Marshawn Lynch and the Idea of the Modern Black Role Model

Team owner Tony Stewart, left, talks with former NFL football player Marshawn Lynch before a NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Chase Stevens)
Team owner Tony Stewart, left, talks with former NFL football player Marshawn Lynch before a NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Chase Stevens)

By Justin Phillips  

Running into Marshawn Lynch randomly on the street is a time-honored tradition for the people living in Oakland.

Of all the Bay Area celebrities with national name recognition, the standout running back at Oakland Tech and Cal who went on to an All-Pro career with the Bills, Seahawks and Raiders might be the only one who has a tangible presence in The Town, whether it’s hanging out at his Beast Mode stores or eating and dancing at Rob Ben’s, his lively soul food restaurant on San Pablo Avenue (OK, technically the restaurant is in Emervyille, but it’s right on the border).

Spend enough time out and about in Oakland and odds are high you’ll rub shoulders with Lynch. But it isn’t Lynch’s fun-loving, oh-there’s-Marshawn-living-his-best-life persona I find the most endearing. I’m more a fan of the passion he has for helping the underserved communities of Oakland. And through this passion, Lynch has become a unique black role model in the Bay Area: an ultra-famous local who has made caring about where you’re from as important as where you’re going. That’s an integral part of Oakland.


This isn’t to say there aren’t black role models in Oakland. Teachers are in Oakland schools working with the youth each day. Community leaders and city officials are fighting to make Oakland a better city. Black fathers, mothers, brothers, uncles and grandfathers are constantly passing down tools to the youth on a daily basis. All help raise aspirations and inspire the young people around them.

Where Lynch exists is the theoretical gray area between those everyday folks we cherish and hero figures like President Barack Obama, a man whose accomplishments are immeasurable.

If I’m being honest, I wish there were more Marshawn Lynches in the Bay Area.

This month, word came that Lynch would be the co-founder and co-owner of an indoor football team: the Oakland Panthers. The team will play games at the Oakland Arena (formerly Oracle Arena) in the spring. Lynch is doing this while the team for which he most recently played, the Oakland Raiders, is headed to Las Vegas.

Over the summer, Lynch and Marcus Peters, a current Los Angeles Rams cornerback, hosted an impromptu carnival for youngsters in West Oakland.

The cost to the community: nothing.

Last year, Lynch showed up to an Oakland City Council meeting in a hoodie and flip-flops to speak about the A’s proposed new ballpark and how he wanted to see the team remain in the town it has called home for more than 50 years.

That same year, he took over a longstanding soul food restaurant and opened Rob Ben’s there. It was a move that kept the property in the hands of black owners.

Lynch is one of a kind.

Consider my realization a byproduct of getting older. Growing up in the South, I saw how every young black man who was eloquent, charismatic and smart was told at some point by a white person that he could be president. Usually it was in jest but meant as a compliment. I grew to learn that these character traits were what society expected exceptional black men to possess.

People like Lynch show the world this doesn’t have to be the standard. Lynch is true to himself. He speaks in public with the same self-assured, slang-fueled confidence I use to speak to my friends and brothers in private. He doesn’t boast about his community philanthropy. Instead, he treats it like it’s a joy to complete. He’s a role model who has made individuality acceptable.

And for a generation of young black kids in the Bay Area, the ones who follow Lynch for miles on his bike rides around town and represent their Oakland neighborhoods with his same passion and conviction, Lynch is an example that they, too, can reach that kind of fame.

There’s a simple reason for this, one which can best be summed up by the words the former NFL star once used on social media: he’s “really from Oakland doe like really really really from Oakland doe.” I’m sure the words will be echoed by generations to come, and if we’re bring honest, Oakland will be better for it.

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