Why you should care
Because Marshawn Lynch has never really been explained.
Why didn’t Marshawn Lynch, one of the best running backs in the NFL during the 2014 season, get the ball on second-and-goal from the half-yard line in Super Bowl XLIX? Was it a conscious choice on the Seahawks’ part — the offensive coordinator or head coach Pete Carroll, who was perhaps bent on “outcoaching” the Patriots’ Bill Belichick? Whatever play was called, certainly the Seahawks’ star quarterback, Russell Wilson, could have audibled and handed the ball off to Lynch. It didn’t happen, of course. Welcome to America.
Lynch: A History, the 94-minute documentary that I wrote, directed and produced, is more than just a celebration of the former Seahawks running back; the film shows how difficult his journey to a Hall of Fame–caliber career was and the unique way he went about the business of playing football — and dealing with the media — while being a Black man in America.
I was first intrigued by Lynch when I watched his non-interview interview with Deion Sanders during media week leading up to Super Bowl XLVIII. I thought it was five minutes or so of unbelievably great punk art. I wanted to understand how Lynch got to the point that he could, with seeming nonchalance, turn the media narrative upside down.
One can march in the streets. One can run for office. One can contribute money to candidates. One can also shut the fuck up.
The point of the film, for me, is nicely encapsulated in a line by Albert Camus: “The only way to deal with an unjust world is to be so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” No one, of course, is absolutely free, but Marshawn Lynch comes tantalizingly close, and I want viewers to take from the movie an example of someone who, using silence as a form of protest, tries to be true to himself in a racist, capitalist society that wants to exploit him and that he wants to both exploit and oppose.
Marshawn Lynch of the NFL’s Oakland Raiders stands for the Mexican Anthem and sits down to boos for our National Anthem. Great disrespect! Next time NFL should suspend him for remainder of season. Attendance and ratings way down.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 20, 2017
Spending nearly four years on the film, I learned quite a lot about Lynch that I didn’t know before. He is, in every way, a product of Oakland and there is intentionality in everything he does.
Hip-hop, gangsta rap or punk art aficionados undoubtedly understand the deep roots of Lynch’s “I would prefer not to” stance. As the popular slogan goes: Subvert the dominant paradigm. If you accept the dominant paradigm of media-sports-business-corporate-talk, you have no chance of flipping the script. Rather miraculously, Lynch has figured out a way to do that via silence.
One of the most relevant conversations is one that Matt Barnes had with Lynch on Uninterrupted in which Lynch talks very directly about how — when he was in Buffalo — he tried to act in good faith toward the local media, which sabotaged him and painted him in cartoon colors. He realized that if he said nothing going forward (in Seattle, say), he’d seriously stall the imposition of other people’s narratives onto his own life story. He’s not shy. Rather, he’s making a point that it’s his life, not yours.
A number of athletes have learned from Lynch how to undermine the corporate media. Some of them are approximately his age; some are a little older; most are a little younger. I think it’s a major part of his legacy: the use of silence, echo and mimicry as key tools of resistance. One can march in the streets. One can run for office. One can contribute money to candidates. One can also shut the fuck up. Sometimes the latter can be weirdly effective.
It’s hard for me to think of anyone progressing too much beyond Muhammad Ali, who set the standard for using the athletic arena as a theater for transforming the world. However, after Ali and the Mexico City Olympics protest (behind which was the strong influence of Harry Edwards, from the East Bay) and Curt Flood (also from Oakland) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, there was, of course, the Michael Jordan era of “Republicans buy Nikes too.” We seem to be in a very different time now — for a variety of reasons: the web, social media, the Players’ Tribune, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, Trump and Megan Rapinoe. Marshawn Lynch has been and continues to be a crucial part of this resurgence of athlete activism.
Lynch, as one would expect, was never interviewed for this documentary. When approached, he, of course, respectfully declined — opting to remain silent.
Surprising no one.
David Shields is a best-selling author of fiction and nonfiction, best known for Black Planet, which was short-listed for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and The New York Times best-seller The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead.