Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch doesn't really like the media.
This, in itself, is not new news. Back when he played for the Buffalo Bills, he was known as quiet and reserved. Even as a child, according to his mother, via Eric D. Williams of The News Tribune, Lynch was "always a real quiet kid."
That real quiet kid had a dustup with the media assembled at Super Bowl XLVIII this week when he did his level best to avoid people at all costs at an event called "media day," as per CBS Sports' Gregg Doyel. This, after Lynch was fined $50,000 for not complying with media guidelines earlier in the year (later appealed to be refunded if he complies with media requests for the rest of the season).
Honestly, it's much ado about nothing in the moments leading up to the biggest sporting event of the year, and it would have been a non-story had Lynch not made it one. He almost gleefully told Hall of Famer and NFL Network reporter Deion Sanders, "I'm just about that action, boss," and went on to joke that he didn't need to talk about it.
The next morning, NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal had this from Lynch: "I'm just here so I won't get fined."
In response to his disdain for the spotlight, some have wondered if Lynch is a man with debilitating social or anxiety issues. Frankly, wildly speculating about a public figure's mental state carries with it a whole bag of ethical pitfalls. From early in his playing career, it's simply been known that Lynch is a different person when the media is around.
In a feature for Bleacher Report, former teammate Ryan Riddle says, "By not talking to the media, he in essence preserves his autonomy. He is safe. Lynch cares nothing about setting the record straight regarding who he is to anybody."
In the Tribune column above, Lynch opines how other players put too much time into media. He argues it can detract from other things at which they could excel. So, Lynch believes he simply doesn't have time for reporters, cameras or interviews.
Even his tongue-in-cheek interview with Sanders seemed to emphasize that theme as it was "just another talk with Prime" and not an actual media encounter. Sanders may be a bona fide NFL Network superstar, but he's hardly going to break into any hard-hitting journalism with one of the player fraternity. That was Lynch being Lynch around his teammates and not Lynch with the media, with a handy dose of nose-thumbing while he was at it.
Lynch literally crawled over tables and chairs to get away from the media.— Liz Mathews 710 ESPN (@Liz_Mathews) January 29, 2014
That's who Lynch is, and it's great...
Until, of course, he's employed by the NFL, which craves, solicits and runs on a tidal wave of media coverage. Think the NFL is "above" the media? That's fine, and it's probably somewhat true. The NFL is such a behemoth that the 24/7 coverage we devote to it is almost certainly superfluous. The problem for Lynch and other players who dislike talking to the media is that the NFL won't tolerate it.
From the NFL media policy, via BlogAndTackle.net:
Players must be available to the media following every game and regularly during the practice week as required under league rules and their contracts and as noted above. It is not permissible for any group of players to boycott the media. Star players with heavy media demands must be available to the media that regularly cover their teams at least once during the practice week in addition to their required post-game media availability.
There's much more to the policy, but it's pretty easy to surmise that the NFL believes its players—especially stars like Lynch—should talk to the media on a regular basis. Lynch doesn't agree, and maybe you don't care either way. That's your prerogative.
The NFL media, however, is not a fan. Releasing a statement on Wednesday morning, the Pro Football Writers of America took Lynch to task, per The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's D. Orlando Ledbetter:
The Pro Football Writers of America, the official voice of pro football writers fighting and promoting for access to NFL personnel to best serve the public, is extremely disappointed in the lack of meaningful access to Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch at the Super Bowl XLVIII media day on Tuesday.
Several of our long-standing and high profile members were appalled by Mr. Lynch’s conduct and refusal to answer any questions.
We find the statement that by the league that “Players are required to participate and he participated” to be an affront to our membership.
However, we are encouraged that the league will continue to closely monitor this situation.
This is the exact reason the PFWA exists. The first line of that press release is the mission statement of the organization. Each year, the group (full disclosure: I'm a member) discusses things like access in terms of how open locker rooms are, how receptive team employees are, how media is looped in on Super Bowl plans, etc.
Most of these conversations take place behind closed doors and through monthly email updates. The only time the PFWA has to come out firing is when a player like Lynch makes a public spectacle of himself as he flouts the rules.
This story is not about the media "forcing" Lynch to talk. No, the NFL and the Seattle Seahawks are forcing him through this dog and pony show, and the media catches flack when he just goes through the motions. The media caught a black eye in public perception when it was just trying to do its job—a job the NFL very much wants it to be able to do.
On this specific incident, let me be very clear: Media day is a circus. Does Lynch answering a dozen of the same questions about Skittles and a handful of incredibly off-the-wall questions really matter? No, it doesn't. But the league believes it is part of an NFL athlete's job. It also happens to be integral for reporters.
Want to know why the PFWA cares so much about Lynch? It's because this isn't its first go-around with him, nor is it the first battle it has had to fight. It might be its most high-profile case thanks to the timing, but it's neither the first nor will it be the last.
It's also because access is something the media needs to do its job. All media? No. But many in the PFWA depend on the policy working smoothly to do things like feed their families and put their kids through school. An affront to access would be like telling a chef that pots and pans might cease to exist, or that the janitor has to keep cleaning but that he could lose his broom, mop and vacuum.
The NFL signed off on Lynch's behavior at media day, and some in the PFWA believe it's a terrible precedent to set. At a time of the year when media coverage needs to be greatest, Lynch gave the bare minimum.
In many ways, this isn't even about Lynch; it's about the PFWA wanting the NFL to rigorously enforce its own policy. It wants its members to be able to do their jobs. More importantly, it wants Lynch and his peers to remember the NFL mandates that talking to the media is part of the athlete's job as well. It's about not losing ground in an ever-increasing battle for access.
This isn't a battle Lynch deserves to win.
He gets to be himself. He gets to be quiet, reserved, guarded and even antagonistic. He just can't be silent. He can do the bare minimum in terms of availability, but no less. He can let his play do the talking, but he can't ignore the tiny part of his job description that says his lips need to do some talking too.
The NFL is in the football business, but it's also in the entertainment business. The league and those who cover it believe this is important for the entertainment component of the game. That doesn't seem to matter to Lynch, and it's a perfectly reasonable opinion for him to have. His opinion, though, doesn't supersede the NFL's own policy and the scores of quiet players who sucked it up and did their job for years before Lynch and will do it for years after.
This isn't what anyone—fans or media—expected or wanted to talk about before the Super Bowl. Lynch made this bed, and the PFWA did its job by making him lie in it. Maybe the fairy-tale ending for both sides is Lynch finishing this week with a Super Bowl trophy and MVP award, and the media getting to spend all the prerequisite time with him because of it.