As the NFL playoffs continue the Seahawks have officially advanced to the next round. And you know what that means: more Marshawn Lynch interviews. Seattle’s running back is famous for his awkward post-game interviews.

If Lynch does, as some have posited, suffer from some sort of social anxiety, he could file an ADA claim against the NFL. The question is whether the NFL will be receptive to that.


Photo Credit: gustavomollone cc
Photo Credit: gustavomollone cc

Marshawn Lynch, whose latest chorus of answers to any post-game question he was asked was “I’m thankful,” has never spoken publicly about why he so vehemently refuses media interviews–go figure. But many have noticed that he presents symptoms associated with anxiety disorders, and if he chose to file an ADA claim he could get out of interviews completely, or at least negotiate a better practice for him.

The Set-Up

We can’t really diagnose Lynch, without knowing him or having a medical license. His mother spoke recently on the issue to The Seattle Times, claiming that Lynch is “shy when he wants to be.” And though “he’s far from crazy,” folks shouldn’t expect Lynch to open up to the media anytime soon.

And so we speculate a bit. Given that Lynch has been relaxed with the press in the past, a social anxiety disorder would hold more water in a complaint than a phobia of public speaking. In the DSM-V, the manual of standard classification for mental disorders, social anxiety is defined as “The avoidance, anxious anticipation, or distress in the feared social or performance situation(s) interferes significantly with the person’s normal routine, occupational (academic) functioning, or social activities or relationships.” It’s hard to say whether Lynch is fearful of the press or just plain doesn’t like them, but for the sake of the scenario let’s hypothetically say he does.

The NFL’s policy on players speaking with the media is pretty clear cut, stating that players “must be available to the media following every game and regularly during the practice week. Though a normal person’s social anxiety might not involve a job that requires half a dozen cameras and microphones stuffed in their face on a biweekly basis, Lynch’s does.

So if Lynch had an anxiety disorder and wanted to stop the press intrusion altogether on his life, he could file an ADA claim against the league, and he would be free. Right?

ADA Coverage

That answer somewhat depends. As Lawrence P. Postol at Seyfarth Shaw’s Employment Law Lookout blog describes, psychiatric disabilities can present the hardest standards for employers to verify. So simply claiming a disability isn’t the end of the conversation:

When faced with a psychiatric disability, particularly a stress claim, the employer often would be well advised to obtain an IME – an independent medical examination – by a doctor the employer selects…

Employers need to be patient (We know…. We know….).  Instead of dismissing accommodations out of hand, the employer (using human resources) needs to meet with the employee to go through the ADA interactive process;  hear the employee out, usually with an in-person meeting with the employee, and then follow up in writing to document what was discussed and the employer’s justifications for its actions.  Hopefully, the interactive process works and the employee and employer can work out a reasonable accommodation.  Sometimes, employees will doom their own request, saying they can’t perform duties which are clearly essential functions of the job.  While the ADA requires much from employers, at the end of the day, employees still must be able to perform the essential duties of the job.

Assuming Lynch could get his condition validated, he could negotiate a deal with the NFL that somehow dismissed him from the post-game interviews even if he still had to interact with the press in some way.

Unfortunately the NFL isn’t always so forgiving. When then-Patriots player Kyle Love was diagnosed with diabetes, the team cut him only two weeks later. How can they cut someone for having a protected disability? As Sean Newell notes in a post for Deadspin:

The NFL and its teams often appear to operate outside the realm of the real world and we accept that because it’s football; it is an awesome sport. But this should make you pause for a second: the Patriots fired an employee because he has a disability. Even though the employment relationship between team and player is, in name, contractual, NFL players are essentially at-will employees. The at-will relationship is the most beneficial labor relationship for management because it means employees can be fired for just about any reason. Except those that are discriminatory.

Largely, Newell writes, claims that would in any other occupation be considered an ADA violation are brushed off in the NFL as part of the game. And to some extent it is. Not many lawsuits against the NFL for violating the ADA have made it through (many involve marijuana and drug tests), and the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement’s non discrimination clause doesn’t include disability.

It’s important to note that these quotes that (at the time of this writing) have cost Lynch $100,000 in fines from the league ultimately don’t amount to much. They are essentially a way for sports reporters to differentiate their game recap story from someone who watched the game from their house. Turning it into a circus probably won’t get Lynch to change his ways, but its their own way of protesting not being able to do their own jobs. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has made it fairly clear that enjoys Lynch and his contributions to the team. But given the contract dispute between the Hawks and Lynch last summer, Lynch could become a player with a reputation for being difficult.

If Lynch’s problem is medical it should be treated as such. But the NFL has proved time and time again that it isn’t equipped to handle complex issues like this, and I can’t fault Lynch for biting his tongue. If there’s any good news, it’s that Seattle fans have stepped up to take the weight off his back to help Lynch skip the lights and cameras get back to the action.