Richard Sherman's Theater of the Abused
The National Football League really, really wants its players to talk to the news media, and Richard Sherman is more than happy to oblige.
The Seahawks cornerback appeared at a Tuesday press conference along with teammate Doug Baldwin, who hid behind a cardboard cutout of himself, and lampooned the league for its hypocritical media policies. The NFL had fined Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch $100,000 last week for refusing to speak to reporters in the locker room after a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
In the two-minute skit, Sherman and Baldwin called out the league for requiring players to speak to the media while placing severe limits on what they can say. For emphasis, Sherman name-dropped several sponsors, including Campbell’s Soup, which counts Sherman as one of its player-spokesmen as part of its longstanding marketing partnership with the NFL. But Sherman also mentions Beats by Dre, whose headphones he’s not allowed to wear during NFL telecasts, because of the conflict with the league’s endorsement deal with Bose.
The pair also highlighted the NFL’s particularly uneven stance on alcohol. The league prohibits players from individually promoting liquor brands, and the new drug policy approved in September includes stiff penalties for driving under the influence. But the NFL’s biggest sponsor is Anheuser Busch; the two signed a six-year, $1.2 billion deal in 2011, and football and beer are nearly synonymous.
Here is Sherman:
It seems like we're in a league where they say, "Players, you don't endorse any alcohol. Please don't endorse alcohol. No DUIs, please." But yet a beer sponsor is their biggest sponsor. Doug, how do you feel about that?
OK, this is where people will point out that Sherman and the other players in fact benefit from the league’s endorsement deals, receiving 45 percent of sponsorship revenue, which becomes part of the salary cap. As ESPN’s Terry Blount notes, “Sherman benefits indirectly from the league's Bose headphones deal and gets paid by Apple, which owns competitor Beats By Dre.”
All that is true. But Sherman is speaking to a larger issue, reflecting the players’ sentiment that they have little to no voice in the league -- that is, unless they’re saying something that directly serves the NFL. Sherman and Baldwin, cardboard cutout in hand, were showing us what it’s like to be puppets in professional football.
And as Sherman and Baldwin noted, this has tangible consequences far beyond endorsement limitations.
Baldwin: “Speaking of health, how do you feel about the NFL making you play two games in five days?”
Sherman: “I almost didn't realize that because they've been talking about ‘player safety’ so much. Two games in five days doesn't seem like you care about players' safety much.”
Players have long complained about the toll that Thursday Night Football takes on their bodies, giving them inadequate time to rest and recover between games. In 2011, the new collective bargaining agreement increased the number of Thursday night games from eight to sixteen, allowing the NFL to sell broadcasting rights to the highest bidder. This year, CBS is reportedly paying the league roughly $300 million for its rights to air eight Thursday night games.
Thursday Night Football highlights the many issues at play here: The 2011 CBA negotiations showed just how powerless the NFL Players’ Association is at the hands of the owners, who made out like bandits in what one agent called “the worst CBA in professional sports history.” With meek union representation, the players can do little more than complain about the harm of those short weeks.
And Thursday Night Football is perfectly representative of the NFL’s strategy to inundate fans with ever-more football. As Grantland’s Bryan Curtis wrote last December, this strategy to “eventize” the game -- “to make sports into a television show” -- is the driving force behind NFL Network and the 24/7 coverage that needs as much material as possible to fill air time.
So while the NFL’s Media Relations Policy proclaims that requiring “reasonable cooperation with the news media is essential to the continuing popularity” of the game, and while the Pro Football Writers of America might have been “extremely disappointed” and “appalled” that Marshawn Lynch obstructed their divine mandate to “best serve the public” by refusing to talk to them, the real threat posed by Lynch’s silence is that the league may not have enough meaningless sound bytes for round-the-clock programming.
Lynch returned to fulfill his media obligations this week, yet stuck to his guns. On Sunday, he agreed to post-game locker room interviews -- and answered every question with, “Yeah.” If the NFL won’t give the players a voice, at least one of them won’t use his to increase its bottom line.
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