The NFL is really going to town on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ efforts to raise awareness for charitable causes —even when its ones they profess to support. The league fined a third player, cornerback William Gay, for wearing purple cleats to raise awareness for domestic violence, a cause especially close to his heart since his mother was killed in an act of domestic violence. The irony of the NFL fining a player for trying to support domestic violence while touting its new domestic violence policies and specialists should not be lost on any fan.
Gay joins teammates DeAngelo Williams and Cameron Heyward, who were told this month that they were running afoul of league rules—not because of illegal hits, performance-enhancing drugs, or even a Deflategate 2.0—but because of their uniform choices.
That these uniform choices were explicitly made to honor cancer victims did nothing to deter the NFL’s censure.
As part of the NFL’s breast cancer awareness month October campaign, each team has special pink-ribboned apparel. A nod to his mother, who passed away from breast cancer in may of 2014, Williams wanted to wear the pink shoe or wristbands all season long.
“It’s not just about October for me; it’s not just a month, it’s a lifestyle. It’s about getting women to recognize to get tested,” Williams told ESPN.
The NFL vice president of football operations, Troy Vincent, called him and told him the league would not permit his request to wear pink accessories all season, Williams told ESPN. He received further fines this week for wearing eyeblack stamped with “We Will Find a Cure,” according to Aditi Kinkhabwala, a reporter at the NFL network.
Meanwhile, Heyward wanted to include his own tribute to a parent he lost to cancer.
His father, Craig “Ironhead” Heyward, who also played in the NFL, died at age 39 of brain cancer. Without excluding or altering any of the league-mandated pink items, Heyward wore eye black, grease athletes often wear to deter glare, that spelled “Ironhead.”
Heyward was informed after the game that the NFL was fining him $5,787 for the subtle inscription for his dad.
“To lose a person like that due to cancer, for cancer awareness, I don’t think it should be a big deal at all,” he said after Wednesday’s practice.
With an array of problems on its hands—from domestic violence allegations against current employees to thousands of retirees reportedly struggling with health issues increasingly linked to head trauma they incurred making money for the league—the NFL still appears to devote ample resources to developing and enforcing stringent apparel guidelines.
The NFL’s focus on uniform minutiae in light of the league’s professed devotion to breast cancer fundraising and larger concerns about domestic violence and players’ health raises the question: What exactly are the leagues priorities this season?
The 2015 NFL Rule Book includes tightly condensed fine print you’d sooner encounter signing a lease for a New York City apartment or a consent form for experimental neurosurgery.
Below is the section just on stockings:
“Stockings must cover the entire area from the shoe to the bottom of the pants, and must meet the pants below the knee. Players are permitted to wear as many layers of stockings and tape on the lower leg as they prefer, provided the exterior is a one-piece stocking that includes solid white from the top of the shoe to the mid-point of the lower leg, and approved team color or colors (non-white) from that point to the top of the stocking.
“Uniform stockings may not be altered (e.g., over-stretched, cut at the toes, or sewn short) in order to bring the line between solid white and team colors lower or higher than the mid-point of the lower leg. No other stockings and/or opaque tape may be worn over the one-piece, two-color uniform stocking. Barefoot punters and placekickers may omit the stocking of the kicking foot in preparation for and during kicking plays.”
Considering the specificity, it’s little wonder that the NFL makes sure each team has a designated uniform inspector.
When asked for clarification about what this role entails and how much these inspectors were paid, NFL spokesperson Joanna Hunter responded in an email that the jobs are held by “former players who are jointly appointed by the NFLPA [the players union] and the NFL” to “make sure players are wearing the proper shoes, uniforms and apparel.”
Hunter would not disclose how much they are paid. “We won’t say how much (as I wouldn’t expect you to tell me how much you are paid or me to tell you),” she said.
The NFL’s relentlessly (and, some would argue, needlessly) strict uniform policy is not a secret.
Levying penalties that seem flagrantly expensive, albeit to those of us who don’t make professional athlete-level salaries, happens season after season.
The NFL fines $5,787 for a first-time offender and $11,576 at the second violation.
The NFL gives a number of reasons for the variety of intricate uniform guidelines, the best of which is protecting players’ safety.
When New York Jets linebacker Bart Scott was fined $20,000 for wearing an unstrapped helmet, the penalty seemed expensive and possibly excessive, but the safety concern was clear.
But if health and safety were the NFL’s prime priority with uniform rules, one would think an exception could have been made for the Chicago Bears’ Martellus Bennett.
He was fined $5,787 last month for wearing black cleats.
Every year, each team has to choose whether the uniform shoe color will be white or black. The Bears chose white, but Bennett said the cleats that are more comfortable for him only come in black.
“They get mad because my cleats are too black, but they’re perfect for my feet. And I feel like they’re supposed to protect the players, and I have a certain shoe that feels the best with my foot—I’ve had foot problems over the last two years,” Bennett said at a press conference.
“I black out the logo so I don’t get fined for wearing something that’s not official or whatever, but they’re too black."
If raising awareness for health issues and charitable causes were top priorities for the NFL, one would think the league could show greater leniency toward Williams, Heyward, and Gay.
When asked why the NFL refuses to make exceptions for these cases, Hunter’s response made it clear there was zero uniform wiggle room, regardless of the reason.
“There is an unlimited number of causes, political issues or statements that the players may want to support. They have every opportunity to do so throughout the week and have ample availabilities with media—both nationally and locally,” Hunter said.
“For the three hours on game day on the field, players on the field are expected by their teams to adhere to the uniform policy.”
But the NFL’s rules for apparel are not actually restricted to their time on the field.
In fact, some of the most expensive violations are for clothing worn during press conferences.
In 2007, Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher was fined $100,000 for wearing a baseball cap with a Vitamin Water logo on it during a pre-Super Bowl press conference.
The reason for this costly fine? The NFL only allows players to wear logos of designated league sponsors, the AP reported, and Gatorade was the NFL’s official drink.
Certainly, fines for purely commercial interests seem petty for a league that earned $12 billion in revenue last year.
But fines for wearing logos of corporations that rival the league’s sponsorship deals are justifiable. The NFL is a business, and its top priority ultimately is making money. That may be part of the reason why the league participates in the corporate PR moves that many major businesses do.
One of the NFL’s most famous goodwill hunts is its partnership with the American Cancer Society (ACS) every October for their “A Crucial Catch: Annual Screening Saves Lives” campaign for breast cancer awareness and fundraising.
But this returns to DeAngelo Williams’ dilemma: if raising awareness for breast cancer was the real goal, the league should permit a player to wear pink shoes or pink wristbands all season long.
It’s questionable how effective the NFL’s fundraising campaign for breast cancer really is. After all, charities only take home a tiny fraction of the special pink NFL merchandise.
“About 12.5 percent of the sales price of these NFL-branded ‘pink’ products typically goes to charity, according to NFL spokeswoman Clare Graff,” The Washington Post reported last year.
In the past few years, the NFL has received increasing flak for how little from the pink merchandise actually goes to breast cancer-related causes.
Hunter explains that I “would have to speak to the company that makes the item or the retailer that sells the item to find out what they do with the revenue that comes from the sale.”
First and foremost, though, Hunter said “fans should donate directly to ACS,” perhaps an acknowledgement that doing is so the most efficient means of support breast cancer causes.
Moreover, while the NFL boasts in its PR material for “A Crucial Catch” that it has raised nearly $8 million for ACS since it began the campaign in 2009, remember that the league made more than 1,300 times that in revenue last year.
To make that sum raised for the ACS seem even smaller, consider how much Greg Hardy, who was arrested for beating his former girlfriend, Nicole Holder, in 2014, will make this year.
Hardy was initially convicted of assault, but the charges were overturned after Holder refused to testify a second time when he appealed.
Less than a year after that initial conviction, Hardy was signed by the Dallas Cowboys and will make more than $11 million this year playing for them—$3 million more than the NFL has raised through its breast cancer awareness campaign.
$5,000 fines for eye black seem even more ridiculous when one looks at the league's response to the plethora of domestic violence allegations against its employees.
Ray Rice became the poster boy of the NFL’s domestic abuse problems when TMZ posted graphic video right before the start of last year's football season of him knocking his fiancée out in an elevator.
Another famous domestic abuse case that plagued the season involved Adrian Peterson, who was charged with felony child abuse. He pleaded no contest to misdemeanor reckless assault to avoid jail time.
In The Daily Beast, Robert Silverman detailed a litany of stories about NFL players who had been charged with domestic violence.
In some of these cases, victims refused to testify, as with Hardy and also Santonio Holmes.
In 2006, Holmes was charged with domestic violence and simple assault committed against LaShae Boone, who told police at the time that he was “choking [her], throwing her to the ground, grabbing her arms, and slamming her into a door, leaving her with bruises, pain, and a torn shirt."
At trial, Boone, the mother of his infant daughter, was “reluctant to testify against Holmes,” the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. The charges were ultimately dropped.
The NFL has several factsheets to detail the league’s reforms in response to domestic violence, which include creating a 24-hour confidential, independently-operated hotline to field domestic violence calls, mandating domestic violence training for all 32 teams, and “supporting multi-million dollar, multi-year commitments” to “reduce DVSA [domestic violence sexual assault] incidents” and “streamline the access to resources,” according to NFL press material.
In the wake of the Rice backlash last September, the NFL prominently hired three female executives to “provide specialized advice and guidance in ensuring that the NFL’s programs reflect the most current and effective approaches,” as Roger Goodell, commissioner of the National Football League, explained in a letter to NFL staff.
The league selected Lisa Friel, the former head of the New York County District Attorney's Office Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit; Jane Randel, co-founder of NO MORE, a national group devoted to fighting domestic violence and sexual assault group; and Rita Smith, the former executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Despite multiple requests for comment, none of these women would agree to speak with the Daily Beast.
In an email, Friel said “any interview I give has to be cleared by the league,” and she directed me to Hunter, who offered I speak to Anna Isaacson, the league’s senior vice president of social responsibility.
When I tried to reach Randel via NO MORE to speak about her role at the NFL, I received the response: “Jane is not available for this interview but do keep NO MORE in mind in the future.”
When I followed up asking if someone from NO MORE could speak to me, the group responded: “Unfortunately, we don’t have a NO MORE representative available. The NFL may be your best bet. However, keep us in mind for future stories.”
Smith initially responded, saying she was too busy for an interview. She did not respond to a request asking for further availability, or the possibility of answering questions via email.
Obviously, the NFL has every right to not let reporters speak to its employees, but why is the league touting these three women as part of the key steps toward cleaning up its act if they are not available to speak to the media?
It’s the return of Hardy this past week which has raised questions from some sports commentators (like Katie Nolan of Fox Sport’s Garbage Time) about how much the NFL has reformed on dealing with domestic abuse.
Holder told a Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, police officer that Hardy attacked her by “GRABBING VICTIM AND THROWING TO THE FLOOR, THROWING INTO A BATHTUB, SLAMMING HER AGAINST A FUTON, AND STRANGLING HER,” according to the arrest warrant.
The domestic violence conviction was overturned after Holder refused to testify during the appeal.
It was also reported in The Charlotte Observer that the prosecutor said Holder agreed to an undisclosed settlement outside of court.
After its own investigation, the NFL initially issued a 10-game suspension, “the stiffest penalty handed out under the league’s new and more stringent personal-conduct policy,” The New York Times noted, but it was reduced to four after Hardy appealed.
Hardy returned to the field last week with bravado, to say the least.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones defended Hardy.
“Here’s the deal: Unless he looks like he’s contrite, unless he looks like he is just absolutely whipped and really obviously sorry for what his situation, he’s going to get criticized,” Jones told 105.3 The Fan in Dallas, as if it were wrong or peculiar to criticize a man accused of beating a woman or to expect him to be apologetic or sorry in the least.
When asked about Hardy’s suspension, the NFL focused on the player’s union role, explaining it was the one that filed an appeal to the initial suspension.
“Because we have a union, when a player is suspended it is appealable. The union and the player choose to appeal, an arbiter hears the appeal and makes the decision,” said Isaacson.
The arbiter, it should be made clear, is appointed by the NFL commissioner.
When asked why the NFL seemed relatively flexible with domestic violence suspension appeals compared with uniform violation fines, a seemingly far less significant matter, Hunter, who was on the call with me and Isaacson, cut me off.
“It’s a different process altogether,” she said. “I didn't realize you wanted to talk about these areas. I can get you background on these areas. It's not fair to put Anna on the spot.”
Although Hardy’s conviction was overturned, some in the football world still criticized the NFL for letting him play in light of the allegations.
“Anybody, in my opinion, who lays a hand on a woman, you never come back in this league. This is wrong. We have no place for this,” Terry Bradshaw, himself a four-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback, said on Fox NFL Sunday. “I am tired of talking about the Hardy’s of the world. I seriously hope that eventually we never have a place in the NFL for people who strike a woman.”
Some have suggested that focusing on less complicated issues, like uniform regulations, may be part of the NFL’s strategy to keep fans from dwelling on more serious, complicated issues.
That shifting focus doesn't just apply to uniform regulations. Just look at the protracted, months-long Deflategate battle.
While the investigations and back-and-forth sparring over deflated footballs was ostensibly about protecting the integrity of the game, my colleague Ben Collins wrote that the ultimate verdict on Tom Brady didn’t matter.
“It only mattered that he [Goodell] didn’t get the league to confront the scandals that could cost the league viewership or money,” he wrote. “The National Football League has legions of dead and depressed alumni, a team named after scalped Native Americans, and a man accused of beating and strangling his girlfriend who will now appeal his suspension because the league never wrote down any rules for why it does or doesn’t suspend people accused of beating and strangling their girlfriends. But you didn’t hear about any of that for the last eight months.”
With Deflategate, people were no longer wondering about the health of football players, or whether the NFL was turning a blind eye to domestic abuse. They were lapping up the back-and-forth battle between Brady and Goodell, like a celebrity Twitter war.
Fans were not scrutinizing or criticizing the league, which is enjoying record-breaking revenue. The $12 billion the league earned last year was a 16 percent increase from the year prior.
Certainly, it’s hard to quantify or assess how football fans feel about the NFL. But if money is an indicator, whatever the NFL is doing to maintain its status is working.
Does the NFL, then, really have an incentive to shift its focus from obsessive uniform regulations and inefficient-at-best-and-exploitative-at-worst breast cancer fundraising?
Does it have an incentive to re-examine and create new policies for dealing with the domestic abuse allegations lobbed against its player, perhaps examining why its so prevalent among its employees, and how to not only punish but rehabilitate those accused?
As with any business, perhaps the NFL might only change its priorities if fans decide to take their support and dollars elsewhere.
What’s far less clear is what, if anything, will stop fans from buying what the league is selling.
Update 10/29 at 12:23 p.m.: This story has been updated with news of the NFL’s recent set of fines against Pittsburgh Steelers William Gay and DeAngelo Williams.