Thursday November 19th, 2015

Because of the NFL’s popularity and visibility, its players are given a considerable platform for communicating messages to a multitude of fans. But what happens when an athlete’s mode of messaging doesn’t agree with the wishes (or rules) of the league? DeAngelo Williams and Cam Heyward’s attempts to honor a deceased parent are two recent examples of this very sensitive issue. Instead of the NFL simply denying requests or imposing fines, can there be an amicable solution?

When an issue impacts someone you know, it becomes a bit more personal. DeAngelo and I were both drafted in 2006. Whenever I see him out, or when our teams play, we make an effort to speak with one another either during pregame warm-ups or after the game.

Last year, DeAngelo wrote an article for The MMQB expressing how severely his family had been struck with breast cancer. His mother and his four aunts were all diagnosed and unfortunately succumbed to this devastating disease. He spoke about the double mastectomy his mother was forced to undergo and her courageous fight.

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In an attempt to continue spreading this message, DeAngelo made a request to the NFL asking if he could be allowed to continue wearing pink outside of the month of October in order to encourage women to get mammograms. Unfortunately, the NFL denied that request citing it a violation of the uniform policy.

I also sympathize with Cam Heyward’s story, though I don’t know him personally. Cam's father, Craig, suffered from malignant bone cancer. In order to honor his late father, who had an eleven-year career as a fullback in the NFL, Cam wrote his dad’s nickname “Iron Head” on his eye black. Unfortunately, this too was in violation of the uniform policy and Heyward was subsequently fined $5,787, though that amount was later reduced.  

Since Williams and Heyward were in the news a few weeks ago, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about them, and my own relationship to their stories. My grandmother Evelyn McClendon, like DeAngelo’s mother, was afflicted with breast cancer and was forced to undergo a double mastectomy as well. Though she was able to live cancer-free for many years, her cancer unfortunately returned, and she passed away due to complications with the disease in February of 1994. Cancer not only affects the lives of those afflicted with the disease, but impacts those that must witness it as well.

My emotions want the league to grant permission to players like DeAngelo and Cam simply because I feel their messages are positive, would be well-received and would bring further awareness to their worthy causes.

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But as I consider the world we live in today, with misfortune happening all across the globe, like the problem of homelessness and poverty or perhaps the statistic that 1 in 5 children under the age of 5 die from water related diseases and that clean water is still not accessible to everyone, how can the NFL be expected to pick and choose causes? At some point, the messaging may even become offensive the more specific in nature it becomes, especially when dealing with topics of extreme sensitivity (i.e race, religion and/or sexual orientation).

I wonder how feasible it is to have the NFL be a supporter of the widespread number of causes and promote them on game day.

One suggestion by Steelers cornerback William Gay, a major advocate of domestic violence awareness, whose mother unfortunately died because of it, is to have one weekend of the NFL season that allows players the ability to champion a cause of their own.

Though I respect the idea, I fear that too many causes at once may have an adverse effect, not actually allowing fans to focus on any one issue due to the mass messaging. Still, this may be a viable option that the league will consider, but until it does perhaps we should divert our attention from the equipment and uniforms and refocus it on the stadium.

An NFL stadium offers a great connection to a large number of fans at any given moment. Whether orchestrating a moment of silence for the recently departed or an on-field presentation, fans are typically open and respectful at those times. They also pay attention.

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Then there’s the Jumbotron. The largest attraction outside of the playing field has the ability to put specific messages highlighting charities or showcasing how companies support an athlete’s cause by making monetary donations with every catch or sack, in front of tens of thousands of fans. These messages transcend any equipment violation.

Having exposure in a given stadium is great, but one obvious critique is that it limits the total number of people impacted by the message. But with the advent of social media that doesn’t have to be true. Having a compelling campaign regarding your cause, plus the invitation to fans to take action though sharing a personal message can build widespread and impactful awareness affecting a countless number of people outside of the confines of the stadium.

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Another powerful resource both in and out of the stadium is the ability to partner up with other athletes with like causes in order to collectively influence change. For example, fellow UVA alumni Chris Long of the St. Louis Rams,started an initiative known as “The Waterboys”, which brings together NFL athletes from every team to help raise awareness, support and ultimately bring clean water to the people of East Africa.

Players across the league are dealing with issues that warrant a positive outlet. While uniform violations remain intact, the overall uniqueness of the NFL’s platform is something that cannot be denied. 

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