One day after the Carolina Panthers clobbered the Arizona Cardinals to earn a trip to the Super Bowl, head coach Ron Rivera cited folk wisdom by way of explaining how he wanted his team to avoid complacency and understand that the point isn’t to make it to the title game, but to win it. It didn’t make a lot of sense.
“There’s a saying,” Rivera said. “‘The lion eats until he’s satisfied, and then he sleeps.’ Well, we don’t want to be satisfied.”
Rivera’s saying—which neither I nor anyone at Deadspin have ever heard, and which doesn’t show up in Google when searched for—sounds cool if you don’t think about it at all. (Every animal eats until it’s satisfied.) The reason why is that it mentions a lion, by far the greatest animal to use for any platitude involving motivation.
Athletes don’t have a lot of free time to putz around on the internet. They have to be efficient while maintaining their brand, and Instagram is the perfect platform for this. With Instagram, you see an image you like, screenshot it, and post it. Anecdotally, it appears that athletes really like lions.
On its face, it makes sense. Lions symbolize strength, leadership, nobility, and grace, which are desirable traits in any person—or athlete. They’re the supposed kings of the jungle. They’re the best. Athletes want to be the best, too. What an appropriate pairing.
There are other revered, dominant animals out there to be exploited for nuggets of motivation. Bears are powerful creatures, but they go through trash. An unironic spirit animal can’t be seen rummaging through refuse. (It can, however, be valiantly killed by a dentist with a hard-on for hunting.) Sharks are widely (if erroneously) believed to never stop moving, which would work as an effective motivation for slamming ropes at 3 a.m., but they’re gross and in the water. A lion rules all.
This isn’t a sport-specific phenomenon. A wide range of athletes loves lions. NBA star James Harden does:
So does Serie A’s Mario Balotelli:
And the WNBA’s Brittney Griner:
And the NFL’s Julio Jones:
And the NFL’s Chandler Jones:
And his brother, UFC fighter Jon Jones:
Even lousy players like MLB bench guy Gordon Beckham relate to the fierce lion:
Here’s the UFC’s Ronda Rousey with a lion on her butt:
We can keep going: Cris Cyborg, DeSean Jackson, Kenneth Faried, J.R. Smith, Lionel Messi, Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas, Josh Norman, Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III, Bryce Harper, Cat Zingano, Andrei Arlovski, Mesut Özil, Cardale Jones, Charles Johnson, and Russell Wilson. They rise; they grind; they seize the day; they hustle; they’re warriors; they’re blessed; they’re motivated; and they prove their doubters wrong. And they’re all lions.
A popular twist on the lion analogy involves another animal: a sheep. The most popular quote comes from an episode of Game of Thrones, in which Tywin Lannister tells his son Jaime, “A lion doesn’t concern himself with the opinions of a sheep.” Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman used it as a vague jab towards 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree after Seattle won the NFC championship in 2013.
There are occasionally variants on the saying, though whether they’re intentional is unclear. In a game against the Colts, Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston vented on the sideline. “Lions do not accept opinions of fucking sheep, okay?” Winston said. Lions, whoever they are in this instance, are better than that:
The lion/sheep analogy is the go-to method to hastily explain something away. Do they not like what you’re saying or doing? Ah, they must be sheep. You’re better than them. You’re a strong, vicious lion, and they’re weak, smelly sheep. Who cares what they think? Rise and grind.
Sometimes, there are lion references so convoluted that they belong in a miscellaneous category. The best example might be Tom Brady, who’s not just a lion; he’s the shadow of the lion.
What does it mean to be a shadow of a lion? Brady’s unclear:
I’m a Leo Snake. My wife tells me it’s accurate. The Leo is like the lion, the king of the jungle, that whole thing, but I don’t think I’m really like that. I kind of like to be more the shadow of the lion, you know, and someone else can take charge, and I can sit there and enjoy it.
The most obvious way to find out why athletes love lions so damn much would be to ask an athlete, but I found that no one was bold or fierce enough to talk about it. The Atlanta Falcons, Seattle Seahawks, Houston Rockets, Cleveland Cavaliers, Denver Nuggets, and Carolina Panthers all either didn’t respond, declined, or said they’d try to set something up and then never got back to me.
Even so, it’s not hard to guess what’s going on here. Stupid photos of lions are relatable to all. They transcend sport, race, gender, language, nationality, and belief. It’s mindless fun that everyone can enjoy, except LeBron. The man who’s actually known as “King James” doesn’t need low-quality JPEGs to remind himself to work hard:
Additional reporting by Tom Ley. Collage via Sam Woolley.
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