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It is October, which means the NFL is in the midst of its annual pink campaign to raise awareness for breast cancer.
This is also the month in which we see another growing NFL tradition. Players come up with their own personal ways to raise awareness for something or to honor somebody, they wear that tribute on the field, and the NFL fines them for it.
We saw it earlier this month when Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward was fined $5,787 for writing his father’s nickname on his eye black. Heyward’s father, Craig “Iron Head” Heyward, died of brain cancer.
- Via Fox
We also saw it when Steelers cornerback William Gay was fined the same amount for wearing purple cleats to raise awareness for domestic violence and to honor his mother who was killed in a domestic dispute.
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Technically, the players are being fined for violating the NFL’s strict uniform code, and not for the tribute. But that is a distinction most NFL fans don’t care about.
Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams wanted to wear pink cleats and accessories all season to honor his mother who died of breast cancer, but he was told by the NFL that there were “no exceptions to the uniform policy.”
It’s this strict enforcement that drives fans nuts. To most, a handful of players expressing themselves for a good cause is something that should be embraced, not punished. But the classic counterargument asks where that logic stops.
Normally the “Where does it stop?” argument is flawed, in that the counter to that counterargument is easy: It stops when it goes too far. These examples are not too far. When it starts to get silly, then we can talk about it again. But in this case, the argument works because the gray area is actually much worse for the NFL.
Right now, the headlines are “NFL FINES PLAYER FOR TRIBUTE TO DEAD MOTHER” or “NFL WON’T LET PLAYER PAY TRIBUTE TO DEAD FATHER.”
Those are bad for public relations (and again, technically inaccurate). But consider the alternative.
What if the NFL set up a committee to review each player’s on-field tribute on a case-by-case basis? Let a player wear purple shoes as a tribute to his mother and to raise awareness for domestic violence? That’s a no-brainer. Let him do it. Let a player wear tie-dye socks for his high-school buddy who sprained an ankle? Again, that’s easy. No.
But somewhere in between the extremes lies a murky area where the NFL would be forced to decide what is worthy of on-field tributes and what is not, and that is when the headlines change.
That first time the NFL says “no” to something that is in the gray area, the headlines suddenly become “NFL DOESN’T THINK [insert disease here] IS BAD ENOUGH TO HELP RAISE AWARENESS” or “NFL DOESN’T THINK [insert relative here] IS IMPORTANT ENOUGH FOR TRIBUTE.”
When that happens, the NFL is no longer perceived as a bully with no heart, but as a huge corporation actually passing judgment on specific people and certain diseases.
Nobody wants that, especially those being judged and those doing the judging, the NFL.
On top of that, the NFL would then be in a situation in which it risks angering players, not because they were told they couldn’t, but because they were told they couldn’t at the same time another player was told he could.
So while it stinks that the players are being fined for doing something positive in a sport in which there is often way too much negative, the NFL is in a position in which it really has little choice in the matter, because the alternative might actually be uglier for both the league and the players.