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NFL's tone-deaf reaction to DeAngelo Williams should come as no surprise

In not letting DeAngelo Williams wear pink all year in honor of his family members lost to breast cancer, the NFL is predictably missing the point.

Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams, who has lost his mother and four aunts to breast cancer, apparently ran afoul of the NFL’s uniform policy when he asked to wear pink on his football uniform this season to honor those whom he’s lost. Williams wanted to wear pink shoes or wristbands through the season, he recently told ESPN's Jeremy Fowler, but was told by NFL VP of Football Operations Troy Vincent that the league’s uniform policy is unmovable.

The story didn't gain traction until ESPN's Lisa Salters mentioned it during the telecast of Pittsburgh's thrilling last-second win over the Chargers on Monday Night Football, and Williams responded to it after.

“The same way it made you feel after you heard it—like, man,” he told Fowler. “[Vincent] told me no. I'm assuming they are telling everybody else no as well. ... It wasn't about selling it. You know and I know and everybody else knows before I made the phone call.”

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Williams was asking to wear pink attire outside of the league's “A Crucial Catch” campaign, which requires all players to wear specifically chosen merchandise during games to tout the NFL's professed commitment to “saving lives from breast cancer and addressing the unequal burden of cancer in underserved communities.” The campaign, which began in 2009, features players, coaches and officials wearing pink apparel, with those items to be auctioned off to benefit the American Cancer Society's Community Health Advocates implementing Nationwide Grants for Empowerment and Equity (CHANGE) program. According to the league’s site, CHANGE grant recipients “have reached underserved women through more than 148,000 outreach and education engagements. In addition, grant recipients have provided over 64,000 breast cancer screenings at low or no cost.”

Of course, because this is the NFL, there’s also merchandising, and this is where it’s gotten tricky. There are 534 different items for purchase on the NFL's official online shop to supposedly benefit CHANGE. There are multiple reports and all kinds of different numbers regarding the actual percentage of money raised by the campaign that goes to the cause, but on the generous side to the NFL, it’s estimated that millions of dollars have gone to the ACS through merchandising and merchandise auctions. But the league has been less than transparent about how that money gets there and how much of it gets there, which has led to several reports painting the whole thing as a sketchy exercise.

A 2013 Business Insider report calculated that only 8.1% of gross merchandising and auction revenue from the merchandise would go directly to cancer research if the NFL were giving to the ACS in general, but the CHANGE program that receives the NFL’s proceeds focuses on breast cancer prevention and early detection programs, not research. The NFL says on its Crucial Catch website that “At Retail: 100% of the NFL’s proceeds from Pink product sales go to the American Cancer Society” and “The NFL does not retain any profits generated by royalties received due to the sale of Pink products. All dollars are donated to ACS.”

Given the NFL's history of “truth flexibility” with everything from revenue to concussions to its own disciplinary process, it's tough to err on their side when there’s any uncertainty on exactly where the money goes.

But that's the business side. The human side, which is generally more complex in circumstances like this, should be less so. Williams has long been an advocate for using the color pink as an advocacy tool in this regard. Last year, he wrote a moving piece for The MMQB about his mission to remember his mother and help others who are going through what he's experienced.

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“Breast cancer, whether I like it or not, is part of my family’s story,” he wrote. “That’s why I am so passionate about raising awareness, because I have seen firsthand how it can impact others. One time, a lady came up to me and said she was going to get examined just because she saw me wearing pink cleats during a game. I walked away thinking, Wow, pink is really so much more than just a color. It’s a lifesaver. It’s awareness. If we reach one, we reach millions. If we reach millions, we’re doing our job and getting closer to finding a cure.”

Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, who was Williams’s coach last year when Williams’s mother passed away, told me Wednesday that if an exception should be made to the uniform policy, this would be a good place to start.

“He's a solid young man—he really is. I don’t think people give him enough credit for who he is. I think the request he had is a fair and valid one because he lost his mother to breast cancer, and he lost four aunts. So, it’s something that's prevalent in his family, and he’s one of the original guys who started the whole pink [campaign]. I know he did some great things here in Charlotte. He helped start the Fun Run for breast cancer awareness here, and he’s made a huge impact in this community. I get why he asked, and I understand why he was turned down, but at the same time, it’s something that’s very near and dear to the young man.”

And that, in the end, is why the NFL’s lack of sensitivity to Williams’s request is particularly onerous. Williams was the one who inspired part of the league's pink campaign in the first place. In 2009, Williams petitioned the league to be allowed to wear pink cleats to honor his mother, who was of course still battling cancer at the time. The NFL had already been planning various wardrobe and merchandising initiatives, but it's important to note that Williams was there from the start—and he's always been there. Because the league has no interest in his advocacy beyond their own limited view, he's paying for 53 women to have mammograms at a Charlotte, N.C. hospital out of his own pocket, and with the nationwide median cost of $243 per procedure, that's no small gesture.

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“That's something that's very, very important for NFL players,” Williams told the New York Times in 2009. “If you have a great cleat and a firm foot in the ground, you can do anything.”

Well, not anything. Only those things that are league-approved, league-mandated and merchandise-friendly. If you want to move outside that box, the league seems to be saying, you'll get no help from us. Take a well-known player with a specific mission and grow your monthly merchandising campaign into something more far-reaching? Apparently not.  

And they have a player who desperately wants to do that, for all the right reasons.

“While I am so thankful for all that goes on during October to raise awareness for breast cancer, I want to ask one small favor of each of you,” he wrote last year. “Well, two actually.

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“First, wear a pink shirt at least once a month, and make it a point to tell people that you’re doing so to help remind everyone that breast cancer awareness is 365 days a year. Second, it’s true that early detection is the best prevention, so please call, text, email, tweet or Facebook five women you care about (in honor of my mom and her four sisters) and ask them if they’ve gotten a mammogram lately. Do this for five people, and ask them to do it for five more, and then five more after that. Keep it going, and keep doing this for all of the women around the world who live with and die from this disease—and for my mom, who lived to love.”

The NFL has not yet responded to this story, even as it goes viral, but perhaps that's because it's been busy fining other players who have chosen to honor parents they’ve lost to cancer.

That's Pittsburgh defensive end Cameron Heyward, whose father, former NFL running back Craig “Ironhead” Heyward, lost his own battle with bone cancer in 2006. The younger Heyward was fined $5,787 for the memorial gesture, which is a real shame.

With that money, he could have purchased 340 bottles of Pittsburgh Steelers Breast Cancer Nail Polish.

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