Super Bowl media day is a complete circus. Everyone knows that. Sure, players and coaches of the two participating teams are made available to answer questions from the “media.” And sure, there are some respected journalists and analysts (which includes former NFL players) who ask “football questions” about this Sunday’s big game. But Super Bowl media day is also highlighted by the absurd—the costumed characters who somehow are permitted to infiltrate media day and the completely random questions that are asked (often, by these same costumed characters).
2015 Super Bowl media day was no different. Want respected reporters from around the globe? We got ‘em in spades. There was “barrel boy”—the guy wearing nothing but a large barrel and a fireman’s hat. How about the guy dressed as The Terminator, complete with fake inflated muscles, sunglasses and Arnold’s trademark hairdo from the movie. Heck, even a pair of buck-toothed sock puppets were granted access. Want hard-hitting questions designed to make players and coaches provide accountable answers? How about “Will you tell us the first play you’ll run in the game if we promise not to tell anyone?” “Do you have a favorite Avenger?” “PlayStation or Xbox?” “What does your mom call you when you’re in trouble?” Take that, Woodward and Bernstein.
Amidst all this absurdity, one of the biggest questions of media day was whether Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch would speak to reporters and what he would say. Lynch, who is known as “Beast Mode,” has had a recent history of skirting the media. During last year’s Super Bowl media day, Lynch answered every question posed at him with some variation of “I’m just ‘bout that action, Boss.” In November of last year, Lynch was fined $100,000 by the NFL for violating the NFL Media Policy, which mandates that players be available to the media in the locker room following all games ($50,000 for the most recent infraction and $50,000 that was held in abeyance for a 2013 infraction pending future cooperation).
Rumors began circulating early this week that the NFL had threatened to fine Lynch $500,000 if he did not show up for media day. So Lynch did just that—he showed up. Lynch answered every question, 29 to be exact, the same way: “I’m here so I won’t get fined.” After four minutes and fifty-one seconds, Lynch said “time” and left the podium. During Wednesday’s media session, Lynch stayed for five minutes, answering every question with some variation of “You know why I’m here.”
The NFL Media Policy and player contracts only require players to make themselves “available” to the media. There is no requirement that players speak for a certain amount of time. Nor is there language regarding the content required or prohibited by the speaker, and even if such a policy existed, it would have to be scrutinized to ensure it did not violate an employee’s Section 7 rights under the National Labor Relations Act to speak about the terms and conditions of his employment. So Lynch did exactly what the policy required, which was to be “available.” Consequently, the NFL would not seem to have any basis to fine Lynch for his performance the last couple days.
Frankly, the fact that the NFL would consider fining Lynch $500,000 just for not showing up to media day, if true, is somewhat absurd considering the other more important issues the league has had to deal with this past year. And the fact that some media members are making this a big deal is simply a waste of time. One journalist argued that Lynch is not abiding by the “spirit” of the NFL’s policy because, by showing up and simply repeating the same mantra, he was not making oneself “available” to the media. We are not dealing with statutory construction or what the legislature intended. We are dealing with a workplace policy that specifically provides he needs to be “available,” which he was. Even the NFL must acknowledge this.
And employers everywhere must acknowledge that the specificity of their written policies are critical, especially when it comes to disciplining employees. Employers may not argue that employees are violating the “spirit” of any policy, rather that the policy itself was violated, which prompted remedial action. Otherwise, employees can and will use this ambiguity to contend their discipline was the result of disparate treatment or a variety of other unlawful means. As a result, it is important for employers to review their workplace policies periodically to ensure they are clear and accurately reflect the company’s stated objectives as well as business realities. The last thing you need is for an employee to go Beast Mode in the workplace.