In 2002, the year the New England Patriots won their first Super Bowl, George W. Bush signed a presidential order permitting the NSA to spy on American citizens.
This is obviously not much more than a historical coincidence; this is not meant to imply that (allegedly) tinkering with the air pressure of a football is somehow the moral equivalent of (arguably) impinging on the Bill of Rights. But every so often, sports can’t help but reflect the tenor of the times, and this feels like one of those moments, because all of a sudden, this Super Bowl has become all about questions of privacy and secrecy and distrust of institutions.
Obviously, people hate the Patriots for many reasons. They hate the Patriots because they despise the parochial arrogance of New England itself; they hate the Patriots because the Patriots have been consistently good for an incredibly long time, and because this success is generally portrayed in a positive light by the media. They hate the Patriots because Tom Brady is handsome and successful and married to a model and because Rob Gronkowski is a frat-boy stereotype and because every time you think the Patriots might finally go away, they don’t.
But the primary reason people hate the Patriots is because they see them as a draconian organization that will bend the rules to their breaking point. They hate the Patriots because they perceive Bill Belichick as an almost Dick Cheney-esque figure, a mumbly Darth Vader willing to do whatever it takes to get his way. This is why it almost doesn’t matter if there’s any substance to Deflategate; it reinforces the perception of the Patriots, and now that it’s out there, I don’t think it will ever go away, in part because it jibes so easily with the fears and suspicions of the era.
The Patriots are now a metaphor for 21st-century paranoia: They (allegedly) spy, they (allegedly) don’t comply with regulations and they succeed without revealing anything about themselves. Fair or unfair, they are seen as a shadow football team; they are representative of everything we distrust about American institutions, from Halliburton to Amazon. And right now, in the wake of the Ray Rice scandal, those distrusted institutions include the NFL itself (maybe the biggest American institution of them all), and the media that covers the NFL.
And this, I think, is why Marshawn Lynch is the on the verge of becoming an American icon.
On Tuesday, at the NFL’s bloated lounge act known as Media Day, Lynch pulled the same Andy Kaufman act he’s been riding for most of the season. He answered questions by utilizing the same reply over and over again; in this case “I’m here so I won’t get fined.” It was the second straight year Lynch had essentially refused to answer questions on Media Day, and never mind that this long became a moot point on Media Day, secondary to the circus itself: Lynch’s actions sparked some righteous outrage from overzealous NFL writers. But mostly, Lynch was greeted with sympathy. And when, on Thursday, he explained himself in a y’all-riddled statement that essentially defended his choice to say nothing, Lynch’s stature among the general public only grew.
The consensus is that Lynch had a right to his individual privacy. The consensus is that Lynch shouldn’t be forced to say anything if he doesn’t want to, especially not by the hypocrites at the NFL offices. Some of this was inevitable; people will always distrust the media, but at this particular moment, people distrust the media even more than they normally do. If Lynch has a huge night on Sunday, or scores the game-winning touchdown – thereby breaking apart the last vestiges of the Patriots’ hegemony – and then does a postgame interview where he repeats some Zen mantra of nothingness, it will become one of those unforgettable moments that will spark 30 for 30s where highbrow historians in bow ties will liken Lynch’s defiance to that of Edward Snowden.
Maybe I’m reading too much into a football game. But apparently I’m not the only one who’s making these connections: This week, The Onion published a short piece headlined, “Marshawn Lynch Delivers Eloquent 45-Minute Address On Privacy In The Modern Age.” It was just satire, but like all good satire, it also felt strangely real.