As October draws to a close, it is worth celebrating all that comes and goes in the year’s 10th month. Summer fully transitions to autumn as the leaves lose their green and begin to fall from the trees, midterm season arrives and … well, doesn’t really go anywhere until finals and this is the only month of the year in which all four major American professional sports are guaranteed to be in season.
For tens of millions of Americans, October is also a month dedicated to spreading awareness and raising money in support for treatments and research of breast cancer. As unfortunate as it is unsurprising, however, the NFL has managed to screw up its annual attempt to care about something other than itself. Several players who have sought to pay tribute to either current survivors or someone close to them who has succumbed to breast cancer, another form of cancer or domestic violence have met resistance from the NFL for minute technicalities that only detract from the league’s stated goal and hurt its image.
I’ll grant that the NFL’s attempt to vocalize and support breast cancer awareness is legitimate. At least this is one disease that the NFL seems to care about — even if it is one not of the diseases the league and the nature of its product are responsible for. Additionally, the NFL is completely within its rights to enforce some sort of uniform policy and ensure that the players adhere to it; uniforms have their name for a reason. But for the league to deny such genuine requests is ridiculous. Simply put, the NFL needs all of the good press and PR it can get, but it seems to be going out of its way to cause itself trouble.
Cameron Heyward, a defensive lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers, wanted to wear the words “Iron Head” on his eye-black to honor his late father, Craig. Craig died in 2006 at age 39 from bone cancer and spent 11 years in the NFL as a fullback for an assortment of teams. Cameron wanted to honor his father by inscribing his dad’s nickname on his eye-black, but the NFL fined Heyward nearly $6,000 in week five and was set to fine him over $11,000 for the same infraction in week 6. After a conversation with league officials, Heyward reached an agreement to have the fines significantly reduced and to stop wearing the inscription on his eye-black.
The problem with the NFL’s enforcement is that it, like so many of its other rules, is completely arbitrary. Last year, Bengals lineman Devon Still wore “Leah Strong” on his eye-black to honor his ailing daughter and the league said nothing, did nothing and fined him nothing. In a similar vein, Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams requested to wear a pink jersey for the remainder of the season out of respect for his mother who died of breast cancer. Again, the NFL refused. There may be legitimate reasons to deny someone’s entire jersey being a different color, but the NFL neither explained these reasons in a public statement nor offered to work with Williams to find some alternative.
For all the ambiguity that exists in life’s everyday decisions, there eventually comes a point where either something matters or it does not. Either the league sees breast cancer, or cancer as a whole for that matter, as a societal and medical issue worth tackling, or it just piggybacks on the public’s overwhelming desire to support an initiative and uses October as a month to have refs wear some pink hats and say they care.
Perhaps the most disturbing issue is not even the uniform alterations for cancer, but instead another denied request to honor a domestic violence victim. Steelers’ cornerback William Gay lost his mother when he was a child due to the violence his step-father inflicted. On Sunday, Gay wore purple cleats to raise awareness and honor his mother but was subsequently fined the standard $5,797 for the uniform infraction.
Out of all the societal problems the NFL should be supportive of, domestic violence has to be at the top of the list. After Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Greg Hardy, Browns’ coach Andy Moller, Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks and the many other players who have recently faced some type of domestic violence or sexual assault-related charge, the least the league could do is let Gay wear purple cleats for three hours on a Sunday afternoon.
The lack of consistency and uneven application of the rules put the legitimacy of the NFL’s justifications in doubt. The NFL may want to believe that it still cares and is a moral actor. Unfortunately, when it comes to anything more than a symbol on the field or a pink patch on a jersey, the NFL does not care. It does not care about the health of others, the long-term health of its players or the health of the community at large. The NFL only cares about the health of its bottom line.
Michael Ippolito is a junior in the College. The Water Cooler appears every Friday.