The NFL fined Cameron Heyward $5,787 for writing the words “IRON HEAD” on his eye black during the Steelers’ Monday night game in San Diego. That’s the standard fine for a first-time violator of the league’s uniform policy against “personal messages.” Naturally, that news elicited unanimous disapproval from Steelers fans and feeling human beings alike. There are plenty of valid reasons to shake your head in disbelief at corporate NFL’s tone-deafness. Cam Heyward’s fine shouldn’t be one of them.
First, a little (probably unnecessary) background: Cameron Heyward’s father was Craig “Ironhead” Heyward. Ironhead played running back/fullback for 11 NFL seasons. Before that, he was a consensus All-American in the final season of his three years at Pitt (1985-1987). Craig Heyward passed away in 2006 after losing a battle with bone cancer. He was 39. Cameron was 17. Cam wanted to honor his father’s memory with a message on his eye black, and did so to coincide with the NFL’s Pink October for “breast cancer awareness,” a month-long PR ploy wrapped in the cloak of charity. The immediate, emotional reaction to Heyward’s fine was predictable (“come on, NFL, use some common sense, you jerks”), but misguided. It doesn’t feel like it now, but the NFL may have inadvertently done the right thing.
Did you even notice Heyward’s eye black during the Monday night game? I didn’t. I don’t recall Tirico or Gruden saying anything about it, either. It’s entirely possible they did and I missed it. After all, there were a couple of highly entertaining baseball games going on at the same time, and up until the 4th quarter, Steelers-Chargers was a TERRIBLE football game to watch. I was watching at home, so there was a lot of channel surfing going on, and I may have missed the discussion, but from what I saw, Heyward’s tribute to his deceased father was not “a big deal” on Monday night. It became a big deal on Wednesday afternoon, when Cam Heyward tweeted news of his fine to his sixty-two thousand Twitter followers. That tweet was retweeted nearly 15 thousand times, with thousands more favorites, responses, @replies, and quoted retweets. Heyward was trending for a good part of Wednesday afternoon. It was the first time he tweeted since September 20th. If Cam Heyward’s goal in wearing eye black with his father’s nickname written on it was to raise awareness for cancer victims in general, and his father in particular, then getting fined achieved that purpose. If he hadn’t been fined, it would have been forgotten. Now, it’s a national story. $5,787 well spent, really.
Cam Heyward knew he would be fined. He knew personal messages that are not explicitly approved by the league were a no-no. The NFL has “uniform inspectors” in every stadium. Heck, those inspectors probably noticed the eye black and gave Heyward the option to remove the message (and avoid a fine) at some point before or during the game. Honestly, I get the NFL’s point of view here. If they give the players an inch of freedom to personalize their uniforms, the players will push for a foot, then a yard, then a mile. Lots of people wear uniforms to work, and lots of those people have personal stories of loss and grief that they’d like to share. The vast majority of employers don’t want those messages expressed on their employees’ uniforms. The NFL says “no personal messages,” as opposed to, “no personal messages unless most of our audience is sympathetic to that message” because it’s the only thing they can say to protect their bottom line. It’s a logical policy that only looks petty when stories like those of Cam Heyward and DeAngelo Williams are publicized.
DeAngelo Williams lost his mother to breast cancer. Williams asked the NFL if he could wear pink accessories year-round, instead of only wearing them with the rest of the league in October. He had a personal story of loss, and he wanted to raise awareness all season long. The NFL denied that request. Williams found creative ways to abide that decision. He dyed tips of his hair pink, and donated money out of his own pocket for underprivileged women to get hospital screenings. Real, legitimate charity.
There have been many articles written on the callousness of the NFL’s Pink October. It’s a league promotion, not a charity drive. They put their logo on every piece of pink merchandise they can produce, let the players wear pink gloves and wristbands for a month, and let the world know that proceeds from NFL Shop’s pink merchandise sales “help fight breast cancer.” If you’re still under the impression that the NFL is actually doing charity work rather than just selling more stuff, I’d encourage you to do some quick research on the subject. Deadspin and other outlets have investigated the percentage of merchandise sales that actually go to charities, and Vice Sports has taken a closer look at the charities the NFL aligns itself with. None of these stories paint a flattering picture. To the NFL, Pink October is about merchandising, branding, market penetration, and revenue , far more than it’s about charity and curing cancer. Whatever good may come from their donations is a bonus…it’s not the league’s primary objective.
No one should be surprised Cam Heyward was fined. No one should be surprised DeAngelo Williams’s request to honor his mother all year long was denied. The corporate NFL doesn’t care about causes, or diseases, or women’s issues …it cares about revenues and owners’ profits. If pretending like they care for a month helps their image and their sales, they’ll care for a month. Same goes for uniform violations. Conformity is good for the shield; it makes business sense.
If you really want to feel bad for a guy who got a letter from the league this week, look to Stephon Tuitt. That poor guy got fined for his own uniform violation. Cam Heyward knew he was breaking the rules and (correctly) thought it was worth it. DeAngelo Williams checked with the league and worked around their decision. Tuitt? He got fined almost $6,000 because his shirt came un-tucked during the game. For me, that’s the harshest and most baffling of the three.