As a journalist, one thing I hate is when a source won’t answer my questions. It’s frustrating, it stops me from getting my work done, and it makes me feel as though the subject of my interviews is basically being an a**hole. If I were working the Super Bowl, I might feel doubly so. Or would I?
In literally taking off my reporter’s hat and revealing dreadlocks that I can’t easily remove (nor would I want to), when it comes to brothers like NFC champion Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch (pictured above,) it gets way deeper than me just doing my job. Lynch’s silence in the face of reporter’s questions is a way for a black man to control the narrative that society has long controlled about us.
And I’ll be damned if it ain’t working.
For black men, athletics is the primary place where we are showcased—but not necessarily in a negative light. We are celebrated, encouraged and in some cases worshipped. There’s a long history, going back to Jack Johnson where the black athlete is put on a pedestal. Yet, that same public gallery seems happy to knock us off that pedestal and see us crash and burn.
Jesse Owens, Muhammad Ali, O.J. Simpson, Arthur Ashe, Darryl Strawberry, Barry Bonds, all the way to Michael Vick and even Ray Rice (who probably had much of his punishment coming to him), each had to face the wrath of the media, various organizational agendas, and in some cases law enforcement. But bottom line, the vitriol society showed to them was never about the individual, it was really the same social bigotry that has been shown to President Barack Obama since he set foot in the White House.
But Lynch, in his genius, has decided that since he’s known for football he’d invoke the “don’t snitch” rule—on himself—and remove any possibility of talking himself into a media “gotcha” trap.
The Seahawks running back has taken a large spotlight in the run-up to Super Bowl XLIX, somewhat overshadowing the so-called “deflate-gate” drama centered around New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.
What’s interesting is the difference in the narrative.
Brady and Belichick find themselves having to explain away the so-far inexplicable deflation of footballs in the recent AFC Championship, where they handily beat the Indianapolis Colts 45-7. At press conferences Brady seemed dumbfounded that he had to explain anything, while Belichick had the classic “oh-sh*t-I’m-busted-again” look on his face. The two, plus owner Robert Kraft (who had the gall to ask for an apology), did not control the narrative of their story even going into the most popular sporting event in the world, which will be their sixth appearance. And I find that hilarious!
On the other hand Lynch, who isn’t the only high-profile black person with that last name, is making sure that his story is being told the way he wants—by short, direct, pointed quips to reporters: “I’m only here so I don’t get fined.”
This follows weeks of this type of singular response to the media…
After a playoff win against the Carolina Panthers in January: “I”m thankful.”
After beating the Arizona Cardinals in November: “Thanks for asking.”
On Superbowl Media Day on Wednesday: “You know why I’m here.”
That set off a barrage of insulting questions from reporters like “Marshawn, why do you have to be such a jerk?” and “Is it profitable not to talk?”
It’s as if they’ve forgotten that he’s one of the best running backs in the NFL, rushing for 1,306 yards and 13 touchdowns in the 2014 regular season. But reporters, as creative as they try to be, won’t make it about his skill or his football IQ. It’s about their frustration with not being able to control him. They tried to do the same thing to Richard Sherman last year, because he trash talked after an NFC championship win. But Sherman controlled things with a different articulacy that nobody could deny.
To be honest, I’ve been to a lot of press conferences with a lot of reporters, and seen many idiots at work. They typically ask black men stupid questions that pretty much equate to calling them “boy,” while white guys get every benefit of the doubt and are subject to well-thought out queries designed to elicit diatribes of intelligence—y’know, like Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.
So Lynch chooses to simply let them make themselves look stupid because there is nothing more frustrating to a reporter than someone who won’t answer the doggone question. But an editor I had years ago suggested to me that it’s because the line of questioning might be debasing or insulting.
Now, there are athletes who are jerks to reporters just like there are businessmen, politicians, entertainers, and others who make a journalist’s job hard. But that’s part of the territory; we go into this business knowing it’s hard, and there seems to be some pompous assumption that because Lynch and others have to respond to the media, that they owe reporters these great sound bytes.
But why should Lynch or any black man not control his narrative and instead leave it to a media that is increasingly trying to impress bean counters and (m)ad men more than they are concerned about edifying hungry readers?
I wish Mike Brown or Akai Gurley, or Eric Garner or Tamir Rice had the chance to control their narratives after they were killed by police. But I digress.
Lynch actually does lengthy interviews and articulates himself very well. In fact, when you look at the Seahawks, the last thing you think is “dumb jock,” and that’s how it should be. Black plus sports does not have to equal stupid.
Whatever Lynch and others say after the outcome of Superbowl XLIX, we’ll know exactly how smart the players are, and hopefully how smart the media can be if they want to.
Madison J. Gray is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based multimedia journalist specializing in urban issues and criminal justice. He writes for NewsOne on the subject of Black males in America. Follow him on Twitter @madisonjgray.