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NFL Week 6 Wrap: More than just pink

Pittsburgh Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams (34) wears pink for breast cancer awareness as he warms up before an NFL football game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Arizona Cardinals, Sunday, Oct. 18, 2015 in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene Puskar)

WASHINGTON — We’re more than halfway through the month of October (already??), and by now you’ve noticed the NFL’s 7th annual infusion of pink uniform accessories in recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

It’s a big deal not only because it supports a great cause (full disclosure: both of my grandmothers battled the disease and only one survived) but because the satirically named NFL (No Fun League) is infamously strict when it comes to player uniforms. We’ve seen it plenty here in Washington; Clinton Portis and the late Sean Taylor paid a mint in fines for uniform violations in 2004 and 2005, and there’s a long, ridiculous list of similar instances across the league over the years.

It’s one thing to ding a guy for something over the top and selfish. But last week, Pittsburgh defensive lineman Cam Heyward was fined for having “Iron” and “Head” on his eye black, an innocuous (and largely unnoticeable) tribute to his late father, former NFL fullback Craig “Ironhead” Heyward.

Why is this deemed a finable offense? He didn’t have the right kind of cancer we’re raising money to fight this month?

Apparently, the league won’t keep Heyward from playing despite his brazen persistence in wearing the illegal eye black (thanks?) but it’s going to cost him over $11,000 to do something he should otherwise be encouraged to do: honor his late father who actually played in the league.

And don’t get me started on the case of DeAngelo Williams. The Steelers running back’s plans to honor his mother — who tragically succumbed to the very disease the NFL is supposed to be drumming up awareness for this month — were nixed by the league for reasons that only make sense to them.

Williams did the right thing by seeking permission before making the gesture, and the league should have rewarded him for it. How hard is it to come up with a compromise involving a small tribute (i.e.-a pink outline on his cleats or gloves) that doesn’t lead to uniform anarchy?

This just feels wrong. At best, the NFL comes off as tone deaf. At worst, they’re using breast cancer awareness as a marketing and public relations ploy. The league opened this door in 2009 by encouraging players to wear pink in October. Either donate to breast cancer awareness quietly or pony up more than the paltry percentage you’ve been donating.

If anything, the NFL should be using their great platform to do more. October also happens to be Domestic Violence Awareness Month and given the league’s well-documented issues in that department, players should be allowed (if not mandated) to also wear purple in support of that cause.

The NFL already comes off as an over-officious jerk (thanks, Marv Levy) when it frowns upon its players demonstrating individuality, but unnecessarily limiting their ability to honor loved ones with small uniform tributes is an even worse look. A little writing on some eye black or a pair of cleats is completely innocuous and there’s no downside to the players showing they’re more than just fodder for your fantasy team or lifelike images for the latest Madden game. Loosening up the reigns in this case would grow the league’s image at a time when it desperately needs it, and — more importantly — would probably grow the amount of money going toward cancer research.

Monday, Heyward further clarified his stance, telling the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “A lot of people are struggling with cancer and that’s what my message was. It’s not just about me and my love for my father. There are a lot of people out there struggling. In a month when breast cancer is honored I think every type of cancer should be honored as well.”

That’s a win we all need.

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