If you’ve watched football in the past few weeks, you’ve most likely noticed the annual splash of pink onto just about everything. October signifies the National Football League’s Breast Cancer Awareness month. Coaches, players, and officials around the league don pink in a unified initiative to promote the Crucial Catch program, which focuses on the importance of mammograms. It’s an admirable goal for the NFL to lead a push against such a terrible disease. Sports, and football in particular, dominate our cultural landscape and leagues that embrace their civic responsibility should be commended. But if we look closer at how the NFL enforces its uniform policy, the league’s supposed sincerity towards the fight against cancer appears more and more to be a hollow façade aimed more at selling merchandise than actually raising awareness.
DeAngelo Williams, a running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers, lost his mother to breast cancer in May of 2014. As such, Williams has experienced first-hand the damages brought upon by the disease. In an effort to promote cancer awareness year round while simultaneously honoring his mother, Williams requested that the NFL allow him to wear pink shoes and wristbands for the remainder of the season.
The NFL said no.
Unfortunately this isn’t the first time that the NFL has entirely missed the point of their player’s uniform modifications. Current New York Jets wide receiver Brandon Marshall was fined over $10,000 in 2013 for wearing green shoes in a show of support for mental health initiatives. Marshall was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder in 2011 and has since advocated mental health awareness. In response to the 2013 fine, Marshall pledged to match the amount of his fine in the form of a donation to his mental health foundation.
In a vacuum, the decisions levied towards Williams and Marshall make sense. I understand that the NFL, being the highest level of the sport on the planet, needs to maintain a sense of professionalism and uniform standards are a way of doing that. The NFL’s rulings can be understood, if not condoned.
This is why the situation of defensive end Cameron Hayward, one of Williams’ teammates on Pittsburgh, is so perplexing. Hayward has been fined twice this year for displaying a message on his eye black that read “Iron Head,” meant to commemorate his late father, who died from brain cancer in 2006. After two weeks of fines totaling over $17,000, Hayward agreed to stop wearing the eye black with the inscription, instead opting to sell them online with proceeds going to The Hayward House, a foundation for cancer research.
Green and pink cleats? That’s a clear breach of uniform policy that the league can rationalize. But punishing a player for words on his eye black, an item that fans would see four or five times on a telecast or not at all in person, just comes off as a comically misplaced attempt at preserving the league’s power structure. What modicum of professionalism the NFL maintains with its uniform policy is dwarfed by the staggering and insulting disconnect between the governing body and its employees. It is perhaps the ultimate irony that the NFL, a league whose past calendar year has been mired by public image fiascos, routinely finds ways to punish its players for embracing noble and upstanding causes.
ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt verbalized his concerns the best, saying on a SportsCenter segment “It is quite a trick to wrap yourself in a pink ribbon for a month under the guise of raising awareness, then tell a man who is all too aware of what breast cancer can do that he can’t wear the color all year that you sell for a month.”
We can find some solace in these stories by observing how DeAngelo Williams responded to the NFL’s ruling. Rather than breaking the rules like Hayward did or publicly criticizing the league, potentially creating more distractions for the team, Williams transformed something the league couldn’t govern: his hair. He dyed the ends of his dreadlocks pink, knowing that hair does not fall under the NFL’s uniform policy.
“It’s not just about October for me,” Williams told ESPN. “It’s not just a month.”
Williams’ words ring true for anyone who has had their lives touched by cancer, and most likely for many other players around the league. The day to day toll that the disease brings directly and indirectly on its victims lasts far longer than 31 days.
So the next time you watch an NFL game, and see players like Cameron Hayward and DeAngelo Williams, remember their words and the struggles that cancer has brought to their lives, and if you can, support their initiatives. We know their pain is real. As for the NFL and their month of pink, that’s something that I just don’t buy.
Chris Landry is a senior majoring in English with a minor in journalism. He can be reached at CL784324@wcupa.edu.