Sat Oct 30 02:30pm EDT
Earlier this month, a controversy developed around some CFL players' desires to wear pink equipment in games in support of breast cancer awareness. The CFL lets players wear pink in practice, and a lot of players have been doing that and then auctioning off the gear to raise funds for cancer research. However, unlike the NFL, the CFL doesn't have a month-long pink exemption in their game-time dress code, so players who chose to wear pink in games carried the risk of being sent out of the game and fined.
There was plenty of critical reaction, but CFL commissioner Mark Cohon published a thoughtful piece on the league's website detailing the reasons for the league's policy (which actually make some sense) and the outrage died down for a while. This week, however, it came out that Winnipeg fullback Jon Oosterhuis (pictured, right) was fined $250 for violating the uniform policy by wearing pink gloves against Toronto, and that reignited the firestorm. (Other players were also apparently fined, but Oosterhuis' is the only case where details have come out).
It's understandable why people are upset about this. Breast cancer is obviously a very serious and horrible disease that affects a lot of people, and there's a lot of popular support for raising awareness of the disease and raising funds to combat it. The pink apparel movement has been generally recognized as a way to do that, and it has taken off everywhere from the NFL to the NHL (where Colton Orr will be wearing pink skates tonight) to junior hockey to university campuses and sports teams, so a league that doesn't immediately jump all over the cause stands out and draws plenty of negative publicity.
However, the issue isn't as black and white as some have painted it. It's a false dichotomy to conclude that the CFL fining players for wearing pink means the league is in favour of breast cancer (or against efforts to raise awareness of it). That's simply not true. It's not a "you're either with us or against us" scenario, as the CFL and its teams and players do an incredible amount for charities of all stripes. For example, consider Adriano Belli's donation of his paycheque to The Hospital For Sick Children while he's injured, or the players and charities involved in the Pepsi Refresh Project. It's not that they're fully opposing the pink campaign, either, as players have been permitted to wear pink equipment in practice and many have done so. In fact, most of the Bombers (including Oosterhuis) did that earlier this month and auctioned off autographed pink gloves to raise funds for cancer research, something that was fully supported by the league. To me, that doesn't speak of a league that hates charity in general, or this cause in particular.
It's also quite possible that before too long we'll see pink apparel legally worn in CFL games. Cohon's piece made the points that the league wants to ensure it's being fair to all causes and doing more than just visuals. The NFL's done that with their pink campaign, rolling out a comprehensive month-long effort to raise awareness and funds. Cohon said the CFL's willing to consider doing something similar next season, but they'd have to get the groundwork in place first. It's understandably difficult to launch an effort of that scale in the middle of the year, especially when you're talking about a league that doesn't have the resources of the NFL or NHL.
The CFL's taking its share of flack for fining Oosterhuis and others, and some of that's certainly fair. However, I'm not sure if they really had many alternative options here. The uniform rules are there to ensure that the league and its teams present a comprehensive look in games, and that's important. If every player was wearing something unique advertising a charity of their choice, it would look amateurish and it would be confusing. You can make an argument that pink apparel should receive special treatment, and I think the league might even be receptive to that, but it's tough to change the rules in the middle of a season.
The league could have just let the pink violations go and taken less public heat in the process, but if they did, they aren't enforcing their own rules. That carries its own implications for the league's credibility, and it also presents a problem if other players do the same with different causes. They probably don't want to get into the position of saying "Well, we won't fine you for promoting breast cancer awareness, but we will if you wear something promoting aid for the rebuilding efforts in Haiti." Leagues obviously can't endorse every cause out there, so they have to pick and choose their spots. Supporting breast cancer awareness and research may well be a great cause for the CFL to support via in-game apparel, but it's understandable that the league would rather do that in a comprehensive fashion than a scattershot one. It might have been a reasonable move to just let this go, but that comes with its own cost.
It's also worth noting that these fines are mostly a symbolic gesture demonstrating that the league is in control. Oosterhuis was only fined $250 (compare that to the half a game cheque Jason Jimenez was fined for a hit), and he's not even that upset about it, as he told reporters in Edmonton Friday:
"Oosterhuis told reporters in Edmonton on Friday that he accepted the verdict without complaint.
"I broke the dress code rules, so I got fined," he said. "I don't mind."
The fines actually mean more free publicity for the cause and an embarrassment to the Canadian circuit.
"I wore the gloves and the results showed for themselves," Oosterhuis said.
The criticism of the league is understandable, and there are some problems with the way they've handled this. The pink campaign has been around for a while and embraced by just about every other sport, so it would have been nice if the CFL had had a plan in place for it. It also might have worked to just let players wear pink in games, regardless of the lack of coordination or the precedent set; that certainly would have minimized the controversy. However, the league's position comes with its own logic, and it doesn't mean they're against raising awareness of breast cancer. It just means they're still figuring out the best way to do so.