Go to any Baltimore Ravens road game, and you’ll notice a lot of local fans dressed in purple with the number eight on their backs. This jersey is consistently among the top sellers in the National Football League, alongside those of the 44-year-old obelisk Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, the science-denying failed host of Jeopardy! These are not the usual allegiances anymore; the people show out for Team Lamar.
Go down to the field level, and you’ll see Lamar Jackson chuck a football 50 yards off his back foot as he’s getting shoved into his coaches on the sideline. Three plays later, you’ll witness him make three very large men fall down and, with two more very large men chasing him, manage to throw another 40 yards for a touchdown. Opponents shake their heads. Slam their helmets. “Damn, this guy is fast,” shouts Myles Garrett, one of the fastest 275-pound people on the planet. “Fuck!”
And still, the ESPN yeller-in-chief Stephen A. Smith says he doesn’t “trust” Jackson until the Ravens superstar produces on the way to a Super Bowl. NFL executives claim Jackson’s run-and-gun style is not “traditional” enough. A sports-radio broadcaster once said that the quarterback can hide the ball and run so well with it “when you consider his dark skin with a dark football with a dark uniform.” This is the language of a white-washed league that has banished Colin Kaepernick since his protest of the national anthem. That has racist e-mails flying across white-dominated C-suites. That still doesn’t have a mascot for “The Washington Football Team” because its old name is racist.
But tradition is not Lamar Jackson’s thing. The Heisman Trophy award in college was nice. Real nice. The NFL’s Most Valuable Player Award two seasons ago was fantastic. Winning trophies, however, is different than changing perceptions of a sport wholesale. And Jackson is well on his way to doing exactly that, on his own terms.
He is his own agent, prepared to negotiate this winter to the tune of perhaps $45 million per year. He has his own apparel line, of course. He’s not afraid to clap back at his haters, and he is an avid tweeter — or at least an emojified re-tweeter in the mode of LeBron James. A mural of Jackson flashing a peace sign hovers above a Baltimore street next to the words STOP GUN VIOLENCE.
Like James, though, he remains hesitant on controversial topics when his brand demands. Jackson has had Covid twice in the last year, leading to skepticism about his vaccination status; his answers have been elusive at best. As in the NBA this season, vaccine denial has upended pro football: Rodgers, the Green Bay Packers QB, has lost playing time, State Farm commercial time, legions of fans, and more or less his mind in a spiral of anti-vax pseudo-science. On Thursday, the NFL suspended star wide receiver Antonio Brown and two other players for submitting falsified vaccination cards — and there may be more fake IDs out there.
During a phone call from the Ravens practice facility on Friday afternoon that was intended to delve beyond his game, Jackson evaded Rolling Stone’s ongoing questions about the vaccine. He’d rather talk about pumping his fellow Pompano Beach legend Kodak Black in the Ravens locker room, alongside local artists on the come-up like L.O.E. Shimmy and 26coop. “I just like those guys,” Jackson tells RS, “because they match society and the culture, period.” Not unlike Lamar Jackson. Here was a man on top of his game and perhaps not ready or willing to go there. Jackson does not need to be Kaerpernick. He has pledged allegiance to himself.
Feeling better? You missed a game recently after you started getting the night sweats and curling up in a ball on the team flight. What was that? Not Covid for a third time, right?
Nah, not at all. I don’t know what it was. Probably a little flu or something.
Last month, down at your alma mater in Louisville, the football program retired your No. 8 in the rafters. You’re about to turn 25. But you’ve already done so much. Does that make you feel… old?
I’m still young. Usually guys have passed away or been older in age when they get their jersey retired. But I’m still in my profession. And I’m still earnin’ in my profession at that.
You gonna last longer than Tom Brady out there?
Hopefully! Hopefully, man, for sure. Hopefully.
Colin Kaepernick had haters on the field, for having his own kind of game that’s not unlike yours. Has Colin inspired you to build a legacy off the field?
You kinda caught me off-guard. I really didn’t follow Colin Kaepernick and everything going on with him. I really didn’t try to pay attention to it. I was in college at the time when that first happened, and I was trying to focus on my season. I really don’t focus on things like that and of that nature.
The progressive new mayor in Baltimore says you can be a “transformational” role model for the city. Really getting on the level, with young Black men especially, about gun violence and more of these systemic issues in Baltimore that way too many Americans stereotype as, like, what they’ve seen on The Wire. Do you think you can do more for social justice as you grow older?
I dunno. Probably in the long run. I get out as much as I can, but I don’t get into it right now because of Covid. When Covid came, I tried to stay away from crowds and being in the community too much. When I had my Funday, people had to sign waivers coming out there, ’cause if anything woulda happened, I didn’t want anyone to react and be thinking like, “Oh yeah, they was at Lamar Jackson’s camp.” I was staying away from ’em, so I couldn’t really engage in the social-justice stuff like I would like to.
But you’ve been steadfast about gun violence. About race. There was another school shooting this week. And Kyle Rittenhouse, he walked free the other day….
Yeah, man. Damn.
How much do failures of justice like that disappoint you? And do you think the NFL is becoming socially conscious enough — racially conscious enough — to maybe take more of a stand?
Man, things like this have been going on long before I was born. In ways, it got better, but in ways we’re still the same. Sometimes, this life, it be like, “Man, but it’s not fair.” And then people gravitate toward like: “Well, there’s Black people killing Black people.” But it’s like, sometimes it’s friends that kill friends that was Black. It wasn’t looking at them like a threat or anything like that, how another race might take it…. So I really don’t understand this racial stuff that be goin’ on and how people may treat Black people like this. I really just hope it changes. It needs to.
OK, that was some heavy shit. Let’s have a little more fun. I’m gonna say a name, and you say the first thing that comes to mind: Kodak Black.
GOAT. That’s the GOAT.
Odell Beckham, Jr.
He a god.
Stephen A. Smith.
Stephen A. gonna Stephen A.
Aaron Rodgers has said he’s done his own research on vaccinations and gathered more than 500 pages of it to ask the league for a medical exemption. Have you done your own research, in making that important choice to get vaccinated or not?
Nah, I haven’t. I haven’t did my research on the vaccine stuff like that.
Have you received any shots for the vaccine?
That’s kinda violating my HIPAA rights, isn’t it, talkin’ about that?
It’s a public-health crisis. You’re a public role model. And you’ve had it twice. I think people are worried about you.
I understand that, but we wasn’t talking about that. I thought we were talkin’ about music and stuff.
Let’s talk about you as an independent athlete. As a man beyond the field. You’re negotiating your own contract extension, as musicians often do, agents be damned. You keep your circle tight. Are players like you helping to take the power back? Do you take pride in that?
It’s not about me taking pride in anything. That’s just how I feel for me. I’m not doing things for other people. I’m still on my rookie deal. Me and my GM and the organization, we’re not talking about that right now. I’m worried about this season right now. We got the Steelers comin’ up. A rival game. That’s what I’m worried about.
The Ravens are 8-3. The haters are gonna hate on your four interceptions last week, but can the Ravens still win the Super Bowl?
That’s in the making, man. Only God knows right now. But that’s the main goal. The main goal.
Lock it in? Or no guarantees?
I ain’t gonna deny it. I’m not going to deny it! Why would I deny it?