African American experience, from the slavery and lynching tradition to the Jim Crow laws to lingering segregation and the devastating effects of urban project developments – continues to have on America. It argues the toss for actual reparations to be made but more importantly for "an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt."
Lynch’s answer steams through those very issues and its accusations are implicit: without blaming anyone, he makes it clear he was born into a culture which gave him and his peers zero opportunity, practically designed to crush human spirit. But here he is now; one of the prized stars in the NFL– until his Achilles goes pop or his rushing yards diminish or he gets hit the wrong way and he is replaced by some other rising superstar. Lynch didn’t make it there because he is living the American dream, the American myth. He made it there in spite of the bleak, almost impossible starting point he inherited from his country.
The election of Barack Obama to the White House – to the very office from which his predecessor James Polk reportedly traded slaves – varnished the myth that when it comes to race, things are okay now. But, of course, they are not.
Lynch has made a point of returning to Oakland each summer and is an energetic activist in community projects. He appears as one the star turns in Superbowl XLIX because of the people who were there for him in his teenage years.
And if he took with him a stubborn refusal to be corralled before strangers to answer anodyne questions and to fit into the relentlessly upbeat and disposable torrent of stories about the Superbowl, more power to him. He just wants to play the game and lets society make of him what they will. And perhaps he has done everyone a favour by holding up a mirror to the Superbowl charade and reflecting just how much nonsense, how much silliness, precedes big sports events.
So shrill was the reaction to his refusal to be complicit in a promotions racket there has been almost no mention of why everyone knows about Lynch in the first place; his supreme athletic power and elusiveness on a football field. You get to see that on Sunday night. Like the man says, you know why he is here.