Last month ESPN tweeted a graphic mapping recent results for NFL jersey sales by U.S. state with the caption “Beast Mode is taking over the west coast.”
Beast Mode is taking over the west coast. pic.twitter.com/V5xsRA1Im1— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) July 19, 2017
Indeed the map shows how not only were Marshawn Lynch jerseys at the time the top sellers in California, where his team the Oakland Raiders play, but also Oregon and Washington which are ostensibly the territory of Lynch’s former club the Seattle Seahawks. In addition to this entire contiguous national coastline Lynch also led in Nevada, where the Raiders are soon bound (although Marshawn’s two-year contract runs out before the planned move, and his reason for unretiring in Oakland is to honor his hometown team while they’re still planted by the Bay; who knows what his future plans will be?), and in Idaho, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico—a giant geographic bloc of Western America, like the post says.
Oh, and Lynch is also tops in Hawaii and Alaska too, keeping with the western theme. Plus South Dakota, Kansas, Iowa, and for some reason Indiana (how embarrassing for poor wealthy Andrew Luck).
Turns out Marshawn Lynch is fucking popular.
Although Setting the Edge’s Justis Mosqueda challenged the wisdom of “buying a 31-year-old RB’s jersey who hasn’t played football in like 20 months” the soaring phenomenon of Lynch’s Oakland apparel seems pretty self-explanatory to me. Because of his rugged play and renegade attitude Marshawn is a NFL folk hero who transcends team allegiance for many football fans, plus a culture icon whose reach extends beyond even the sport’s boundaries.
Seattle fans in particular should possess intimate understanding of Lynch’s appeal, even if the beloved Bout-That-Action Boss himself will play for not the Seahawks but the Raiders in 2017.
That doesn’t stop there being any dissonance encountering Lynch donning another team’s colors; I get it. After a long windup during the spring, the pictures and quotes coming from Oakland OTAs made this realization more real than ever. It will only get realer when we see him on the sideline opposite Seattle Thursday night—even if as expected he doesn’t actually take the field—and then again once the season begins forreal for real. Certain folks will never get over viewing Lynch’s changing sides as a kind of betrayal of the Seahawks, forgetting or even refusing to acknowledge how this sequence of retirement and resurrection hasn’t hurt (and maybe even helps!) the team in the long run.
Those of us still wishing the best for Shawn, however, may even temporarily extend some of that fondness and actually pull for our former AFC West rivals down the coast in 2017—unless the now-interconference clubs manage to face off for all the Skittles in February (in which case I trust no one here will hesitate to hope Lynch fumbles at the one). That longshot aside, the jersey sales data from July clearly show many Seattle-area fans at least willing enough to support the Raiders in the form of a new shirt. Twitter user Kizamu Tsutsakawa even came up with an ingenious idea for reconciling these competing loyalties brought together by a common love of all things Marshawn:
So who's gonna make the reversible hawks/raiders @MoneyLynch jersey?— Kizamu Tsutakawa (@KiWeeeeeeezy) June 3, 2017
While this compromise seems a much more desirable split tribute than those hideous bisected garments popularized (in my memory) by Nelly’s halftime performance at Super Bowl XXXV, it still raises debate that beats against the flow of many people’s idea of faithful fan behavior. You can find the difference of opinion expressed in the replies to Tsutakawa’s tweet: “He's a Raider now. Reversible shmersible”, “Take my money!!”, “I'll take one fo sho”, “It’s Raiders or NOTHING” (from an Oakland fan, obviously).
Keep in mind we’re not even talking about sporting a genuine Raiders article in this case; no side unequivocally asserted, no lines irrevocably drawn. But for those shaming the choice, that’s rather the point—and fans tend to get all up in their feelings whenever it comes to this question of appropriate attire. Back in June, for example, Canadian YouTube star Justin Bieber invited controversy with a series of social media posts defending his habit of wearing jerseys from a variety of competing teams in his public appearances.
I support all sports I'll put ANY jersey from ANY pro team if I'm whack for wearing jerseys they give me out of love then I'm Whack— Justin Bieber (@justinbieber) June 5, 2017
Bieber included a caveat prioritizing his hometown Toronto hockey team, but otherwise stuck to his swords:
Leafs above all but other than that u give me ANY JERSEY THAT LOOKS COOL ILL THROW IT ON— Justin Bieber (@justinbieber) June 5, 2017
Because Bieber, as one of the only people in the world more famous than Marshawn Lynch, has nearly 100 million followers and is a priori a target for disdain by aspiring cultural gatekeepers, the Twitter outburst sparked plenty of criticism in the overlapping population of media and sports consumers—many of them conditioned by years of indoctrination by sports “monogamists” that holding conflicting loyalties, or even rocking contrasting jerseys, represents an unholy disgrace to a devotion central to sports mythos. But Bieber was also not without his prominent cosigners.
why can't all sports fans be more like justin bieber— Master Tesfatsion (@MasterTes) June 5, 2017
Damn it this sounds a lot like Liberated Fandom https://t.co/vQPrgpMw6B— Nathaniel Friedman (@freedarko) June 6, 2017
Before I return to this idea of “liberated fandom”, which Nathaniel Friedman originally articulated 10 years ago on the NBA website FreeDarko.com, I better examine more closely the prevailing orthodoxy probably most notoriously codified by Bill Simmons in a 2002 post called “Rules for Being a True Fan.” Chief among these commandments, according to Simmons, is a prohibition against so-called “sports bigamy”: “You cannot root for two teams at the same time. You cannot hedge your bets. You cannot unconditionally love two teams at the same time, when there's a remote chance that they might go head-to-head some day” (emphasis in original). Simmons wasn’t the first to identify these taboos, just maybe the first with a wide national following in a digital medium that could be so easily looked up.
The rules don’t explicitly ban wearing other teams’ jerseys either, but the way the etiquette around wearing sports attire circles this favored-team identity you get the sense such a restriction follows from the other guidelines insofar as jersey ownership represents any form of direct support.
Either way, Simmons’s instructions concerning loyalty loudly signal the biography of someone shaped by an upbringing entirely within one contiguous sports-affiliated region, a region that’s also (significantly) closely surrounded by other more-prominent sports markets, and the insecurities that come with that. In other words he’s a Boston Red Sox fan from a Boston family who hated going to school with kids who shamelessly preferred the New York Yankees. Simmons’s rules seem much more concerned with “bandwagon-jumping” or “front-running”, and the rather specifically Northeastern problem of faithlessly drifting from one New York franchise to another, which are examples of caprice not really at all related to the question of whether a Seattle fan can ever occasionally root under the table for the Oakland Raiders or some other NFL club.
The thing is Simmons gets caught up on this word “unconditionally”—even though the wayward friend he uses as an example, incidentally a Seahawks supporter who is of all things also a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, says his secondary fandom applies “as long as Pittsburgh isn't playing Seattle” (emphasis mine). That’s, like, the definition of a condition. And when an unconditional fandom meets such a conditional fandom, there should be no conflict.
Simmons wants to exclude all conditions from team loyalty in order to keep fans like this from having it both ways; from getting to enjoy any small relief, say, after Super Bowl XL even though the Seahawks lost; to ensure their emotional investment remains pure. “If the team becomes a take-it-or-leave-it proposition,” as even Friedman puts it, “then the circuits of faith are jammed up to their core.” But what Simmons fails to understand is how his personal biography and geography makes his fandom already conditional to his own condition; his Seattle friend has a wholly other life story that included having no local pro football team when he was a young child, and so he had to create his own set of rules for managing these circuits of faith—and stuck to them. It becomes about trust in yourself, an even truer kind of loyalty after a fashion than what Friedman calls “the doctrine of thick-and-thin loyalty, which is pretty much just a hood version of some fat guy in Cleveland watching the Browns at his own heart surgery”.
Likewise, the Seahawks are my absolute favorite team, but I always maintain a kind of circulating ecosystem of secondary loyalties that change from year to year based on an inexact formula factoring things like general underdog status, orientation against hated rivals, players and coaches I like, what jerseys I happen to find attractive, styles of play and other personal quirks.
When I was much younger, I fell in love with the Cincinnati Bengals’ striped helmets, and I’ve had a soft spot for Cincinnati ever since. Every year in the 1990s I predicted the Bengals would turn it around and based on that belief I picked them relentlessly in betting pools, feeling they were consistently undervalued by reputation (Cincinnati went 55-147 from 1991-2002; I lost a lot of money). I also remember witnessing the Buffalo Bills’ comeback shootout over the Houston Oilers, and its tragedies in Super Bowls, and typically pull for that franchise to improve. We know how that turns out.
I often tend to hope the Chicago Bears and Baltimore Ravens do well. In the ’90s I also liked Jim Harbaugh’s Indianapolis Colts. I despised Peyton Manning so I turned against the Colts later, but I followed Harbaugh’s coaching career from San Diego to Stanford to the San Francisco 49ers, where it didn’t really occur to me to hate him the way other Seattle fans do, even though I sure wanted to beat him then.
Part of this Harbaugh thing is that I’m a Michigan college football fan (so I’m doubly blessed now). The quaquaversial landscape of the various college conferences makes a laboratory for growing different team interests, because favorite schools across the country more rarely come into contact than in the pros. Indeed, my first memories of football of any kind come on the rainy bleachers at the old Husky Stadium, with a pair of purple and gold balloons in my face in the height of late-’80s “Husky Fever”. I moved to Michigan later, where my awareness of football matured, but I still like Washington pretty hard. I also cheer for Stanford though, because three generations of my family went there, and Oregon, because I remember when the Ducks were a joke and their rise seemed like a fun thing and good for the Pac-10. I’m sure I would feel differently if I had stayed in the thick of the rivalry on the West Coast, because damn if I hate Ohio State. I went to college at Wisconsin, but by then my Michigan love had crystalized so the Badgers are only my third or fourth favorite college team, if that. College basketball is a whole other story.
Anyway, my particular journey is not so important—just my suggestion that we all have different backgrounds and relationships to how we watch sports, some of them messier than others and most of them different than the rigidly provincial systems that create fan-card rules certifying you as “true” or “untrue” to your team. During the 2006 World Cup, even the Pope took shit for saying he would cheer for both sides during a semifinal between Italy and Germany. Then-Pope Benedict was born and raised in Germany but had lived in Italy for 40 years—more interestingly to me his Bavarian hometown was on the border of Tyrol and his mother was Italian, so he seems to have always been somewhat split between the two national identities. Benedict apparently said he would “support one team in each half” which makes entirely no sense, so he probably didn’t really care all that much about the sport to begin with. But none of it has to make sense, and it doesn’t have to stay static either.
The fact I gravitate to downtrodden NFL teams—the Bengals and Bills, rather than like the Patriots or Packers—helps me stay immune to front-running complaints like Simmons’s, but either way I don’t care. Because juggling these shifting preferences never in any way challenges my feelings about Seattle’s club. Those feelings are secure. I’m sure most of you manage a similar dynamic when it comes to holding your loyalty to the Seahawks separate from your fantasy football rosters, without potential conflicts keeping you up at night.
Same thing goes with sporting various teams’ apparel: Remember when the most “heretical” thing Colin Kaepernick ever did was wear a Miami Dolphins cap while he was still a member of the 49ers? You think that undermined Kaepernick’s determination to play his best in games for San Francisco? Obviously not, because when they’re not being worn on the field clothes are just accessories. They don’t have talismanic power to twist your heart or change your history. You’re not betraying anyone by wearing a football shirt.
I like the how the current Seattle uniforms, their colors and patterns, connect with the team character and regional identity, but as a fashion statement in public they don’t really communicate much other than “I’m a Seahawks fan”. When it comes to matching clothes to a jersey to look nice, a bolder color with clean white numbers and classic sleeve trim is a lot easier to pull off when your prerogative is appearance. Being so selective doesn’t share the arbitrary carelessness (“ANY JERSEY”) of Bieber’s sentiment. Instead it is a more functional, abstract purpose for wearing a sports jersey than the one that comes packed with team support, and it sounds something like how Friedman first described “liberated fandom” with respect to picking teams themselves: “We like the teams that meet our vague and furry criteria, such that our sensibility can find a match worth its while. This is no more shocking than only reading books that get good reviews, or avoiding a shitty bar even though your friend works there.”
Leave the sentiment behind, it says, and achieve a kind of apotheosis of sports entertainment freed from the hangups of personal history. You don’t have to root for laundry anymore, indeed, and you even get to wear the laundry without worry too. This sort of practice actually makes a ton more sense, and is really only possible, now that we have access to things like NBA League Pass or NFL Game Rewind and abundant blogs and direct coverage to consume any teams, or all teams at any time. No longer bound by the limits of our local market or our canon of family folklore, we can adapt our sports experiences to this à la carte freedom of choice. We can suit ourselves.
I find a combination of the two paths, struggling through the madness and magic of this sea bird of a football team hung around my neck as a youth while also getting to enjoy more casually the broader bounty of the NFL feast as I see fit, offers me the richest course. I get to bear all the emotional stakes and intellectual treats. And I suspect Friedman agrees. Later he said, “It was always more about trying to find ways to enjoy the league more, not dilute the experience of fandom.”
But the point of such liberation is you are free to do both. Bill Simmons says, “You shouldn't practice ‘Sports Bigamy’ in general. Sports teams are just like wives ... you can only have one wife, you can only have one sports team,” but that’s nonsense and polygamy or adultery is the wrong analogy. You can have a spouse, for better and worse, richer and poorer, and you can also have friends you just like to kick it with and get weird.
Love isn’t about ownership. Hang out with Lynch and the Raiders for a while. Buy a black jersey if you want. Get a reversible one. Spill some drinks on it. You can have your fun, and the Seahawks will be doing their own thing. Just trust yourself. I’m sure Bieber will take the jersey when you’re done with it.