Marshawn Lynch vs. Emotional Labor

He’s just having a good time.

So keep in mind it’s mostly just me writing these articles. I can’t really stay up to date on current events and by the time I can they’re usually long gone. With that explained it may make a bit more sense why I’m only now making some comments on the Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch and his struggle with the media.

Though, to back up a bit, it may seem strange to talk about a football player at all. But I think Lynch’s opposition to speaking in media, his persistent refusal to speak with the media or if he must, speak on his terms is fairly subversive.

As Sarah Jaffe argues in The Week:

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]

Now, I doubt Lynch himself is particularly contextualizing his steadfast refusal to speak as anything but a purely personal choice. And I doubt it reflects any sort of politics on his part either way. He just doesn’t want to speak to the media because he has his own trust issues he’s still trying to wrestle with. It stems from a bad childhood and having a lack of a father in his life as Jeffri Chiada in the NFL reported on ESPN in “The Misunderstood Marshawn Lynch”.

Lynch himself explains his “ultra-private nature” as Chiada described it:

It’s not that Lynch has nothing to say; it’s just that he too often doesn’t see the point in doing that publicly.

For Lynch, there is no mystery to his ultra-private nature. “Being from Oakland, you see a lot of things,” Lynch said. “You see friends turn on friends all the time. You see family turn on family. So I feel like if I’m going to rock with you, then I’m [in] 100 percent, and you’re going to know that. … I’ve been pretty good at reading people. If you rockin’ with me cause you’re just a solid individual, then we’re rockin’. But if you got a motive or something, I am going to probably see right through that.”

Notably, John McGrath of the New Tribute argues on contractual grounds that Lynch agreed to interviews whether he wanted to do them or not. But even if that’s true, it hardly seems fair to have the NFL fine Lynch thousands upon thousands of dollars just because he’d rather not. There’s no real reason why, for instance, Lynch can’t be replaced by one of his fellow players. And even when Lynch tried to placate the league by speaking over the phone with some NFL affiliated reporters the NFL decided that just wasn’t good enough and still went ahead with the fine anyhow.

So even when Lynch said, “Okay, it’s in the contract but can I still do it my way?” the NFL responded, “Nope, you’re going to do it our way or pay the fine.”

Now, you can make the counter-argument, as McGrath, does that these fines are mathematical drops in the bucket for Lynch. And you can add that that money went to charity or didn’t or whatever. But all of this comes down either way to Lynch’s personal autonomy being undermined by the NFL.

The reason why, if you’re curious, Lynch wouldn’t just go to another team is that this seems to be a NFL rule that contracted players must make themselves available to the media for questions. And fortunately/unfortunately for Lynch he’s a widely desired player for his great running game. But whether Lynch’s stunts when he just says, “Yeah” or “Thanks for asking” during a given conference satisfies the NFL’s requirements I’m not sure. The NFL declined to comment about that when asked by one source I looked at.

McGuire also makes this argument:

And why would the league care so much about Lynch rebuffing ESPN? Maybe because the network is paying the NFL $1.9 billion a year for rights fees through 2021. Along with the rights fees agreed to by Fox, NBC and CBS, the money from ESPN is shared by the league’s 32 teams and, by extension, the players on those teams.

I’m not sure how much of Marshawn Lynch’s $7 million salary came from ESPN this year, but some of it did. By ignoring media obligations stipulated in his contract, Lynch essentially was blowing off a company that’s a source of his income.

Well, besides the fact that so-called “intellectual property” rights are nothing but theft that undermine competition and dispossess people of their autonomy (much like here). Here’s an idea: why doesn’t that money just come out of Lynch’s contract? Why not just have him take a paycheck cut in line with the money that ESPN feels they’re losing? It doesn’t need to be exact (and it probably couldn’t be anyhow) but it hardly seems like it does much to keep forcing Lynch to do media interviews when he doesn’t like them. He’s just going to keep doing right-to-work stunts like he’s done and giving the NFL more and more bad press.

And hell, as another commenter pointed out, doesn’t the NFL have something better to worry about?

Even McGuire can appreciate this point:

Were I to succeed Goodell as commissioner, I’d spend less time worrying about the shoe-color choices of active players and more time helping those retired indigents who have difficulty tying their shoe laces. And rather than punish players who don’t want talk to the media, I’d figure out a way to arrange contract bonuses for those who do.

But McGuire also coldly states that Lynch signed away his rights to stay silent when he signed the contract. But are re-negotiations not possible? If not then that’s a problem with the structure of how the contracts work, not necessarily all on Lynch himself. Shouldn’t unhappy players be able to take paycut checks, renegotiate if they feel they need to or whatever else? If not, why not?

Look, I’m not the biggest football fan and I only listen to sports radio very occasionally but more because of the personalities than the actual topics. But here the topic is very much relevant to me. And I’m not pretending Lynch is some victim in the conventional sense. He could quit the NFL and live off quite well for the rest of his life and probably not have to worry about much else. I’m not saying he’s some poor misguided soul who is down on his luck or needs a helping hand.

But I agree with Jaffe that all of this just makes it seem like the NFL wants to bully their players into submission until they agree to their terms. Admittedly, it’s terms that the players signed to. But while poking someone with a stick might not be the worst form of bullying (especially if you’ve agreed to some terms beforehand) it’s still fucking annoying. And more to the point it’s still undermining people’s autonomy if they realize they don’t want it later or only did it ’cause they felt they had to.

As Lynch himself says, what has talking done anyhow?

SANDERS: You camera-shy? You just don’t want to talk, really.

LYNCH: I’m just about that action, boss.

SANDERS: You about to go get it. You just like to do.

LYNCH: That’s what it is. I ain’t never seen no talking winning nothing. Been like that since I was little. I was raised like that.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t quote the late 19th and early 20th century anarchist Voltairine de Cleyre:

In the fourth place, no change ever was, or ever can be, worked out in any society, except by the mass of the people. Theories may be propounded by educated people, and set down in books, and discussed in libraries, sitting-rooms and lecture-halls; but they will remain barren, unless the people in mass work them out. If the change proposed is such that it is not adaptable to the minds of the people for whose ills it is supposed to be a remedy, then it will remain what it was, a barren theory.

There’s also a fairly libertarian notion to this whole deal on Lynch’s part that I feel is important to note. This notion of being forced to do something inherently is going to rub against authenticity.

As Lynch explains:

“If you’re forced to do something, it’s not as good as if you choose to do it,” Lynch told NFL Media last week during an expansive interview, making an exception to his three (words) and out approach to answering questions from reporters. “So no, I won’t have a lot of interesting things to say. When you’re forced to do something and you know it, it kind of just takes away from the whole experience of what it could be if (it were) natural. So, I’ll probably give forced answers.”

Part of it for Lynch just comes down to not being that into himself and not feeling like he has much to say:

In a world in which false humility has become so pervasive that humblebrag is now part of the modern lexicon, Lynch truly wants to deflect the attention coming his way.

“He’s the complete opposite of what people think,” Seahawks outside linebacker Cliff Avril insisted. “He’s a team person. He’s not one of those guys who makes it about himself.”

To this, Lynch reluctantly pleads guilty.

“Yeah, that’s all it is,” he said. “I’ve never seen anybody win the game in the media. But at the same time, I understand what it could do for you, if you wanted to be someone who talks a lot. But that’s not me.

“And I’m not as comfortable, especially at the position I play, making it about me. As a running back, it takes five offensive linemen, a tight end, a fullback and possibly two wide receivers, in order to make my job successful. But when I do interviews, most of the time it’ll come back to me. There are only so many times I can say, ‘I owe it to my offensive linemen,’ or, ‘The credit should go to my teammates,’ before it becomes run down.

“This goes back even to Pop Warner. You’d have a good game and they’d want you to give a couple of quotes for the newspaper, and I would let my other teammates be the ones to talk. That’s how it was in high school, too. At Cal, I’d have my cousin, Robert Jordan, and Justin Forsett do it.

“Football’s just always been hella fun to me, not expressing myself in the media. I don’t do it to get attention; I just do it ’cause I love that (expletive).”

But whatever the reason is, can we just agree that these players aren’t even saying much to begin with during these interviews? I mean, who is going to come right out of a shower or after a four hour game or whatever and speak words of wisdom? What exactly does the NFL think they’re going to get out of Lynch that they couldn’t get out of someone else?

Now, I’m not saying Lynch (let alone all of the Sehawks) are dumb. I’m saying the environment encourages really inane answers and questions. Reporters usually softball shit ’cause they don’t wanna get in trouble and players say really sordid inane stuff so they don’t get in trouble.

As the Atlantic Dashiell Bennett points out:

On the other hand, the post-game interviews that Lynch abhors—a dozen reporters gathered around a player’s locker as he steps out of the shower to change his clothes—rarely contribute to the goal of fan enlightenment. Athletes are notoriously guarded, and the questions are inane. Inquiries like, “How did you feel?” and, “Talk about that one play,” typically receive canned, clichéd responses or pointless platitudes about giving “110 percent” and never quitting. Then all 12 reporters reprint those quotes in 12 different media outlets and fans are none the wiser about the people or the game they love.

Right, so why does the NFL really care?

Sure, it made sense when Lynch did that incredible play (seriously, go watch it on video and then keep reading this article, even as a non-sports fan I had my mouth hanging) but why now? At this point it just seems like the NFL is being petty. I suppose you could argue the same for Lynch but then I think that’d be ignoring how genuine he feels about this matter.

Bennett brilliantly adds though, that however you think about it, Lynch will be the winner in the end:

Lynch is also smart enough to understand that his grumpy act only feeds the machine further. After all, he’s all anyone can talk about this week. (As Deadspin pointed out, writers like Hayes should be thanking Lynch for giving them easy column ideas.) “Beast Mode” has become a fan favorite, and despite the fines, it actually helps his personal bottom line (he just shot a commercial that spoofs his press appearances).

And besides it isn’t like Lynch never talks to the media…


You gotta just respect the man first.

All of this related to “emotional labor” and the impact it has on our working days, take us home Jaffe:

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.

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