It’s been barely more than a year since Marshawn Lynch hung out his shingle as an Oakland clothier. This was during Super Bowl week in nearby San Francisco and the establishment of Lynch’s Beast Mode Apparel in Oakland’s downtown was a holiday of sorts. The city’s mayor, Libby Schaaf, declared the afternoon “Beast Mode Day”, a huge crowd filled the street outside the store and the running back himself cut a ribbon with a giant pair of scissors.
It was a message that Lynch, who was born and raised in Oakland, was coming home after a successful eight-year football career. And not only was he going to stay in Oakland he was going to invest in Oakland too. For a city long cast aside by the Bay Area boom that was suddenly facing the creep of gentrification, Lynch’s store was a sign the city could find progress without losing its soul.
“I love seeing him come back and giving economic vitality to this part of the city and lifting up that unique Oakland brand, that style, that Marshawn is known for, that Oakland is known for,” Schaaf told the Seattle Times’ Larry Stone that afternoon.
Two days later, during the Super Bowl, Lynch announced his retirement by tweeting a photo of his cleats hanging from a telephone wire. He was definitely home.
Now Lynch is close to coming back to the NFL, this time with Oakland’s Raiders. An agreement with the team is expected any day, followed by a trade from his former team, the Seattle Seahawks (who still hold his rights, even if they no longer pay him). It should be the perfect story: Lynch back in Oakland to star for the hometown team, playing his games at the stadium where Hegenberger Road crosses the Bart tracks.
And yet this could be very awkward.
Unlike Beast Mode Apparel, which is an investment in both Oakland’s past and future, Lynch’s return to the Raiders is a temporary stop on a team that has already given up on the city. After months of wrangling to abandon Oakland, the Raiders finally got the NFL to approve a move to Las Vegas in 2020. Schaaf’s frantic efforts to keep the team were rebuffed by league commissioner, Roger Goodell, who sent her a letter that said: “We have not yet identified a viable solution (to keep the team in Oakland).”
Not that the league particularly wanted one, given the $750m in public money Las Vegas was offering toward the construction of a new stadium.
Oakland doesn’t have $750m to spend on a stadium. But it still has a football team for three seasons, a team that will play in the stadium where Hegenberger crosses those Bart tracks, a team that will call themselves Oakland even when they really aren’t Oakland’s anymore … and somehow this is all supposed to work.
Lynch won’t be the main attraction for the lame-duck Oakland Raiders. He is soon to be 31, which is past the magic age of 30 where most running backs start to break down. He hasn’t played in 15 months and his last season was his worst. Injuries held him to just 417 yards and three touchdowns in seven games that year.
The team has plenty of other offensive stars. Still, Lynch will be one of the most important Raiders. Provided quarterback Derek Carr’s broken leg is fully healed, Oakland will be one of the best teams in the AFC next season. After 14 years out of the playoffs, they have a legitimate chance at a Super Bowl during this short run left in their city. Not only can he have an impact on the field but Lynch will be a link between the team anxious to leave and the fanbase that is being abandoned.
Who knows how much this will matter. Lynch’s football revival may be more hopeful than sound strategy, though. It has never been wise to bet against Lynch who will always confound those who think they have him figured out. He hardly seemed motivated in his final Seattle season. Maybe time away has allowed his body to heal. Maybe he has another great year or two left in his legs.
But what does it mean to be the hometown star on a team that doesn’t want to be in your hometown anymore? Perhaps the two are unrelated. Most of those who go to Raiders games don’t come from the city itself. Many of those in the real Oakland, the one that predates the surge of expensive condominiums, can’t afford to buy NFL season tickets. As with most pro sports franchises, the ticket buyers mostly come from wealthy suburbs. They drive in and drive out.
These outsiders don’t appear to be the constituency Lynch seems to want to serve. Recently, the San Jose Mercury News’ Daniel Brown visited Beast Mode Apparel and found a thriving community center; a place where local artists can display their work or someone can hold a toy giveaway.
“This is where he’s from: this is the birth of Beast Mode,” Brije Gammage of Lynch’s charitable foundation told Brown. “It’s like a hub for everything. It’s a tourist site. It’s a family location. It’s just become a one-stop shop.”
In the end, this is the kind of business upon which Oakland should be built. Keeping the Raiders always seemed a longshot. The city’s finances no longer fit the NFL’s grand money-making ambitions. With the Golden State Warriors building an arena in San Francisco, two of Oakland’s three pro sports franchises have already announced plans to move away. It might not be worth keeping them anyway.
Maybe watching Marshawn Lynch in the backfield of the soon-to-be-gone home team will make that clear.