The NFL’s Selective Activism

Cameron Heyward is among the many to have been fined by the NFL for supporting his cause. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

Originally published in The Fordham Ram on November 3, 2015.

The NFL wants you to think that they care about breast cancer awareness. And honestly, I’m sure that they do —  as long as it fits into their game plan.

The NFL has incredibly strict uniform regulations. Every player must wear the same color cleats, with the team getting a choice between black and white. This becomes an issue when players like Martellus Bennett need special cleats that only come in one color and consequently get fined for trying to protect themselves.

But where these rules most come into play is when players try and support causes through their accessories and uniform. This has become an extremely hot topic this year, and has exposed the hypocrisy of the NFL.

It started with DeAngelo Williams. Williams’ mother died of breast cancer in 2014, and since then Williams has dyed his dreadlocks pink in honor of his mother. This season, he requested the NFL’s permission to be able to wear pink all season. This did not seem like an unreasonable request, given that the NFL is a league that seems to fully support breast cancer awareness, at least in its designated month of October. But this is not a reasonable league, and the NFL flat out said no. He’s welcome to wear league-approved pink apparel in October, and that’s it. Because why would the NFL support a cause, or let its players support a cause, when they receive no benefit?

Williams still managed to break uniform code in October, by wearing eye black that said “We Will Find a Cure.” This breaks the NFL’s rule of “no personal messages on eyeblack,” which first appeared when Tim Tebow was wearing John 3:16 on his in college. Williams’ eyeblack didn’t fall under the allowed activism that the NFL supports, even during breast cancer awareness month, so he was fined $5,757.

Another Steelers player also recently landed in the news due to his eyeblack. Cameron Heyward, a defensive lineman, had been wearing “Ironhead” on his, the nickname of his father, who also played in the NFL. Heyward’s father died of cancer. But once again, the NFL would not have it.

And yet another Steeler, William Gay, tried to promote a cause through his dress. Gay’s mother was killed by her boyfriend in a domestic violence dispute, and Gay wore purple cleats, the color of domestic violence support, and was therefore fined. This was yet another hypocritical action by the league, since Gay appears in the NFL’s domestic violence promos. But God forbid a player tries to convey a single message outside of the league-sponsored action.

The NFL wants you to believe they are a force for positive change, with their large influence and captive audience. And yet you only see them support causes when it’s either profitable for them (breast cancer awareness) or a form of damage control (domestic violence PSAs). Now, I understand the NFL has these rules in place to ostensibly prevent players from selling the rights to their eyeblack  and other parts to sponsors. But there is clearly a divide here. Williams, Heyward and Gay don’t benefit from supporting their respective causes. In fact, they, and many others, have already paid a price for their actions.


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