Why the NFL Loves Richard Sherman, but not Marshawn Lynch

Richard Sherman. Controversial.

Richard Sherman. Controversial.

The following post is written by guest columnist Stephi Blank. She is a graduate student at New York University, studying sports business. 

Controversial.

For the past week, that’s the descriptor I most often see used in reference to Richard Sherman.  It’s not hard to understand why, considering the vast media attention and intense racial discourse that has resulted from his post-game interview after defeating the San Francisco 49ers and earning a chance to play in Super Bowl XLVIII.

On CBS This Morning, Goodell said of Sherman’s comments “It’s an emotional game, and you see a young man who comes off the field and he’s pumped up, and there’s so much excitement in the stadium, but no, I’m not cheering for that…”  He continued, adding, “I want him to present himself in the best possible way, and make sure that he’s reflecting on himself and his family in a positive way.”  Goodell’s reaction is not shocking and is almost exactly what we’d expect from the commish – but it’s a falsehood.  Roger Goodell does not want Richard Sherman to be polite and humble, because where would the media attention, build-up, and controversy come from?  It would stem from a discussion of NaVarro Bowman’s gruesome leg injury and the question of whether Percy Harvin will and should play in the big game, given his very recent concussion.  That type of controversy is bad for the league  – so the NFL needs to gain hype in other ways.

The NFL has a rule: players must talk.  Universally considered one of the best running backs in the league, Seahawks beast Marshawn Lynch remains somewhat of enigma to the football mainstream.   Everyone just wants the man who broke eight tackles (or nine depending on who you ask) to shock the New Orleans Saints in 2011 for a beastly quake of a wild card victory to say something, anything, worth reporting.  Instead, we get stories of Lynch’s sideline Skittles intake and locker room music habits.  Controversial?  Definitely not, but his silence ensures Lynch always “presents himself in the best way possible.”  So while his family, teammates, coaching staff, and fans appreciate the lack of controversy and brashness from Lynch, the NFL did not agree.  So on January 5th, Lynch was fined $50,000 by the NFL for not speaking to the media all season.

It’s a duplicitous message: talk and pay for your controversy in negative media attention; or don’t talk and pay money for the lack thereof.  Yes, there are numerous players who abide by NFL guidelines and do not have to pay the price either way, but the NFL’s media policy is absurd – players must be made available to the media “following every game, and regularly during the practice week as required under league rules and their contracts.”

The NFL policy also states: “Cooperation with the news media is essential to the continuing popularity and financial prosperity of our game and its players. This is an important part of your job, especially in these challenging times when everyone in the NFL must do more to promote our game.”  In other words, the NFL needs you to spark controversy with your comments on non-head-related-injury topics so that people continue to tune in and forget about concussions.

In the 1990s, the Denver Broncos offensive line refused to speak to the media, saying they were a unified group without one star; the Broncos were Super Bowl champions two of the first three years under that philosophy.  In 2007, the NFL enacted their media policy and put the kibosh on unity.

The policy is inherently created for “gotchya” moments – the gaffes that get turned into gifs and get about 24 hours of media coverage before someone says something else and the cycle repeats.  It is also inherently divisive – constantly forcing the players to talk about themselves (are we really that shocked that they’re so arrogant?). The NFL needs these moments to develop story arcs that engage the fans in ways that go beyond the game itself.  Across the country, people are already donning “Don’t you ever talk about me” t-shirts and maybe someone who was not invested in either team will now tune into the game just to see what happens with Sherman – will he actually perform like the best cornerback in the game or will the football gods and karma come back to bite him? This contrived narrative is exactly what the NFL media policy is for – who’s talking about the beating NaVorro Bowman took or the Wes Welker hit on Aqib Talib right now?

Marshawn Lynch would rather make his statements on the field than in front of the camera and it’s an avenue more professional athletes in all sports should think about pursuing.  If the point of these media policies is to catch the player in a compromising position so as to stir controversy where there might not have been otherwise, then Lynch is better off stuffing his face with Skittles and making all the noise he wants to on the field.  Of course, then he has to pay the NFL for, you know, being really good at football and bringing absolutely zero negative attention to his family, friends, teammates, fans, or the league.

Yet, Goodell knew exactly what he was doing when he claimed disapproval of Sherman’s postgame comments, because he endorsed the narrative.  Richard Sherman gave the NFL and Roger Goodell exactly what they wanted: he added fuel to the fire of the already burning Seahawks-49ers rivalry, he uttered zero curse words, and he created a storyline that had nothing to do with NaVorro Bowman’s snapped leg, Wes Welker’s dirty hit, or Percy Harvin’s concussion – it’s more than the NFL ever could have wished for.

Merry Christmas, Roger.

Love, “Controversial” Richard

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