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Marshawn Lynch, Mike Silver, and the dangers of "headline porn"

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Lynch expressed "frustration" after the loss, but that anger was misdirected. Not by Lynch, but by the reporter writing the story.

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

When people ask me how I get ideas for stories or how I go about writing a story, I say that typically it just begins with a question. Something that I don't have an answer to and that I can't find readily available, so I go about finding the answer myself, doing the research, putting together a cohesive and comprehensive answer, and then adding in the necessary dick and fart jokes with a smattering of Full House references.

I think that's how Red Smith got his start.

Today's question isn't so simple and probably won't be answered but it's absolutely necessary to explore: Is it dangerous to manufacture a narrative based on one small nugget of information, or a hunch, and bleed it dry in the interest of driving up traffic because of public interest on that subject? Or ...

Has there ever been any truth to the ongoing reports regarding Marshawn Lynch and his relationship with the Seattle Seahawks or is Lynch just such a fascinating person that stories of interest need to be exaggerated, sometimes even based on nothing more than a hunch, simply because journalists know that people want to read news about him? Let's begin by talking about Mike Silver of NFL.com.

The truth is that unlike most sports fans, I don't spend most of my time watching ESPN or reading stories on NFL.com or Sports Illustrated. I prefer to spend more time looking at stats or Wikipedia pages because I'm an information whore more than I am a story whore. So your opinion of someone like Mike Silver, who may be great or may be no different than Jason Whitlock, is probably different than mine. Because you have one. That isn't meant to be a slight against Silver, who has probably been writing for longer than I have been alive which makes me want to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Unfortunately, we do eventually come to doubt.

On Sunday, Silver published this story -- Marshawn Lynch expresses frustration after loss to Chiefs -- and Silver made the following statements:

"Lynch was asked a question about his future with the defending Super Bowl champions -- and he metaphorically pumped the breaks."

"Sometimes, however, actions speak louder than words."

"Seemed to make a statement about the disconnect about him and his bosses midway through Sunday's game..."

"The real question: Was Lynch expressing his displeasure in the wake of recent reports, citing anonymous sources, that that the Seahawks plan to give him his walking papers after this season?"

"Lynch could be released..."

Let's rewind for a second, because the title of the piece, the one sentence of the post that will be read countless more times than any other sentence within the actual article, is "Lynch expresses frustration after loss to Chiefs." What did Lynch "express frustration" with though? Because let's remember that the driving force that has made this article so popular is that it reinforces reports that the franchise and Lynch aren't on good terms, and that kind of drama is what fans just love to eat for breakie, brunch, supper, and fourth meal.

Did a single sentence delivered from Lynch to Silver on Sunday actually imply, or directly say, that he was frustrated with the organization? Let's take a look.

"Do I think I'll be gone after this season?" Lynch repeated, pausing to consider the question. "I don't know, man. The Seahawks, their front office gets in the media; they talk a lot. I don't talk too much. I just play the game.

"If they have something going on, I don't know about it."

It's a fairly normal and understandable question to ask Lynch at this time: "Do you think you'll be gone after this season?" because reports keep circulating that he will. Lynch could respond with "I'm under contract and that's all I know" or "Yes, I'll probably be too expensive for them" or even a simple "No comment" but he does respond. He even "pauses to consider the question."

"I don't know, man." -- It sounds like he's saying he doesn't know. Fair, because in a world of non-guaranteed contracts, 90-percent of the league doesn't know if they'll still be on their current team next season.

"The Seahawks, their front office gets in the media, they talk a lot. I don't talk too much, I just play the game." -- This may be the one sentence that drives people to believe that Lynch is frustrated with the franchise because he says "They talk a lot" but without clarification, we can't know what he means. Pete Carroll is obligated to talk to the media a lot because he's the head coach. Most players spend the majority of their week playing and practicing, not talking to the media. In reality, it's not unusual for any player to say that in comparison to their team's front office, they don't talk a lot.

"If they have something going on, I don't know about it." -- Nothing unusual about that, as it's not Lynch's business to know about the business, just like pretty much any other player. And Lynch will go on to say as much, but it's certainly not Silver's lede.

Silver goes on to remind everyone that Lynch didn't go into the locker room after halftime, saying that "his actions speak louder than words" and implying that it was a statement about his disconnect from the team. This is despite the fact that Michael Robinson told Silver that Lynch told him flat out that he stayed on the field because "He told me he couldn't walk."

And anyone who watched the game saw that Lynch spent the half stretching out his muscles with trainers while laying on a table, not eating Skittles and tweeting.

The article then tries to further drive home the point that there's a divide between Lynch and Carroll, first citing his own reports (with sources always carrying an "anonymous" if they reinforce negative stories) and then quoting Ian Rapoport as saying that Lynch "does not communicate" with Carroll. If you read that link, however, here's what you will find:

- A lot of Michael Robinson saying that there is absolutely nothing wrong in the Seahawks locker room.

- Rapoport saying that it's common knowledge that Lynch has a tense relationship with Carroll and that he doesn't communicate with Carroll or John Schneider because he's part of the "old guard." He keeps to himself and his teammates. Lynch doesn't talk to Carroll?

Let's not forget that Michael Robinson is one of his best friends and Lynch wouldn't even talk to him if he had a camera on him. What did Lynch actually say about his relationship with Carroll?

"Pete's my head coach. Well, I mean, you know, he's really not in my position meetings. ... It ain't like we get to chop it up like that."

I'm not sure how important those three dots are in the middle of that quote, but apparently not important enough to be included in the article. Or those omitted words didn't fit the narrative.

What Lynch said was that Carroll isn't in his position meetings and that they don't "chop it up." Are head coaches ever in position meetings? When I think about scenes from Hard Knocks, I can't recall any time the head coach was there for position meetings. It would be quite difficult to do unless he pulled a "Multiplicity" because there are more positions than head coaches. That's why you have position coaches. Maybe the more important question would be "How's your relationship with Sherman Smith, the running backs coach?"

So would Lynch be pissed off if he was released after this year, just to save a few million dollars?

"I understand the business. At the end of the day, it's just a business."

Hmmm, no. He seems to get it. He doesn't seem to harbor any ill will at all with the notion that the Seahawks could release him to save money. That's why he held out prior to this year, so that he could guarantee more of his future knowing that he might get released in 2015.

And then Silver goes on to remind everyone that when Percy Harvin was traded to the Jets, there were reports that Lynch was mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore. It wouldn't be a good post if we didn't bring up every "reported" transgression, right? So Lynch, how flipping pissed were you?!?

"I'm upset when I don't get a first down on fourth-and-inches. ... You know, it is what it is. I was surprised, I guess you could say."

Oh. Okay. So, not that pissed? You're more concerned about football and not business? Hmm. That doesn't really fit my narrative, but as long as you say you're "upset" with something, I can work with that. And those three little dots? That little guy? I wouldn't worry about that little guy.

Well, I bet Lynch is probably really pissed about this loss today. Probably even like, shucks all the blame to his teammates and that organization he hates so much.

"To be honest, this was a hard-fought game today," Lynch said. "The Chiefs played some real good ball, on offense and defense. Sometimes the ball just doesn't bounce your way."

Probably has so many problems with this team right now after falling to 6-4 ...

"I don't think there's any problem with what we've got going on," he said. "We've just gotta let it fall and keep fighting. We've got a lot of ball to go. These are challenges for us. That's one thing we have been good at, facing the challenges. I think it can be accomplished."

Probably can't wait to get out of here ...

"Is this a championship team? Yeah, yeah, we've got the heart of a champion," he said. "When you've got players like Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor -- you're about to make me name the whole damn roster -- aand there's some young guys whose names a lot of people don't know who bring a lot of fight. I always look at the best of our team. So ... hell yeah. I would have to be a fool to say no."

Ugh, Marshawn, why so negative, am I right?!

So, you're pretty frustrated right?

"The main thing I just want to be communicated is that we played a hard-fought game, and it didn't go our way. Everything else, you just let it fall into place."

At this point, Mike Silver sits as his computer probably and starts to sift through headline ideas:

- "Seahawks lose, but Marshawn Lynch remains optimistic"

*backspace backspace backspace*

- "Marshawn Lynch backs teammates after loss to Chiefs"

*backspace backspace backspace*

- "Hero Marshawn Lynch fights on in second half despite not being able to walk at halftime"

*backspace backspace backspace*

- "What if Kim Kardashian's ass is the real problem in Seattle?"

*pause, thinks it over*

*backspace backspace backspace*

- "Marshawn Lynch expresses frustration after loss to Chiefs"

*Nailed. It.*

The story that the reporter wanted all along was something that would continue to drive home season-long reports that Lynch was unhappy with the team and would be leaving come February. This is something that has remained a story all year, beginning with reports before the Super Bowl that Lynch may retire before playing for the Seahawks again, that his holdout wouldn't end well, and that he could be traded mid-season. None of which was true.

This is "headline porn."

When I spoke to Mark Cuban about his own frustrations with the media, it's a phrase he used several times when describing what's wrong with the current state of journalism. It's all just clickable, social media-driven, "headline porn." What's the most sensational thing you can say that can generate a click if you only get a few words to make a potential reader interested?

The funny thing is that perhaps Silver's headline was 100% true, that Lynch was frustrated, but it seems pretty obvious that he was frustrated that his team lost. In fact, it might have even been hard for Silver to include those quotes -- which is why he buried them at the end -- but he needed to in order to make the headline true. If you only read what he directly said about Carroll or the organization, "frustration" would be going a little too far with what he inferred from Lynch's statements in that regard. So much of the article is what Silver infers:

- "He metaphorically pumped the breaks"

- "Actions speak louder than words"

- "Seemed to make a statement"

- "The real question" (ignoring what was just told to me by Robinson)

- "Could be ..."

Instead what Lynch actually noted that this was just a business, that he understands that the team has to do what it has to do, and that he was surprised when Harvin was traded but not upset. None of which makes for an interesting story to most people.

So to answer my initial question, I still have to ask if this headline porn is dangerous. Especially when it seems to carry heavy misdirection from what actually happened in order to fill a narrative:

- A story on the front page of ESPN.com has the quote "Seahawks talk a lot, I don't."

- On the front page of CBS Sports: "Lynch stayed outside during Seattle halftime"

- The top story at NFL.com just says, "MISERABLE MARSHAWN?"

MISERABLE!!!

- Even Deadspin, often taking the side against lazy or poor sports journalism, runs the story as "Marshawn Lynch flips the bird, is fed up" combining a pre-game photo of Lynch giving the finger with Silver's story, despite them seemingly having no relation whatsoever.

What we end up seeing as the after-effect of "headline porn" stories like this one is fans, like the ones who have already come to sites like Field Gulls, saying that clearly Seattle's locker room is a mess and that Lynch is pissed off at Carroll, Schneider, and anyone else that gets in his way. Because they don't read the article half as often as they read the headline. And if they do read the article, they stop midway through or immediately develop a bias one way or the other based on what was said in the first 150 words.

Even if it wasn't actually said by the subject, but instead was implied or inferred by the journalist. A hunch, a feeling, an anonymous source.

....

I try to be as candid a writer as I can possibly be. I'm 31-years-old and I've really only gotten serious about sports writing within the last five years. Sometimes I feel like everything I do, everything I say, everything I write, could dramatically change the course of my career in a positive or negative way. There is a really difficult line you have to tread in this business: You want to do the right thing but you also want to be successful.

I really want to be successful as a writer, because it's what I love, and I want it to continue being what I love and what I'm paid to do. Yet at the same time you know that there are compromises you have to make and a line you have to straddle between telling the truth and telling what sells.

Mike Silver has been doing this job a whole hell of a lot longer than I have and he's been extremely successful at it. By all accounts, he has knowledge, access, and an understanding of journalism that I wouldn't presume to have at this stage of my career. But I'm really disappointed to see an article that would take a nugget of probable-non-information and have it spread across every sports website as "Lynch is mad with organization" when the reality was that he was frustrated with the loss, and nearly every other quote is the same type of thing you'll hear from almost any other player if you asked him those same questions.

Is an article like this "dangerous"? Well, it's not like anyone's going to die because of a misleading headline, but I hope that the future of sports journalism, or journalism in general, is better than that.

Let's work on finding questions and answers, not just more questions.