For anyone interested in how American culture works, it’s worth considering the case of Marshawn Lynch, NFL star and ex-Buffalonian.
Most Americans already know the story, but readers who show up at this site may be a little behind the curve, so here are some basics: Lynch played for Buffalo during his first three years in pro football but failed to impress, and the team traded him to Seattle, where he reached mega-stardom and helped win last year’s Super Bowl; largely thanks to him, Seattle is back in the Super Bowl this year, a pretty rare achievement given how the NFL now works. His playing style is old school, exemplifying the coach-speak virtues: he’s apparently fearless, loves to hit, and has carried his team through several difficult moments. The sportswriters have been seriously impressed: “arguably the greatest individual run in football history,” is the line on one performance; and about another, “it has become impossible to imagine this team without him …. Each time Seattle needed a play as the game wound down, he was there with one.”
Even the position Lynch plays is something of a throwback. Running backs like him were the big stars of the 1950s and 1960s, but they’re an afterthought in the modern, passing-centric game.
All of which ought to have made him a big favorite in Buffalo. Up here we take NFL football very, very seriously, and we’re pretty old-school ourselves. In the abstract we know the 1950s are over, but we haven’t fully processed the information; we’re still mad that glamor quarterback/21st-century archetype Tom Brady once complained about our hotels.
Despite which, Lynch irritated the locals almost from day 1, and they’ve stayed irritated in the years since. It’s the quality of that irritation that seems to me so interesting.
Of course, the story includes some bad behavior on Lynch’s part. He was arrested one off-season for having a gun in his car trunk, and another time for a hit-and-run with his SUV; this happened on one of Buffalo’s premier night-life strips, so it’s not impossible that alcohol was involved. Lately he’s toned down the nightlife, but he’s been refusing to talk to the press, enraging journalists, internet commenters, and the NFL itself. The commissioner fined him $100,000 back in November– so rather than avoid reporters altogether, Lynch now shows up and repeats the same sentence in response to every question.
And of course race looms in the background, as it always does in American football. Nowadays two-thirds of NFL players are black, while most of the owners, coaches, quarterbacks, journalists, and fans are white. That reality comes up constantly when fans discuss players, especially when they discuss player misbehavior. Spend a half-hour or so reading internet comments about pretty much any football issue; if you had any delusions about America as a post-racial society, that’s the cure.
All this helps explain Buffalo’s Marshawn Lynch problem, but it’s not enough. On the race angle, Lynch’s replacement is also black, and he’s a local fan favorite, the public face of our biggest bank. And whatever race feelings are out there, Buffalonians are desperate for a successful team– we’ve had fifteen straight years without making the play-offs, the NFL’s longest losing streak. So you’d expect some regret that we gave away one of the sport’s reigning superstars, or some wondering why the success story didn’t happen here, or whether the coaches mismanaged a once-in-a-lifetime talent. Instead, the dominant motif in the stories I read is “good riddance.”
Doesn’t anyone care about winning anymore? Marshawn Lynch cares–otherwise he wouldn’t have dragged his team to the big win two weeks ago– but do Buffalonians, aka garden-variety Americans?
Well, that’s become my new hypothesis– maybe we don’t care about winning, or at least maybe we care more about the pleasures of moralizing, disciplining, and punishing; maybe keeping everything in moral order matters more than practical success.
For evidence, I’ll just offer the example of Buffalo’s leading sports columnist, Jerry Sullivan. Sullivan describes himself as a liberal Democrat, and by all appearances he’s a thoughtful, enlightened guy; at this point his column is about all I read in the local paper. He’s also a consistent critic of the team’s management, so he’s certainly not trying to whitewash a bad personel decision.
But Sullivan’s as angry about Lynch as any internet redneck, and as obsessed. A few days ago, he asked, “How about Marshawn Lynch, the sullen ex-Bill? Will he even show up to Media Day? Will he speak, grab his crotch, scatter a bunch of hundred dollar bills on the artificial turf to pay a fine up front to the NFL, then stalk off into his own Beast Mode universe?”
(Sorry for the long quotations, but you need them to get the full flavor.)
When Lynch showed up but said nothing beyond “I’m here so I don’t get fined,”
Sullivan devoted the whole of his next column to the episode: “We tried to understand Lynch when he came to the Bills. … Lynch never let people in. He was a miserable character who shunned attention and caused trouble off the field. If he was uncomfortable with interviews, fine. But don’t cry about being misunderstood. He brought his problems on himself, and from what I can gather, he’s still doing it. He has said he shouldn’t be ‘forced’ into it. He’s making almost $8 million a year to play football. There are certain sacrifices, like being on time and practicing. He says he’s not a ‘media whore,’ as if there’s nobility in not speaking. Maybe he thinks cooperating would cost him valuable street cred.”
Talk about old school– this kind of sermonizing was already a joke when it was directed at Joe Namath back in the late sixties. Of course it’s extra preposterous now that we better understand the drastic sacrifices that football in fact demands of all who play it.
But that’s my point. The Marshawn-Lynch-in-Buffalo story tells us that American culture has changed less than we like to imagine, and that in it angry moralism still rules, leaving far behind pragmatic calculations about costs and benefits, successes and failures.
If football is any kind of metaphor for the other arrangements of American life, as we’re so often told it is, these are not comforting thoughts.