That Skittles press conference is why journalists — and the NFL — can’t stand Marshawn Lynch

Let me get this out of the way up front: the footage of Marshawn’s Skittles-sponsored “press conference” was a joy to watch. So thank you, Marshawn, for making today more awesomer. If you somehow haven’t seen it already, here ya go:

All that said, what you just watched is precisely why journalists can’t stand Marshawn Lynch. It’s not so much that they’re jealous that Skittles landed the elusive press conference. It’s that the mock press conference demonstrated that Marshawn isn’t incapable of speaking or answering questions or being himself in front of a camera, and that his reluctance to do any of those things is primarily about control. And that control threatens their livelihood. Marshawn Lynch’s world is transparently pay-to-play: Want access to Beast Mode? Pony up — but don’t even think about paying in Skittles.

And that’s a problem for the current model of sports coverage. Both the NFL and the media benefit from what amounts to a symbiotic relationship. The league receives free publicity, while journalists are basically guaranteed a steady stream of material and an audience eager to read about it.

This is why Marshawn Lynch represents such a nightmare for both sides of the arrangement: Imagine a world where every famous athlete expected compensation in return for basic access. If sponsors were willing to pay star athletes more than journalists could afford to, and more than the NFL was willing to levy in fines, the mutually-beneficial arrangement between the media and the league would quickly fall apart.

It makes intuitive sense why journalists are terrified of such an outcome: their industry already operates on razor-thin profit margins, and they earn a livelihood due almost exclusively to the fact that they belong to a guild that dispenses press passes and otherwise controls access to players. Without that access, many journalists would be little more authoritative than any old blogger stuck in his parents’ basement (or sitting in law school) — and being forced to pay for that access might prove equally ruinous.

Why any of this makes a difference to the NFL is not as self-evident. It’s obvious that the league does care: player contracts mandate cooperation with the media, and the NFL has proven willing to levy fines for failure to comply with those provisions (though arguably not enough).

Most basically — as noted above — the league benefits tremendously from the publicity generated by free media coverage. But as Michael Silver points out, “the value of making players available to the media harkens back to a simpler time when exposure helped the NFL grow into the prodigious beast (pun intended) that it is today.” Sure, media coverage helped make the NFL, but it may no longer be as necessary as it once was. Indeed, judging by the number of headlines Skittles generated today, the league benefited from the publicity generated by Marshawn’s press conference today as much (if not more) than if it had been conducted in the presence of real media.

So I repeat: why does the league support journalists, specifically?

I think that focusing on the quantity of content generated by journalists distracts from what the NFL really cares about: quality. By which I mean, in exchange for guaranteeing media access, the NFL receives favorable coverage: journalists agree to cover the show without constantly fixating on the league’s issues. Which is how you earn coverage as though happenings on the gridiron were actually news:

NYTimes Seahawks cover

Of course, journalists cover negative stories that concern the NFL when they happen. We’ve all heard more than enough about Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson and concussions and #deflategate. But go read a randomly-selected recap of last week’s NFCCG, and you’re unlikely to encounter many mentions of the NFL’s various troubles. Instead, you’ll read all about who was most heroic and who played too conservatively and who forced the most missed tackles. All the bad press winds up in a different story, where its potential to really hurt the league is significantly neutered.

You may have trouble envisioning an alternative approach, so let me help: You’re reading a review of Bill Cosby’s latest comedy show (yes, his tour is currently ongoing): Can you imagine it failing to mention the allegations that have been levied against him in recent months? I haven’t done the research, but I personally can’t. The reason is simple: journalists have no real stake in what happens to Bill Cosby’s career. Tear down the individual, and another will rise up to take his place.

The difference between the NFL and Cosby is that the former has made itself indispensable to the media. As the basic provider of so much content, the NFL has  positioned itself as a semi-sacred cow upon which journalists are completely (and udderly) dependent. But that dependency cuts both ways. So long as the league continues to feed them material they can digest (and digest again) into stories, it will never be in the media’s interest to melt it down. But the moment that teat runs dry . . . off to the slaughterhouse with you.

In other words, what the NFL buys in exchange for guaranteeing access is immunity from the Cosby treatment. And with the help of a cooperative press corps, the show can go on and the league can earn its $10 billion a year. Marshawn Lynch’s recalcitrance threatens that lucrative little arrangement, but so long as Skittles will continue to pay him more for exclusive access than the NFL is willing to fine him for holding back, there’s not a whole lot anybody can do about it.

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