The “No Fun League.” It’s a strange nickname for the most popular sports organization in the United States, a multi-billion dollar cash cow that continues to expand its fan base. Of course, the NFL is fun! We love it and consume it with a voracious appetite. But players often balk at the stringent rules dictating how they must conduct themselves on the field, in locker rooms, and at sanctioned events. Touchdown dances with props or other teammates incur penalties. Excessive celebrations after critical plays can draw flags or fines. And the tiniest deviations from the strict uniform policy results in a lighter wallet. Let’s face it, the NFL’s rules can be a buzzkill. They seem to limit individualism and creative expression. And in some cases, they squash opportunities to make a positive difference.
Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward is appealing a pair of fines for writing his late father’s name in his eye black in the last 2 games. “Iron” under one eye and “Head” under the other to remind people of his dad who died of a brain tumor in 2006. Craig Heyward was an accomplished NFL fullback, part of the fraternity himself. Yet Cam may have to shell out nearly $17,000 to cover dress code violations. He says during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, he wants to honor victims and survivors who battle other forms of the disease. But even though the words don’t hawk any particular product and even though his cause is noble, the NFL abides by the letter of the law.
DeAngelo Williams is completely on board with the league’s October campaign to raise awareness and money for breast cancer research. The Steelers running back lost his mom to breast cancer last year. He wants to sport the official pink gear every week for the rest of the season to remember his mom and remind women to get screened. He says pink isn’t a color for him; it’s a way of life. He shares his story in TV ads airing on game broadcasts. His purpose lines up perfectly with the NFL’s initiative–but only in the month of October. Once the calendar turns November, DeAngelo is no longer allowed to wear pink on the field.
Why can’t the league lighten up? Why won’t the NFL allow players to use their massive platform to deliver much-needed messages to the millions who watch and listen? If 10 more women get mammograms because they see DeAngelo’s pink laces or socks or towel, it’s worth it. Early detection saves lives. If 10 more men are convinced to take their health and the threat of cancer seriously because of Cam’s message, it’s worth it. And it costs the NFL nothing more than some flexibility and latitude.
Chiefs safety Eric Berry is flying around the field again, making tackles and playing the game he loves, because his lymphoma was diagnosed early enough that he could beat it. A member of the NFL family spent 8 months away from the game to treat his disease. His story inspires other cancer patients and encourages them to keep fighting. His victory is of greater magnitude and impact than anything accomplished on the field this season. A life saved within their own ranks should give the league a fresh outlook. Young Leah Still is cancer-free after her dad Devon and the Bengals waged a public campaign to raise money for her treatment last season. They got much-needed support in their darkest hours. He wore “Leah Strong” in his eye black during games.
Yes, the NFL has a brand to protect. Yes, the players are ultimately employees and union members who agree to abide by the uniform code. The league rakes in revenue through exclusive partnerships with corporate sponsors, and the rules are designed to preserve those relationships and prevent conflicts of interest. The sport is committed to making a difference by supporting many charitable projects. And players can use their own name recognition, foundations, and social media platforms to raise awareness and money for causes about which they are passionate. But what’s the harm in doing more? What’s the downside of allowing players to use game days to spread their messages further?
Over the last year, the NFL has faced backlash and criticism for mishandling domestic violence in its ranks, losing court battles, botching investigations, and caring more about its reputation than its players and fans. While some of those are complicated issues, this one is not. Neither Cam Heyward nor DeAngelo Williams wants to violate the league’s dress code for personal gain. They’ve lost parents to a disease that affects everyone in this country eventually. They should be exceptions to the rule. Football is a popular sport and a profitable business, but it’s not life or death.
The goal shouldn’t be changing some goofy nickname or repairing a damaged public image. The goal should be recognizing the NFL’s potential to reach millions with invaluable messages. The league’s platform is enormous and growing every week. Time for the league to establish a new precedent–one with perspective, one that takes into account the spirit of the law more than the letter of the law.
A well-traveled veteran and pioneer of sports radio and television, Amy Lawrence is the host of CBS Sports Radio’s late-night program ‘After Hours with Amy Lawrence.’ The show can be heard weekdays from 2-6am ET on the nation’s largest 24/7 major-market radio network. Follow her on Twitter @.