October, as it always does now, brought with it a flurry of pink to the second month of the National Football League season. Pink towels, pink gloves, pink hats and penalty markers and first down lines and anything else that could possibly be pink-ified was. The cause is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which is now marked in some form or fashion by seemingly every sport in our landscape.
The second week of October also happens to be Mental Illness Awareness week. Brandon Marshall, the Chicago Bears wide receiver who has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder in 2011, wanted to mark it with a tribute — separate from the pink bonanza — by wearing green shoes during the Bears game against the New York Giants tonight.
There was only one problem: the NFL bans players from wearing unapproved uniform gear, including green shoes when your team colors don’t include green, so it promised Marshall that if he wore his green shoes he wouldn’t be allowed on the field.
After a little public pressure, the league (sort of) relented, offering to fine Marshall instead of banishing him to the locker room. Marshall promised to pay the fine and pay an equal amount to charity.
But why should Marshall face a fine? Is mental health not as deserving of awareness as breast cancer, especially in a week that saw the release of a documentary and book detailing the lengths to which the NFL went to cover up the links between football and concussions that can lead to some of those very mental health problems? This isn’t intended to turn that question into an either/or debate, because those are unproductive and miss the point entirely. But seriously: is there really a problem with a professional football player drawing attention to mental health issues?
The NFL would argue that there is, even if their argument is a variant of the “slippery slope” refrains that rarely hold merit. Allowing Marshall to pay tribute to a cause that isn’t League Approved would open the door to players paying tribute to all sorts of causes, and the NFL doesn’t want to deal with approving all of those separate tributes, whether it’s Peyton Manning wearing black shoes to memorialize the death of Johnny Unitas or another player wanting to raise awareness about another disease that doesn’t have a foundation that is an Official League Partner. Too much red tape, I guess.
That is ridiculous, because the NFL opened that door itself when it partnered with the American Cancer Society and other organizations to raise awareness about breast cancer. If the NFL thinks this is a slippery slope toward green and light blue and purple and yellow shoes or wrist bands or towels all over the field, well, it’s a slippery slope down which it took the first step. It decided it was going to pay tribute to a cause, and the Marshall decision only makes it seems like that is the only cause to which such a tribute can be paid. The NFL’s breast cancer campaign has some problems (some of which I wrote about last year), but in the Marshall situation lies one of the biggest: by marketing breast cancer awareness league-wide and telling a player like Marshall that he can’t raise awareness about something else, it is effectively prioritizing one devastating disease over another and allowing breast cancer to crowd out all of the others. And it is telling the world that the price of awareness is to have a lot of awareness already on your side.
That isn’t how it should be, at least not in the NFL. Breast cancer is a terrible disease, and we should raise money for it and we should walk for it and talk for it and fight to eradicate it forever. But mental health diseases are terrible too. So are other forms of cancer and Lou Gehrig’s and multiple sclerosis. So are a whole bunch of others. If we’re going to raise awareness, let’s raise awareness about all of them — or at least those that certain players want to raise awareness about — and not just the one that has the most powerful foundation and is the easiest to market to a female fan base the NFL desperately wants to attract.
It doesn’t have to be every game and it doesn’t have to go as far as the NFL’s breast cancer program does. It could set aside a single week of the season — call it “Awareness Week” — and allow players to wear one accessory marked with the color of the disease they want to raise awareness about. That could, of course, raise problems. What would the NFL do, for instance, if a player wanted to argue that homosexuality is a mental illness and came up with some way to raise awareness about that? There’s no way it could allow that to happen. But that doesn’t seem hard to prevent: the NFL could limit its tributes to diseases on the nationally-recognized disease awareness list or on the American Medical Association’s list of classified diseases.
That would create a rainbow of colors on wrist bands and shoes and other gear that, for one week only, would give announcers, reporters, players, and fans a reason to talk about the causes each player chooses. There would be endless stories about why each cause was chosen, like those we hear from players like Larry Fitzgerald about breast cancer now, and we’ll get awareness about causes that receive far less attention than breast cancer gets now.
Maybe trying to approve all of those tributes would create a logistical nightmare for the NFL and its teams. So instead, it could just use common sense in cases like Marshall’s. After all, it’s not like players are trying to have these sorts of tributes every week. Let players ask when they want to, and if it makes sense, approve it. That’s simple, and most of all, it will allow the NFL to avoid the not-totally-false characterization that it only cares about awareness when it stands to benefit from it too.