The NFL is all about making money and protecting its own brand. Let's get that out of the way right off the bat. You know it and I know it.
But once in a while, the league likes to remind us just how tone-deaf it is in its attempt to protect the shield. Two instances this week illustrate further examples of that, and it just so happens that both involve members of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Ultimately, these situations stem from a draconian application of the league's Uniform Policy, which bans any personal messages of any kind on the part of a player. If you're curious, read through the NFL's rulebook here, which details just how strictly this policy is written (Section 4, Article 8). However, these instances are further examples of the league failing to acknowledge the PR nightmare it has created for itself over the years, and they illustrate just why so many fans are getting fed up with the NFL's operations.
DeAngelo Williams and the NFL's "Pink" program
On Monday Night Football this week, those fans watching ESPN learned a little bit about Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams' efforts in support of his family. After Monday's game, Deadspin published this great piece on Williams, who has seen five women in his family, including his mother, die from breast cancer. In summary, ESPN's Lisa Salters reported that before the season, Williams asked the NFL to wear pink gear all season long as a part of a personal effort to help bring attention to the disease and help other women avoid his mother's fate.
The league told him no.
What possible reason could the NFL have to deny that request? It's mind-boggling, considering that the league's Pink program, which ostensibly raises awareness for breast cancer and money for cancer screenings around the country, allows its players to wear the very pink gear that Williams was asking about during the month of October only.
But no, Williams was denied on the grounds of the league's Uniform Policy.
This decision once again brings up the questions and arguments about the Pink program itself, and what good it even does in the first place. Of course, the bulk of the program is centered around merchandising. Fans buy special pink gear, and the league donates some of the proceeds from those sales to the American Cancer Society. In fact, the league's website notes that 100% of the "royalty" that it receives from the pink merchandise sold to the public goes to the American Cancer Society.
Let's look at that a little more closely. If that sounds a little fishy, that's because it is. This royalty is a percentage of the wholesale price of the item that is paid from the retailer to the supplier. The retailer then sells the item at a substantial markup and pockets that amount (after expenses of course). Think about it, though - who are the NFL's biggest retailers? It's the official NFL Shop and stores owned by NFL teams themselves, which get to hold onto the entire markup.
That's how the league can use that 100% figure - it's 100% of the royalty proceeds, and the royalty was found in 2014 to be about 1/4 of the wholesale price (which equates to around 1/8 of the retail price). Using those numbers, if you buy a pink jersey for $100, $12.50 goes to the ACS, the supplier gets $37.50, and whoever you bought it from - quite possibly the NFL itself - gets the other 50%.
(Also, most of the money doesn't even go to research to cure cancer, but rather to programs which have been proven by independent research to have little to no effect on breast cancer mortality rates. But I digress.)
The pink gear scheme is actually pretty brilliant, in a twisted sort of way.
The NFL is perfectly content to let its players wear pink gear in October, when they make a modest donation to the ACS while lining the pockets of their suppliers and many NFL-owned retailers. But God forbid a player should want to express himself in support of a cause that the NFL explicitly supports, but to do so outside of the explicit time period in which such support is allowed.
If the real point of the program were breast cancer awareness, I guaran-damn-tee you that Williams would raise as much awareness by wearing his pink gear all year long as the NFL does by putting their entire league in pink gloves and towels for one month. Imagine seeing Williams' pink cleats, running for 127 yards through the Patriots' defense in the opening game of the NFL season on Thursday night. What would your reaction likely have been? Maybe "why is he wearing pink when it's not October?"
Once that question is in your head, that would be the perfect time to tell the story of Williams and his family and to tell people where they can go to learn more about the cause he supports. Do it when the lights are on. When the entire football world is tuned in for a single game. When it's unique and different and not the product of a month-long league-sponsored marketing ploy that puts a bunch of money in the league's pockets.
Instead, the league denied Williams that opportunity. I, for one, finished watching the week one matchup and was left only wondering why Williams' hair was dyed red instead of learning about his family history and his admirable efforts in support of the fight against breast cancer.
Cameron Heyward's eye black
On Wednesday, Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward was fined for a violation of Section 4, Article 8 referenced above. Heyward's explanation on Twitter says it all:
Heyward's father is Craig Heyward, whose nickname was "Ironhead". Craig Heyward played running back in the NFL from 1988 to 1998 before being diagnosed with bone cancer. Eventually, he died of cancer in 2006, and Cameron chose to honor him in Monday's game.
ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that Heyward's fine totals $5,787 - ultimately a small price to pay for a defensive end who just cashed in with a nice new $59 million contract in July, but a fine nonetheless.
This not a political statement or an attempt to market an endorsement by wearing cleats with a certain multi-colored candy on them. This is a man honoring his late father.
Oh, and there's this - Heyward has been writing the words "Iron" and "Head" on his eye black for a long time. The photo at the head of this article was taken during a game last December in Atlanta (click here for a blown-up version where you can clearly see the writing). Clearly, it seems that the NFL didn't take notice of it until this week; but now that they have, they're bringing the hammer down without so much as talking to Heyward about what his message meant.
In some ways, even fining this at all is hypocritical of the NFL. The league and its teams honor players, owners, and other NFL figures who have passed away all the time - often with helmet decals or jersey patches. Why shouldn't players be allowed to do the same? It makes sense to me that the league would want requests for these honorific gestures to be made in advance, to ensure that they can vet them as being reasonable in nature. I argue that they should set up some pathway for certain personal gestures like this to be approved rather than simply denying them without even really considering them or, even worse, fining the players after the fact.
I feel a personal connection to both Williams and Heyward, which is why I am so emotional about this issue. I have lost loved ones to breast cancer, and I have other relatives who have fought through cancer and emerged to lead long, healthy lives. If I were playing in the NFL, I would likely share with these two players a desire to express my support for my loved ones both on and off the field.
With that said, I understand that the league must have uniform policy. The league does not want its players promoting controversial messages on the field. I get that. What I do not understand is denying players the ability to write a simple message on their eye black to honor a family member or to wear league-approved equipment outside of a specified time period.
There is nothing controversial about fighting cancer. There is nothing controversial about supporting a loved one (or loved ones) who has been lost to a deadly disease outside of their control.
I call upon the NFL to vacate Hayward's fine, or at the very least to donate it to a charity of Heyward's choice. I call upon the league to work with the NFLPA to adjust its Uniform Policy so it allows for vetting and approval for certain personal messages rather than simply using the blanket policy as an excuse to protect its own image. I call upon the NFL to use some common sense when considering requests like Williams' and to approve some simple requests made in advance to show the players and the fans that they respect these players. Finally, I call upon the NFL to stop being so damned concerned with itself and its revenue while ignoring the worthy causes that it claims to support.
Fundamentally, this policy in particular is not the root of the problem; instead, it's the consistent hypocrisy with which the NFL treats any cause. It's all well and dandy to support a cause when you get something back in return. It would go a lot farther if the league showed some support in other situations that don't directly result in benefits.
Cancer sucks. And if the NFL actually cares about supporting the fight against the disease, one way to start showing that would be to stop denying or punishing players who want to use their status as public figures to support that fight.