Last week, the NFL’s priorities were called into question when Dallas Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy returned from a four-game suspension for domestic violence and immediately talked about the attractiveness of Tom Brady’s wife, Gisele Bundchen. Hardy, who was accused of throwing his then-girlfriend onto a bed of guns and threatening to kill her, also told reporters that he was going to come out onto the field “guns blazin’.”
This weekend, as Hardy took the field against the New England Patriots, the league chose to crack down on two other offenses: GIF usage and wearing the color pink outside of a designated time period.
Every year since 2009, the NFL has celebrated Breast Cancer Awareness in October through high-profile pink initiatives. This year, Pittsburgh Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams asked the NFL for permission to wear pink all season long to honor his mother, Sandra Kay Hill, who passed away from breast cancer in 2014. But Troy Vincent, the NFL’s vice president of football operations, told Williams over the phone that this wouldn’t be allowed because there are “no exceptions to the uniform policy.”
A self-professed “mama’s boy,” Williams has become a big advocate for breast cancer awareness after seeing what it did to his family. His grandfather had the mutated breast cancer 1 gene and passed it along to his five daughters. All four of Williams’ aunts died from breast cancer before even making it to the age of 50, with the youngest dying at 32. His mother was the last one to pass away, making it all the way to 53 years old.
“I am so passionate about raising awareness, because I have seen firsthand how it can impact others,” Williams wrote in a powerful first-person essay on The MMQB. “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.”
Before passing, Hill challenged her son to continue to fight breast cancer so that other women wouldn’t have to suffer the same fate. Williams has taken that challenge seriously, fully embracing the NFL’s October initiatives and starting his own foundation that helps provide free mammograms to women in need.
In an NFL-produced commercial released this month, Williams talks about the power of pink and even shows off his pink dreadlocks.
— DeAngelo Williams (@DeAngeloRB) October 11, 2015
“It’s not just about October for me; it’s not just a month, it’s a lifestyle,” Williams told ESPN’s Lisa Salters. “It’s about getting women to recognize to get tested.”
The NFL’s breast cancer awareness initiatives have been under heavy scrutiny recently. Business Insider calculated that only eight percent of the proceeds from the NFL’s pink merchandise actually goes directly to breast cancer research.
Many see the NFL’s “Pinktober” as a hollow attempt to show that it cares for women, despite the league’s horrible track record when it comes to taking violence against women seriously. As ThinkProgress previously reported, Domestic Violence Awareness month also takes place in October, but the league has no specific high-profile initiatives in place to support that cause.
When Hardy came back from his suspension — initially 10 games but shortened to four upon appeal — and gave his eyebrow-raising comments last week, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell sidestepped commenting on them and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones made light of them. While the NFL eventually did express disappointment about Hardy, Garbage Time host Katie Nolan pointed out that his comments were initially publicized on the league’s website, adorned by the league’s pink (for October only) logo.
But no matter what you think of the NFL’s sincerity, Williams truly believes in the power of breast cancer awareness. He urges his fans to wear the color pink throughout the year, so it’s no surprise that he wanted to continue to wear pink on his uniform for the rest of the season.
Unfortunately for the running back, the league is notoriously strict about uniform violations, and doesn’t like to allow personal expression of any kind, even if it is for a good cause. Last year, the NFL fined Brandon Marshall $10,500 for wearing lime green cleats to draw attention to Mental Health Awareness week.
It seems if Williams is going to keep spreading the message of breast cancer awareness and honoring his mother’s legacy the other 11 months of the year, he is going to have to do so without the NFL’s support.