SEATTLE – In a time when athletes feel increasingly compelled to speak out, Marshawn Lynch remains unique for making provocative statements by barely saying anything.
Not that Lynch was always as reticent with the NFL media as his career progressed, a career that may not yet be over, though at the moment he is a free agent.
It’s Lynch’s path from reluctant-if-often-dutiful interview subject to one who talked only on his own terms that is the primary topic of the documentary film “Lynch: A History.”
The film, which was written, produced and directed by David Shields, the Milliman Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the University of Washington, premiered last fall at the Seattle International Film Festival, where it won the Golden Sunbreak Award for Best Documentary, and is available on the streaming service Topic.
Shields has written books on Gary Payton and Ichiro, athletes who captivated for the manner in which they communicated as much as what they said.
“Obviously, I’m very interested in athletes and their language,” Shields said.
That led him in 2015, after watching Lynch play for the Seahawks for five seasons, to begin planning a film on Lynch. He approached Lynch a few times and never got an interview but was told Lynch wouldn’t impede his efforts.
The result is an 85-minute film categorized in a news release as a “video collage.”
The film is a montage of Lynch through the years on and off the field, interspersed with scenes of his hometown of Oakland, California, as well as cultural events of the time, such as Colin Kaepernick kneeling for the anthem in 2016. Lynch sat during the anthem on a few occasions in 2017, including during a game in Mexico City when he stood for Mexico’s anthem, a sequence portrayed in the film.
Lynch is shown giving some straightforward interviews during earlier stages of his career, including at Cal and with the Buffalo Bills, and even in his first years with the Seahawks (in one clip from shortly after his trade to Seattle in 2010 Lynch jokes how he didn’t like Seahawks coach Pete Carroll when Carroll tried to recruit him at USC).
He essentially took a vow of silence by the time the Seahawks won the Super Bowl in 2013 (for what it’s worth, while Lynch was reported to have been fined a few times by the NFL for not talking, it’s thought he never has had to pay any money to the league).
But Shields said he thinks many of the conclusions for why Lynch began eschewing traditional interviews are mistaken. Shields said many observers tried to paint Lynch “as either petulant or shy or random.”
But to Shields, there was a pretty clear “method to Marshawn’s seeming madness.”
And that, he said, is Lynch making clear that, “I’ll speak in my own damn voice, thank you very much. I’m definitely not going to speak in the master’s voice.”
As the film shows, Lynch was happy to appear on national late-night talk shows and commercials during the time he was refusing interviews in traditional NFL media settings.
When it came to media duties he felt were required by the league, he largely clammed up by the end of his second full season with the Seahawks in 2012.
Shields said the moment he decided he really wanted to try to pursue something on Lynch was watching the 2014 Super Bowl media day and Lynch’s memorable interview with Deion Sanders, when Lynch uttered his famous “I’m just bout that action, boss,” line.
It was a moment that perfectly encapsulated Lynch. He didn’t answer questions in the conventional manner as did the other 100-plus players there, yet he said the only thing that day that anyone may still remember.
While Lynch was never an enthusiastic interview giver, Shields concludes it was his time in Buffalo from 2007-10 that made him distrust the media, and the NFL machine, that much more.
Lynch had never lived outside the Bay Area and found himself in about the most foreign NFL city he could have (as lots of shots of the Buffalo snow make clear).
Lynch was also suspended by the league for three games in 2009 after being arrested on a misdemeanor gun charge, and the coverage of that and a few other events in his time in Buffalo, Shields said Lynch felt was unfair, with Lynch feeling media often took his words and “kind of falsified what he said.”
“Buffalo was a big change for him,” Lynch said.
Shields, in a clip not in the film, cites a quote Lynch once gave on a talk show hosted by former NBA player Matt Barnes that “I realized if I didn’t talk, they couldn’t mangle my words.”
Watching the progression of Lynch taking power of his own voice, as well as scenes of civil rights protests in the Bay Area in the 1960s and Kaepernick and others in the NFL, makes the film seem even more prescient given events of the last few months (and it should be noted that since the film deals in some harsh realities, there is language that matches).
“I think if the film feels slightly timely, it’s largely because Marshawn has better antennae than most people,” Shields said.
So what did Lynch think of the film?
Shields said he ran into Lynch last August following a screening in Oakland (Lynch had earlier been sent a Vimeo link of the film to watch, as well).
“I wanted to hate on you,’’ Shields said Lynch told him. “But I couldn’t, ’cause you did a damn good job with it.”
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