Conspiracy theories abound in our society—there are too many question marks, uncanny happenings, and outcomes and justifications that we just cannot accept. It follows, then, that sports are fertile ground in American society for these stories to germinate. On platforms large and small, athletes, coaches and administrators of leagues do what they can to leverage favorable outcomes. In sports, a favorable outcome is victory through fair and skillful maneuvering and play. Throughout sports history, however, that has appeared to not always be the case. Stories of rigging, point-shaving and shady agreements appear every so often. According to The Nation’s David Zirin, a prolific political sports writer, this pattern of less-than-fair play allows for the production of theories of conspiracy when there are not any obvious signs of foul play. An uncanny, highly unlikely event happened in this past weekend’s Superbowl, and David Zirin, among many others, is calling foul.
If you’ve been in the digital proximity of any sports news source, or if you watched the Superbowl yourself, you’ll know what happened in the last play of the game. If not, this is what went down: On second and 1, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll opted for quarterback Russell Wilson to pass for the potential touchdown. This was instead of letting their running back Marshawn Lynch, considered by many to be the best in his position in the NFL, take the ball across the line in the three chances they had. The pass was caught, but by a Patriots cornerback, not a Seahawks receiver. The interception sealed the Patriots’ 28-24 victory. This play, for those unfamiliar with the game of football, does not make sense. It lacks reason to such a degree that it has opened the play and Superbowl XLIX to theories of conspiracy.
Before I explain the logic behind this theory, I want to defend why it may not have been pre-conspired. According to coach Pete Carroll, the play was supposed to be a harmless effort where their offense attempts to make the easy pass—either it is caught or it is dropped, and they have two more downs in which Lynch can score. The pass, however, against many odds and strategical contingencies, was intercepted. Carroll could also have been channeling a memory of his role as coach of the USC team in the 2006 national championship, where his call to run the ball across the line ultimately failed. Lynch, speaking after the game, did not feel upset or slighted, but rather explained that it was part of a whole-team effort that went wrong. Otherwise, it can be pinned to the unpredictability of the game, and other, regular factors of any outcome in football.
The conspiracy gains its footing when one realizes that football is much more than a game. The NFL is a powerful, multi-billion dollar, somehow tax-exempt corporation. As much as it is a sports league, it is also a deep and complex web of sponsorship deals, government investments, broadcasting agreements and merchandise production. It is governed by money, and the harm that the league does to its players, documented now in countless sources, is argued away by the money pumped into the players’ contracts. Money is used to leverage players’ compliance to what the NFL wants them to say and do. The players are the public reflection of the league, and it is in the league’s best interest to have the players portray what will end up causing the least monetary loss.
According to NFL.com’s Mike Silver, an anonymous and “upset” Seahawks player seemed to consider the idea that the play may have been an attempt of Carroll to frame Wilson as Seattle’s hero and savior. Still, his response was surprisingly vague and passive as he declared, “That’s what it looked like,” via NFL.com
Other players on the Seahawks, however, particularly Marshawn Lynch and Richard Sherman, are defying this corporate mandate. They are calling attention to the egregiousness of the league’s media policy, its racism, its exploitative relationship to college football and its traumatic brain injury problem. They are trying to hold the league accountable for its horrible, historical transgressions, and the league will naturally want them to lose the height of their platform. So, if the Seahawks were to win, the MVP should be Russell Wilson, to whom the trophy would go, if only he completed his second and 1 pass. Russell Wilson does not rock the boat, and him being MVP would not set a positive example for others that defy the league. If Marshawn Lynch ran the ball in from the 1, winning the game, he would have been named MVP.
As mentioned in last week’s Misc column entitled “Silent Lynch not rude, simply speechless,” Marshawn Lynch is a righteous opponent of the NFL, the last player to which league commissioner and corporate crime-monger Roger Goodell would want to hand the MVP trophy. Pete Carroll, being the Seahawks’ head coach, is attuned to the desires of the franchise and the league in general, and knew the ramifications if Lynch became MVP.
This theory is easy to dismiss, whether because you want to believe that Carroll was earnest in his decision to pass, or that you cannot allow yourself to consider the wrongdoings of the NFL. Maybe you want to believe in the purity of this very, very American game, maybe you’ve been denying the league’s racism for the past month or so, or maybe you’re more trusting than I am. Either way, the conspiracy theory may not be true, but the real issues that inform it and make it even a possibility have been more true and more glaring than ever this past NFL season.