The NFL Should Create A Personalized Uniform Space

Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward is not going to be deterred by the NFL’s fine police.  For the second straight week, Heyward adorned his eyeblack with the words Iron and Head, honoring his father who died of cancer.  Per Mike Pereira, this will cost him $11,576.  Heyward’s personalization comes off the heels of his teammate, running back DeAngelo Williams, being denied a request to wear pink all season to honor his mother who died of breast cancer.

And since this wouldn’t be the NFL without some inconsistency, Williams’s pink-tinged hair ends up being OK.  More strikingly, I’m trying to understand how Heyward and Williams can face fines, but Ronnie Hillman can continually get away with his unique and intimidating mouthpieces (which are also breast cancer aware in October!).

Instead of making clumsy attempts of suppressing the personality of players on game day, I feel that the NFL should instead create a uniform (pun intended!) standard to allow players to express a little bit of themselves in their most public moments.  The league should create a small space somewhere on the uniform to allow personal messages.

This is a proposal that’s actually been in my mind in some form since 2004.  That was the year when Pat Tillman was killed in action in Afghanistan.  To honor Tillman, the NFL had all players wear a decal bearing Tillman’s number during Week 2, and for the Arizona Cardinals to wear the decal the entire season.

But the ever keen Jake Plummer saw a problem with this. There was perhaps no NFL player that had a deeper connection with Tillman than Plummer–the two were teammates not only with the Cardinals but in college at Arizona State.  If anyone should have kept wearing the Tillman decal, it was Plummer.  Yet because the winds of free agency happened to take Plummer from Phoenix to Denver in 2004, he was threatened with fines for still wearing the decal after Week 2, while members of the Cardinals who joined the team after Tillman’s tenure weren’t.

As Plummer demonstrated then, and as Heyward and Williams demonstrate now, and Tim Tebow, Reggie Bush, and scores of others have also shown, this is a force that’s going to keep pushing against the NFL.  Instead of pushing back, the league should show some embrace.

Now, this being the NFL, you’re going to have to have plenty of rules in place.  The personalized space should be small and in a consistent place on the uniform.  This way, if players try to make larger personal messages (say, Peyton Manning wanting to wear black shoes to honor Johnny Unitas), the league can simply say, “Hey, you’ve got your space to make your message, make it there instead.”

There will also have to be certain types of expressions that will still have to be banned.  A few of them will make sense, such as banning advertisements from non-official sponsors.  Official sponsors make the NFL a lot of money, and that money trickles down to the players.  Then there are other expressions that I wish wouldn’t be banned, but know that they will be: things like profane language and violent and sexual expressions (so sadly, no images of crotch grabs or crotch pumps).  Political messages may have to also be off the table, since Republicans buy sneakers too.

And since the NFL and the NFLPA are perpetually in a battle of power, the league won’t give up its power to unilaterally dictate what players can and can’t wear unless the union also gives up something else in return.  I’m guessing that most players won’t want to yield ground elsewhere, so my proposal is something almost certainly won’t happen any time soon.

Nonetheless, I think the NFL is missing an opportunity here.  Allowing players to demonstrate a small piece of who they are could allow fans to develop a stronger affection toward that player.  And who knows, perhaps that rapport will make it more likely for fans to watch games featuring that player, and perhaps even buy that player’s jersey?