By Summer McDonald
Among the collective gasps, OMGs, and guttural expressions of utter shock from seasoned 12s and Seahawks bandwagon riders alike after Russell Wilson threw an axis-altering interception in last Sunday’s Super Bowl, was some version of this question: Why in the world did they not give the ball to Marshawn Lynch? Since it was the Super Bowl, the Monday morning quarterbacking of the Seahawks’ second down play-calling was amplified to conspiracy levels. Indeed, The Nation’s Dave Zirin dedicated a few hundred words to the conspiracy theory that emerged after the Seahawks failed to score what seemed like the inevitable game-winning touchdown:
The conspiracy theory lies in the fact that Seahawks coach Pete Carroll believed that the last yard the Seahawks needed for that Super Bowl victory was a gimme and, all things being equal, much better to have the iconic Super Bowl moment go to Russell Wilson than to Marshawn Lynch. Coaches setting certain favored players up for glory is as old as football itself. In addition, the politics of race, respectability, public relations and what’s in the best interest of a $2 billion corporation all played into this. That’s the theory.
Though Zirin simply delineates the conspiracy and refrains from asserting his own judgement, several commentators have been more vocally dismissive of the theory itself. For instance, in a segment on the theory on ESPN’s His and Hers [sic], hosts Michael Smith and Jemele Hill, both Black, called the theory as dumb as the play the Seahawks ran. Smith and Hill are not alone in their assessment. After all, there is plenty of evidence that would support a dismissive, “that was the dumbest play-call in Super Bowl history,” assertion rather than a conspiracy theory. Clearly, all of that evidence should be noted and heeded in the discussion. Yet the tenor of the conversation ignores a core issue. This conversation cannot merely concern itself with whether the aforementioned conspiracy theory is true, but rather it must consider why the conspiracy theory exists at all.
There’s an intriguing and apposite footnote in Mat Johnson’s novel, Pym, that highlights my point:
[Here] in America, every black man has a conspiracy theory. (That statement in itself reveals a conspiracy, omitting as it does the conspiracy theories of black women [copious though they may be].) Some theories are quite creative, fascinating. But more are quite mundane, because they’re true. This obsession with conspiracies is most likely due to the fact that our ethnic group is the product of one.
Utter disregard for the possibility of even a thread of truth to the conspiracy theory against Lynch is a semantic rendering that undermines the reality of what we witnessed each time Lynch sat before the media before the big game. At the very least one must momentarily seriously consider the validity of the conspiracy. After all, as Johnson notes, so much of Black people’s experiences in the United States sound so absurd, that if they had happened to other people, we’d deem them lies.
Many Black folks were rooting for Seattle because Richard Sherman and Marshawn Lynch are Black men who have been publicly critical of the NFL. Though they agree to play the game, Sherman’s refusal to silence himself and Lynch’s defiant silence, while letting his presumed-deviant Black body speak for him, are acts of rebellion. White structures of power have always taken such acts as “threats” and doused them accordingly. There are no exceptions to this rule. Lynch might not be a political prisoner, as Jemele Hill noted, but he has placed himself in (comparatively innocuous) danger by not being an upstanding company man. Black folks are well aware of how such persons are handled. As such, a circulating theory whose core claim is that Lynch was being punished in some way must be given attention, crazy as it may seem, precisely because things that have actually happened to black people under white supremacist conditions often sound conspiracy-level ridiculous. Can you imagine what your response would be if you were kicking it in West Africa and heard “rumors” of the Middle Passage? Or if somebody told you what western medicine has done to black bodies in the name of science? But those things really did happen. Because we know that, because we are continually reminded of the absurd and sinister shit that happens to Black bodies in this structure, we must take these theories seriously. What’s unfortunate about Smith and Hill’s commentary is that dismissal of the conspiracy against Lynch theory requires one to miss key lessons of Marshawn Lynch’s relationship with the NFL. And to get on television and not at least say some version of, “I don’t believe the theory, but I get it…” totally undermines the reality of what we see with our own eyes each day.
The blatant dismissal of this theory by Black sportscasters in particular, isn’t surprising. Today’s most visible Black personalities in sports are often as conservative and apolitical as the black players they cover. They tow the line of respectability, sometimes for survival purposes, and other times to cultivate a white audience that lacks the stomach for such inconvenient truths. It is that set of conditions that gives white, male writers like Zirin the task of describing these conspiracies. Consequently we must understand that perhaps amplifying the conspiracy theories to something above a Russell Wilson whisper is not a burden for Black sports writers to bear.
Marshawn Lynch’s Super Bowl experience before the game is the most innocuous evidence that this conspiracy could be real. The way that the media and NFL have continued to punish Marshawn for behaving in ways that don’t meet their expectations sets the stage for a conspiracy theory about a coach who would be willing to risk the Super Bowl to do the same. It’s a metonym, because football is America and the Super Bowl is the most American holiday ever. And if that’s the case–and I think it is–then conspiracy-sounding shit is going to happen to Black people within that venue. This Lynch-centric theory holds weight amongst some of us because, if I may crudely paraphrase Lynch himself, that is the way that Blacks so often get got. And immediate dismissal of such thoughts implicitly expresses a fundamental misunderstanding of Black American life itself.