Over the course of the month of October, during which the NFL celebrates and supports the cause of breast cancer awareness, research, and prevention, the Pittsburgh Steelers have had three of their players receive fines for utilizing an aspect of their game day attire to bring awareness to a cause of their own.
It started with defensive end Cameron Heyward, who received a fine for writing “Iron Head” on his eye black, which was the nickname of his father, a successful collegiate and professional football player in his own right.
Craig “Ironhead” Heyward lost his own battle with brain cancer nearly a decade ago. On occasion, including earlier this season, his son, Cameron, has used his eye black to pay tribute to his late father, as well as to raise awareness for all those battling with cancer.
Just this past week, two additional players on the roster have been fined by the league for violations of the uniform code. Cornerback William Gay donned a pair of purple shoes to raise awareness for domestic violence, so which his mother was a victim, murdered by Gay’s step father when he was a boy.
Running back DeAngelo Williams, whose mother in the last few years fought, and ultimately succumbed to, breast cancer, wrote the words “Find the Cure” on his own eye black, for which he was fined.
Williams previously requested from the league the ability to don pink attire both beyond the month of October and using other parts of his uniform not supplied by the league, a request that was denied. Instead, he dyed the tips of his dread locks pink.
Each of these three players violated league policy that they agreed to. But that speaks more to the tone-deaf nature of that policy than to anything else, barring, perhaps, the hypocrisy and disingenuous nature behind the league’s own support of breast cancer awareness.
The NFL began its “A Crucial Catch” campaign back in 2009, during the same time in which they began to more actively target an expansion into the female demographic. It certainly seems curious that the league would be interested in curing only one form of cancer, and not even the most common, nor the most deadly. But it is perhaps the most marketable and viscerally gripping.
The disparity between the various facets of this story lead one to doubt the authenticity and sincerity with which the NFL supports, and holds an interest in, raising awareness of and helping women fight breast cancer.
The league’s uniform code can only permissibly be violated when it suits the league commercially and with a public relations angle by showcasing its players donning visibly striking pink aspects of their uniform. But this is only allowed for league-approved aspects of the uniform at league-approved moments during the season.
Gay’s cleats were in fact league-approved for an NFL team, only they were approved for the Minnesota Vikings, and not the Steelers. He wore Vikings cleats because they are purple, and purple is the color of domestic violence awareness. Gay is grateful for his fine for pointing this out to many people.
In all three of these cases, there was no possible harm done to the integrity of the game, and thus is merely an academic, meaningless violation that nobody cares about. Penalizing players for writing positive messages on their eye black or wearing a different pair of cleats that is already worn every week by up to 46 people seems, in a word, pointless—or, in another, petty. Two more that come to mind are callous and emotionless.
The essence of the uniform code is to maintain the integrity of both the game and the sport, and in no way to the infractions of Heyward, Gay, or Williams do so. There was no profanity or derogatory speech on the eye black. There were no mirrors on the cleats to reflect the sun into the quarterback’s eyes.
These and similar infractions have occurred in seasons past, but have been disregarded. Most famously, the league has marketed images of former Bengals defensive tackle Devon Still donning the message “Leah Strong” on his own eye black, certainly not a league-approved message, but one that was never penalized.
Why has the league been selective with its penalties on comparative violations? Why is it suddenly now cracking down on them? And why is there just one month set aside for them to care about one form of cancer?
I cannot help but to generate only cynical answers to these questions. At the very least, the league’s dress code is in desperate need of revisitation and modification.