Marshawn Lynch was in Toronto with the online sports platform DAZN as a part of the “The New Home of Football” in Canada campaign. Having announced his retirement from the NFL (for the second time) only to return to help the Seattle Seahawks with a 2020 NFL playoff run, this sure-contender for the Hall of Fame sat down for a personal conversation on his career and the state of the game.
Stretched out on a couch in a dimly lit hotel room at the St. Regis in Toronto and snacking on a cargo-pant pocket full of Skittles, Marshawn Lynch thought he was finished with the media for the day when we started our conversation.
The Skittles were on brand, as that is one of the endorsement deals he has lived off of, allowing him to let his $50 million (plus) NFL salary go untouched.
Marshawn Lynch is one of the most dominant running backs to ever carry the pigskin. He has the speed and agility that many of the greats are known for, but while legends like Emmit Smith and Barry Sanders can be seen bouncing off of defenders in highlight reels, Lynch’s top rushes are more about him shredding through opponents, crushing through chaos and somehow emerging with his feet in motion and the ball still in his hands.
His approach to the game is encapsulated in his brand Beast Mode, which became a pop culture term through Lynch’s electric play and memeable personality. Less about sports, and more about a mentality he developed growing up in Oakland, Lynch describes what Beast Mode means to him:
“Everybody on that defence would be like my teacher, my principal, police officers, the people that hate me – everybody that’s negative that don’t want to see me succeed. I’m on offence because I want to succeed. The end zone is my success. All of those people on defence want to stop me from getting to my success. So, is it that I allow them to stop me? Or do I do whatever it is I need to do in order to get to my success?”
Lynch is known for his resistance to the media circus surrounding professional sports. You can find countless videos of him spending press conferences repeating, “I’m only here because I don’t want to be fined” to every question or responding to questions post-game in the locker room with plugs for his charity events for youth in Oakland. What emerged out of our conversation was a question in my mind of how much of his relationship with the media was actually just the frustration of being a multi-dimensional person that was only ever spoken to as one-dimensional athlete?
That one-dimensionality is something he has defied and stood up against in his words and actions throughout his career. Speaking on the dominant narrative of insanely high-paid athletes going broke, he elaborates:
“You have to remember, ‘this is just another dumb athlete’ was the stereotype for us.”
As much as he accomplished on the field (with over 10,000 rushing yards placing him at 29th all-time), Lynch’s resume includes a series of major business moves before the idea of the athlete/entrepreneur was as prevalent as it is today. Answering my question on what his highlight reel of business deals would look like, he starts off by spitting out the names of three cities: “Oakland, Seattle and Vegas – those are my three apparel stores.” On that list, he also includes the deal that gave him the unprecedented access of having his Beast Mode logo on NFL Oakland Raiders apparel, the sponsorship deals he secured, and his commercial real estate moves in his hometown of Oakland.
On the topic of the business around sports, we touched on his thoughts on the conversation around Kaepernick, Jay-Z and the Roc Nation deal with the NFL. As a player, Lynch took a knee in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick and briefly feuded with President Trump on Twitter when Lynch took exception to being called unpatriotic by the President in the face of his outstanding track-record of investing in the education and sports for youth in his community. Lynch’s support of the position taken by Kaepernick is common-sensical to him: “It wasn’t like he (Kaepernick) was saying anything that wasn’t realistic. It was facts.”
After getting into some of the points that have been made behind both the criticism and support of Jay-Z, Lynch shared his thoughts. “For me, it’s too early to speak on”, he said, “you are going to be able to tell after you see the moves that are made.” Lynch does want to see Kaepernick play in the NFL again, and is thoughtful about how his return to the league is connected to the bigger picture.
“Is that the next step?”, Lynch asked, “is that the move, to be able to fight to bring him back in the league and get him on a team? Or are we past that point?”
This is where his thoughts return to Jay-Z. “I understand the fight and the protests, but we actually have to do something”, he said. “That was the first step”, Lynch continues, “and it landed him (Kaepernick) in a position where he can’t play. If Jay’s move was to move past that, then now what’s next? With this situation, if it’s a power move, when you make power moves, you make power plays. If he (Kaepernick) wants to play, is this a power move to get him back in the game? I don’t know. To me it would be the start of a power move if that’s what we’re doing.” Tying into theories that the moves of Jay-Z are a step towards ownership, Lynch sees any steps in that direction as a key to real change:
“You want to see more Black coaches and you want to see players being able to express themselves, but until you get Black ownership, it’s hard to see it that way.”
Another tough topic we got into is the conversation around concussions and brain health in the NFL. Lynch sees a change in the game itself and the players that are coming up. “With all of the brain and mental health problems that are going on”, he explains, “it’s making it common for players to talk about it, because they aren’t feeling like they’re the only person with those problems.”
In addition to changes to the rules and the fines aimed at, “taking the head out of the game” (both as a target for contact and as a tool to initiate physicality), Lynch sees a generational change. “It’s a different day and age”, he says, “they’re raising kids differently than how I was raised.”
On how he was introduced to the game, Lynch is blunt: “We were taught to bust somebody in their head”, adding that, “what I was taught was that when you got your bell rung and you get a little headache, they asked, ‘alright, did your head stop ringing?’” The answer was going to be ‘yes’, and he explains the understanding was, “get back in there or they get the next one back in there.”
Reflecting on that time, Lynch is brutally honest: “the bad thing about it, was when we were kids signing up for that game, we knew exactly what was going on.” As to why he signed up knowing that, Lynch is transparent about his intentions.
“That’s why I started playing football. I didn’t want to be rich. I didn’t want to be famous. I wanted to hit people. I was angry. I was a product of my environment. That was the outlet.”
That is a cycle that Lynch is a part of breaking through his football camps that are now international. Having a global partner on his football camps is one of the major reasons that he agreed to the deal with DAZN, which seems to be the thing that he does which is closest to his heart. Hearing him describe what football has opened up in his own life — from the emotional release, to the impact he has had in his community and the lanes in business the sport has opened up to him — it’s not difficult to see why teaching the game to the upcoming generations matters to Lynch.
On how he approaches brain health with the children coming up in the sport today, he says, “I think we just have to get them prepared for the times in which they are in now. That’s one of the biggest things that we teach at the football camps, to take the head out of football.”