By William Gay
They’re actually Minnesota Vikings-themed cleats, and I bought them online: purple Nikes with a yellow swoosh. In our Week 7 game against the Kansas City Chiefs I put them on, knowing very well I could be fined. The NFL is pretty clear about its uniform policy. The rulebook is black and white and if you wear something that isn’t approved (in my case, shoes that weren’t the same color as the rest of my teammates’) you’ll usually have to pay.
So it was no surprise when I received a letter explaining I would be docked $5,787 unless I wanted to appeal. The same thing happened to me last year; I paid up.
It’s not that I don’t understand the value of money, and it’s not that I’m trying to stir trouble. When I wore those purple cleats, I was standing for something much larger than a football game. October is Domestic Violence awareness month, and purple is the official color for the cause. When I was 8, I lost my mother. She was shot three times by my stepfather, fatally, before he also killed himself. My mother didn’t know she was in an abusive relationship until it was too late; she didn’t know what domestic violence was, let alone how to get help. Awareness, to me, is everything.
And so when I wore those cleats, people noticed. People asked about it. During the game one official actually came up to me and asked me why I had purple shoes on. Later, he told me, “I really appreciate what you’re doing.” I came home that night to hundreds of messages on Twitter and Instagram. I gave interviews about it. Fans chatted about it. People were talking about what I did, but in doing so, they were talking about domestic violence. The discussion grew louder. Domestic violence, an often uncomfortable and neglected issue in our culture, was brought to the attention of thousands.
This became about something so much more than the money. Just ask two of my teammates who were also fined this season. Cameron Heyward wore eye black with the words IRON HEAD, the nickname of his father, who died of brain cancer in 2006. DeAngelo Williams wore eye black that said, “FIND THE CURE,” for his mother who died of breast cancer in 2014.
We’ve talked about this a lot in the locker room. Not just me, Cameron and DeAngelo, but the entire team. So many of us feel like there has to be a solution; a way for the league to work with us for trying to promote good things, rather than punish us. Ben Roethlisberger came up with the idea to allow each team to have one cause that affects the community that we play in and have each player be able to represent that. Another idea, and one I feel strongly about, is to allow every player in the league one amnesty week—one game during which they can support their cause through a shoe color or eye-black and not have any consequences. Where is the harm in that?
Will any of this happen? We don’t know. We’re not in control of that. But I do know I’m not going to stop fighting for my cause. As a football player we’re given platforms, a chance for people to hear us.
That’s why I appeared in a commercial that’s also a public service announcement for domestic violence. It aired on national TV and was sponsored by the NFL. Some people might look at that and see a double standard. I don’t see it like that. To me, it’s the bigger picture: Anything that can get us talking about domestic violence is a good thing. This isn’t a sports issue, this is a world issue. It won’t be won in the next few weeks or days or even years. It begins with awareness and education. Not only did my mother not know that shelters existed, but I didn’t know until about three or four years ago.
If I can use my status as a football player to help just one person, then it’s worth it.
It’s no longer October, so I no longer will be wearing the purple cleats. The NFL doesn’t have to worry about fining me, and I’ll still work behind the scenes—especially speaking and volunteering at shelters—to further the cause. But maybe next year the NFL can figure out a way to work with us players so this doesn’t have to be about the fine. It can be about spending our energy doing good.
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