December 3, 2015

BERKOWITZ | The Gilded Age of the NFL

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p class=”p1″>By ETHAN BERKOWITZ

“Football and community are the twin pillars of the NFL … There exists a powerful NFL-wide commitment to giving back. This commitment is year-round- there is no offseason to the NFL’s multi-tiered, ongoing work to strengthen America’s communities.” This is the NFL’s official stance on their role in the community. Clearly the NFL can talk the talk, but do they walk the walk?

While the NFL claims to take a prominent role in bettering the community on a range of social issues, critics have argued that the NFL simply takes advantage of cause-based marketing such as their A Crucial Catch campaign to overshadow bad publicity, to generate public good will or simply to attract new fans and thereby more revenue. It’s hard to ignore the financial contributions the NFL has made to various initiatives (although Vice Sports and other news outlets have identified instances where fund allocation has been misreported), but, looking beyond the money, how does the NFL follow through on its leading role in these social campaigns when the league’s ambassadors of the game, the players, want to do more?

Consider DeAngelo Williams, of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who’s been a poster child for the NFL’s breast cancer awareness initiatives. As part of their partnership with the American Cancer Society (ACS), the NFL already promotes awareness by ‘pinking’ NFL stadiums, as well as certain player and coaching gear, to promote National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October. In honor of his mom Sandra, who died of breast cancer last year, Williams put in a request to extend his personal use of the pink gear beyond the designated month of October to throughout the NFL season. However, the NFL denied the request. Additionally, the NFL fined Williams $5,787 during the month of October for wearing custom eye black that said ‘We Will Find the Cure.’ Williams is not the only one to be fined for trying to promote cancer awareness in a manner not sponsored by the NFL. Steeler’s defensive lineman Cameron Heyward was fined the same amount for writing ‘Ironhead’ on his eye black to honor his father, who died of bone cancer at age 39. Ironically, player fines during the same seven-year period as NFL’s so-called Pinktober campaign have equalled over nine times the amount of money the NFL has donated to the ACS.

For each of these fines and request denials, the NFL has cited their strict uniform policy; specifically rule five, section four of the NFL Rulebook, which includes the rules and regulations pertaining to equipment, uniform and player appearance. However the NFL’s has inconsistently adhered to these rules.  Take Matthew Stafford of the Detroit Lions, who was fined the same $5,787 as Williams and Heyward for his shoes having “too much blue.” Stafford was allowed to wear these same shoes during the preseason, and two of his teammates, Ndamukong Suh and Reggie Bush, wore the same colored cleats the previous season yet were never fined.  Look at Devon Still, former defensive tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals; he wore ‘Leah Strong’ on his eye black in every game he played in 2014 to honor his daughter, who was suffering from late-stage cancer. The NFL did not fine, nor threaten to fine Still for his gesture. An even more on-the-nose example is Antonio Brown, who wore a pink mouthpiece in early November, after the conclusion of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Perhaps in response to the negative publicity generated over DeAngelio Williams and Cameron Heyward, the NFL never announced a fine, and according to ProFootballTalk, never gave him one either.

Looking beyond those associated with Breast Cancer Awareness, players have also been fined for taking up other causes the NFL claims to promote as well. Brandon Marshall, an advocate for Mental Health Awareness, was fined $10,500 for wearing green sneakers to attract attention for Mental Health Awareness Week. William Gay has been punished as well. He was fined for wearing purple cleats, in honor of Domestic Awareness Month, which, like Breast Cancer Awareness Month, is October. With all these fines, one has to wonder, why the NFL does not permit players from raising awareness for these causes that the NFL claims to care about.

The NFL has long been known to be strict about their uniform policy, and it’s understandable that they want to minimize the exposure of players using their public profile on the field to promote controversial issues. But, as we’ve seen with the NFL’s own high profile controversies such as the Ray Rice incident and Deflategate, as soon as the NFL is no longer objective and transparent, they further diminish public’s faith in their credibility. To be fair, as a fan of the game, it’s hard to argue the cut-and-dry nature of the rules pertaining to equipment rules and regulations, which clearly stipulate what’s allowed and not allowed to be worn. And it’s important to remember that the NFL is a business first, with a comprehensive revenue sharing model predicated on generating money, not providing a soap box to let people share their views. But when the NFL invites itself to take on a social causes, such as Breast Cancer Awareness, and then starts punishing players simply trying to carry on the torch the NFL has lit, it does a disservice to the causes they stand for by discouraging other players. Ultimately, it continues to fuel doubt over how serious the NFL is about addressing its already-damaged reputation as an organization that cares about the community issues it claims to be concerned with addressing.

Ethan Berkowitz is a senior in the College of Industrial and Labor Relations. Views From the 14853 appears alternate Fridays this semester.