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Marshawn Lynch has a unique talent for making certain people very angry. They don't like the way he dresses, in cleats that gleam like rare coins. They hate the way he celebrates, his hands invariably reaching for his family jewels. Worst of all, though, is his refusal to engage with the press, an act that spurred one journalist to call him a "disrespectful, unprofessional dick." Over the last two seasons, Lynch has been fined $100,000 for failing to comply with the league's mandate that players talk to reporters; if he stays mum on media day, he could incur another massive penalty. Beast Mode's silence has come at a great cost.
It's also made him the most popular running back in the NFL.
Consider the timing. At a moment when the league is enmeshed in a potential cheating scandal, and while the stench of Ray Rice's, Adrian Peterson's and Greg Hardy's rotten deeds still lingers over the game, Lynch's actions seem comically trivial. As a result, his punishments feel arbitrary, and his critics sound crotchety and out of touch, as if they're auditioning to replace Clint Eastwood in a "Gran Torino" sequel.
The NFL, Lynch's chief nemesis in this low-stakes battle, is resoundingly unpopular these days. YouGov BrandIndex reports that public perception of the league, which briefly improved in January after a disastrous season, plummeted again last week. The NFL now scores worse than MLB, the NHL and the NBA. This bodes well for Lynch; just look at how Americans rallied behind "The Interview" when North Korean hackers got involved. "Every time the NFL fines him, he becomes more sympathetic to fans," says Bob Dorfman, an executive creative director who specializes in sports at Baker Street Advertising. "They tend to take his side."
True, some fans are probably offended by Lynch's antics. But most don't care. When he barely spoke to the press during last year's media day, inspiring one writer to say fans see him as "a pampered brat," a SportsNation poll found that 87 percent of respondents didn't object to Lynch's behavior. A few weeks ago, ESPN reporter Darren Rovell asked his followers if Lynch should be obliged to provide the media with "meaningful answers." More than 1,000 people responded, and 83 percent of them said no. Seattle Seahawks GM John Schneider, the guy who issues Lynch's paychecks, recently told reporters he isn't bothered by his employee's attitude. "I kind of love his act," he said. My take? I think the league should set clear, predictable sanctions, and if Lynch willfully violates the rules and pays his fines, so be it -- no further moralizing is needed.
The running back's silence has created a paradox: The less he speaks, the more people talk about him. This phenomenon, coupled with his incredible performance on the field, has catapulted his star. Lynch has long been one of the best-known backs in the league, but he's become more famous than ever this season. According to data gathered by Twitter, Lynch was mentioned in about 35,000 tweets in December 2013, compared to 68,000 for DeMarco Murray, 115,000 for LeSean McCoy and 158,000 for Jamaal Charles. In December 2014, Lynch was mentioned 366,000 times -- more than those other backs (and nearly every other rusher, I suspect) combined. His jersey was the 10th-highest seller in the league during the fall, a rank that would probably be higher if Seattle's roster wasn't stacked with recognizable names. Over the past month, Lynch's name has appeared in 2,199 news stories, according to LexisNexis, about 500 more than the same period last year. Searching for his name on Google Trends produces a graph that looks like a bubbly stock chart.
Lynch's heightened profile, Dorfman says, could help him pursue moneymaking opportunities off the field this year. "When you're a running back and not a QB, you need to stand out more," he says. The increased emphasis on passing in the NFL has not only boosted the statistics of quarterbacks, it has also clarified their public personas, which in turn increases their appeal to marketers. Russell Wilson is pious, Tom Brady is suave and Peyton Manning is an everyman. Could you easily come up with a single word to describe Murray, Charles or Le'Veon Bell? Would the average fan recognize one of these stars on the street? Lynch, on the other hand, easily commands several adjectives: tough, authentic, taciturn. "It does make him a little cooler, a little more alluring, a little more interesting as a pitchman," says Dorfman.
Of course, Lynch's reputation terrifies many brands, especially larger companies with risk-averse marketing departments. McDonald's and Visa aren't likely to cast him in commercials any time soon, but they probably wouldn't use him even if he did offer stilted sound bites and kept his hands a safe distance from his crotch. Meanwhile, Lynch's growing popularity -- and his distinctive character -- make him a compelling fit for quirkier, edgier companies, according to marketers (he currently endorses Vita Coco, Monster headphones and Skittles). Because the running back hardly ever talks to the press, his rare moments of disclosure are innately compelling--which makes his commercial spots titillating. On Monday, Skittles released a "press conference" starring Lynch, which has already racked up 750,000 views on YouTube. "He's gonna work better for a brand trying to break into the market," says George Belch, a professor and department chairman of marketing at San Diego State University. "It's got to be a brand that wants to be perceived as rebellious."
The NFL's treatment of Lynch has turned him into a sort of football Obi-Wan Kenobi; the more the league strikes him down, the more powerful he becomes. If he parlays that influence into another national endorsement, Dorfman says, Lynch could easily reap a few hundred thousand dollars in fees. A local deal, he adds, might generate as much as $100,000 -- exactly the amount the NFL fined him in November for keeping his mouth shut. Poetic justice, perhaps, for a man of few words.