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Marshawn Lynch’s selective silence is a power move for black athletes

CHANDLER, AZ - JANUARY 29:  Running back Marshawn Lynch #24 of the Seattle Seahawks speaks during a Super Bowl XLIX media availability at the Arizona Grand Hotel on January 29, 2015 in Chandler, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
CHANDLER, AZ - JANUARY 29: Running back Marshawn Lynch #24 of the Seattle Seahawks speaks during a Super Bowl XLIX media availability at the Arizona Grand Hotel on January 29, 2015 in Chandler, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Marshawn Lynch doesn't answer journalists' questions unless he feels like it.

In a much-discussed mandatory press conference at this week's Super Bowl Media Day, the Seattle Seahawks running back, who has a famously contentious relationship with the press, responded to questions with "I'm here so I won't get fined" a staggering 29 times.

Then, in a Thursday statement, he lectured reporters, saying, "[I]t don't matter what y'all think, what y'all say about me; cause when I go home at night, the same people that I look in the face, my family, that I love, that's all that really matters to me."

Lynch is not simply trolling the media or his employer, the NFL (which has said it will fine him if he doesn't speak to the press). He's arguably redefining the traditional confines of a black player's role. As Peter Odell Campbell, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh and an expert on public arguments about race and sexuality in the media, put it, this athlete's selective silence has put him in control of his labor and freed him from the "racist double bind" that is black NFL players' relationship with the press.

The sacrifices the NFL demands of black athletes

According to Campbell, the NFL is an organization that, even in comparison to other major male professional sporting leagues, "thrives on the exploitation of the labor of its players, who are increasingly black." (The Unofficial 2014 NFL 2014 Player Census reports that 67.8 percent of NFL players are African American.)

Consider the agreements that favor ownership and the traditions that encourage athletes to play through pain and injury, and it's easy to understand why.

And especially for African-American athletes, when it comes to the required sacrifice of one's well being to the league, a press conference can be as dangerous as any violent play.

"When NFL players talk to the media, they're expected to talk but to behave in a certain way, and it's not for their benefit, but for the benefit of the media or NFL,"  said Campbell. And black athletes, he said, have the most to lose when they acquiesce to this arrangement: "You speak, but if you don't speak correctly, you're an example of ‘bad blackness.'"

Consider Lynch's teammate, Richard Sherman, who dared to get excitable in his live interview after last year's NFC Championship win.  Viewers were quick to condemn the Stanford graduate and star athlete as a "thug," fueling weeks of public debate about whether he'd embarrassed himself or disgraced African Americans as a group. And recall the experience of the athletes such as Florida State's Jameis Winston who've been mocked for being unintelligent when they answer reporters' questions earnestly but have an accent or don't use Standard English.

"If black players depart from the script, they get vilified and subjected to stereotypes about black male aggression," Campbell said.  And even when they aren't explicitly slammed by the press, research suggests the media shows subtle bias in how it covers players of different races.

"White athletes are smart, hardworking, team players. Black athletes are freaks and beasts who get by on their natural gifts as opposed to their work ethic, which perpetuates the broader stereotype of black people as lazy," John Carvalho, Auburn University associate professor of journalism wrote in an October 2014 piece summarizing the research for Vice.

Lynch highlighted how disconcerting this scrutiny can be when at he told reporters Thursday, "So now for the next three minutes, I'll just be looking at y'all the way you're looking at me."

Lynch's selective speaking strategically shakes things up

"The only way NFL players can succeed is to resist the NFL's tendency to do whatever benefits the league, and its tendency to chew them up and spit them out," Campbell said.

Lynch's silence, in his view, is a statement that the athlete is taking ownership of his own labor (and yes, speaking to the press counts as labor) so that he gets to reap the benefits of what he's worked for.

And given the racial dynamics of the league, this ability to direct attention to himself —"as black worker who's being very productive and whose significance is far greater than someone who speaks at employer's beck and call," as Campbell put it — hasn't gone unnoticed.

More than just a statement, this commando media management is a strategic move. It means that when Lynch does speak, it's about what's meaningful to him, not what's flattering to the league or fascinating to reporters. For example, on Thursday, some of his rare remarks included references to his First Foundation, which was formed to offer educational and enrichment services to kids in his hometown of Oakland, California.

Because of the media interest his previous silence had created, the short "shout-out" — which likely would have been treated as a throwaway statement under normal circumstances - got coverage.

"You can read that as an example of a black athlete taking back power," Campbell said.

It's a power move by a black athlete, regardless of whether he explains it that way

"His refusal to perform according to the boundaries and rules placed upon him by an organization with a racist history, his open rebuking of corporate overlords whose wealth is gained through consumption of his body and his blackness, are political acts," said Sarah Jackson, assistant professor of communication studies at Northeastern University and author of Black Celebrity, Racial Politics, and the Press: Framing Dissent.

You almost certainly won't hear Lynch describing his conduct in these academic terms — or explaining his motivation in much detail at all.

But among those who see his antics as a racial power move, that doesn't matter.

"It's irrelevant what Lynch's actual intentions are or whether he ever explains them ... whether Lynch can (or does) articulate a political critique and logic to his refusal is immaterial to me," Jackson said. "He's trumping one of the main rules meant to make people like him 'safe' for consumption in only specific contexts. It's nothing if not fascinating."

Andre Gee of the blog Black Culture took a similar view, writing, "You may not have any of this on your mind ... but knowingly or not, your unwillingness to talk is a small protest against the God complex of Roger Goodell and the NFL. It's a middle finger to a sensationalist sports media that has been guilty of subliminal racism for years. "

In Campbell's view, what Lynch is doing is important regardless of whether he talks about it beyond his recent, "when I go home at night, the same people that I look in the face, my family, that I love, that's all that really matters to me" statement to the press.

"He's not just Marshawn Lynch. He is a figure — a visibly black person — who is simultaneously working extremely effectively and performing resistance against primarily white owners that are trying to force him into working for them," he said.

Will Lynch ever weigh in on what that resistance means to him? Only if he wants to.

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