Our man in the US - Divisional weekend

They say that talk is cheap. For Marshawn Lynch, it would certainly have been a lot less expensive than silence. The Seattle Seahawks running back has been fined $50,000 by the NFL as a punishment for consistently refusing to speak to the media this season. League rules require players to make themselves available to the press at least twice a week – including once after the end of each game.

Many do so a lot more often than that. Journalists are typically allowed into team locker rooms after practice throughout the week, and while the players who want to avoid talking will find somewhere else to be, the majority are usually present. Only a handful of the most high-profile stars – the starting quarterback plus two or three others – will be treated differently, with team PR departments stipulating in weekly press releases the days and times at which those guys will be available.

And yet, perhaps unaware of the league’s rules on media availability, or perhaps simply unimpressed by them, a large section of the NFL-watching public reacted with horror to Lynch’s punishment. How could it be that fines for dangerous hits start at around $10,000, but declining to speak to the press would cost you five times that sum?

Many journalists had the opposite reaction, wondering how Lynch had got away without speaking for this long. Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com argued that, “In this case, a fine of $50,000 actually seems a little light”. After all, Randy Moss was ordered to pay $25,000 in 2010 after refusing to speak to speak to the press in Minnesota for just three weeks.

The rule is typically only enforced at the point at which a complaint is lodged by journalists, so Lynch was able to avoid censure for as long as reporters were willing to make do without his comments. In a less forgiving media climate than Seattle’s, the whole story might have come to a head much sooner. The New York Jets, for instance, had a formal complaint made against them last week simply for delaying Rex Ryan’s season-ending press conference until 8 January 8. Teams are supposed to put at least one out of their head coach, owner, president, or general manager up for a press conference within a week of their final game.

From a British perspective, the NFL’s rules on media access can often seem quite remarkable. Few such obligations exist for top-flight footballers in Europe, who might be asked to do a quick TV interview after a game, but otherwise are typically only required to pass through a media ‘mixed zone’ – in which they are separated from reporters by a barrier, and stop to talk only if they feel so inclined.

It is a situation that the media certainly do not relish, and Roger Goodell delighted his audience at a Sports Journalists’ Association lunch in London last October when he discussed the NFL’s policy. “I don’t care if [a player] fancies it. I just care that he does it,” said the commissioner. “Going into locker rooms works for us because it’s good for the fans. Players need to speak to the media because this is how they connect to the fans.”

But of course, there are two sides to this argument. There is something very intrusive about the US approach (other major league sports on this side of the Atlantic also allow journalists into locker rooms), requiring physically and emotionally exhausted players to get changed in the presence of strangers holding microphones, recording devices and cameras.

Not everyone would feel especially talkative under such circumstances. Indeed, Lynch highlighted how futile the policy could be when he finally made himself available to reporters last Friday in the wake of his fine. He spoke for less than two minutes, with only two of his answers running to more than 10 words. 

In this age of social media, furthermore, some might also challenge Goodell’s suggestion that players need reporters to communicate with their fans. No sooner had the fine been issued than one Lynch supporter launched a website where fans could donate money to cover the player’s fine; at time of writing, they have already raised more than $16,000. The player responded by offering to make a charitable donation matching whatever sum his supporters eventually raised.

But it is tempting to ask what those fans would make of the situation if they were exposed to the European model – where players are heard from directly far less often, and where the void is filled far too often by rumour and hearsay. Many veteran American footballers have mastered the art of speaking while saying nothing, but the obligation to speak regularly at least ensures that the sport’s protagonists are directly engaged in the discourse that goes on around them.

An open locker room, meanwhile, allows journalists the opportunity to draw on a far greater range of voices. Very often the greatest insights are gleaned not from the stars like Lynch, inundated with predictable questions about individual performance, but rather the less heralded roster guys who have the time and the space to engage in one-on-one conversations about the less glamorous realities of their jobs.

Some of the most fascinating pieces published this year on Peter King’s new MMQB site have been from players such as these, talking in detail about the reality of what it’s like to get cut by a team or to be seriously injured. Those stories might not have been told in locker rooms, but you can be sure that the relationships that made them possible were formed there.

Lynch, presumably, is not keen to share so much of himself as those players. That is absolutely his prerogative. But after seven years in the league, he is fully aware of the rules that are in place, as well as the fact that he is contractually obliged to abide by them. Even if only for two minutes at a time.

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Making Headlines

A couple more stories that have dominated the agenda over the last seven days:

• Just when you think the Tim Tebow story has finally run its course, ESPN go and broadcast a quite peculiar segment on Sunday NFL Countdown in which Trent Dilfer tells us that the former Broncos quarterback (who, possibly not coincidentally, just signed up to work as an analyst on the broadcaster’s college football coverage) really does deserve another shot at playing in the pros. You can watch the whole segment over on Deadspin, but be warned: it’s a little peculiar. That website’s characterisation of it as an informercial feels about right – with Dilfer playing the part of the over-enthusiastic salesman willing you to believe that this miracle product really could work. And if that fails, then at least he has now let the world know that he runs a quarterbacking academy …

• Dominating the airwaves this week have been debates about whether or not the NFL needs to expand its playoff format. Goodell said in October that the league’s competition committee was contemplating the possibility of adding a further team in each conference, and NBC’s Dan Patrick claimed on Monday to have been informed that this was indeed going ahead. A league spokesman quickly shot down that assertion, stating that no vote had been taken on the matter, and that no such thing could happen before the owners’ meetings in March. But that has not stopped fans and journalists from wondering how such a format might work. Would the second seed in each conference lose its first-round bye, or would the sixth and seventh seeds engage in some kind of play-in scenario, just to reach Wildcard weekend?

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Quote of the week

“I didn’t have to kill one of the monkeys. I pushed them out of the house and we packed up that day and got out” - New Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith certainly has some colourful family holidays.

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Three-and-out

• Also in Marshawn Lynch news this week, the Seahawks have created a special burger in their running back’s honour. Naturally, it comes with a side of Skittles. 

• Hats off to the Texans suite sales team for failing to take defensive co-ordinator Wade Phillips off their contact list after he was fired. 

• It appears that Super Bowl XLVIII is in for some serious competition this year.