Players wear patriotic cleats despite NFL's threat of fines

So it turns out that in the NFL, you can also be too patriotic.

On 9/11, the same day as several players knelt or raised fists in signs of protest during the national anthem, the Tennessee Titans’ Avery Williamson wore cleats that he knew would get him fined … cleats that featured messages of respect for those who died 15 years ago. Others followed suit, even knowing the NFL would fine them for “uniform violations.”

Williamson had announced his intentions to wear the gameday shoes on Saturday, but was informed by an NFL executive that he would be fined. That news triggered a wave of support for Williamson, with everyone from teammates to police associations in New York and New Jersey offering to pay his fine.

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“On September 11, 2001, the PAPD lost 37 police officers at the World Trade Center, the largest, single loss ever suffered by a police department in the history of American law enforcement,” Bobby Egbert, the public information officer for the Port Authority Police Benevolent Association, told The Tennessean in a statement. “We, along with the New Jersey State Police Benevolent Association, are offering to pay any reasonable fine levied by the NFL if Avery chooses to wear his 9/11 cleats.”

So Williamson changed course once again, opting to wear plain white shoes prior to the game to throw off any prying eyes, then switching into the 9/11 cleats for the game. (For the record, he ended up with six tackles on the day, three solo and three assists.)

“I just felt like I got so much support across the country, and especially when the New York and New Jersey police unions said that they would pay my fine, that really meant a lot,” Williamson said after the Titans’ game, according to The Tennessean, “so I felt like if I didn’t wear them, I just wouldn’t have felt good about it. I felt like I had to do that, just for myself and to represent the people that were lost and the people that do their jobs every day to protect us. I feel like it was just a duty.”

Williamson will auction off the cleats to benefit a veterans’ service organization.

Other players joined in the statement, from Colts punter Pat McAfee to Giants receivers Victor Cruz and Odell Beckham Jr., and all expect to be fined:

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There’s plenty of precedent for the league’s zero-tolerance rule; the NFL has a history of cracking down on any form of individual expression. Earlier this summer, the NFL denied the Dallas Cowboys’ request to wear a decal in honor of slain police officers. The league has also fined DeAngelo Williams for making a statement about breast cancer awareness during breast cancer awareness month and Cam Heyward for paying tribute to his late father, among many other examples.

The NFL’s stance looks hypocritical if you’re looking at this from a political or patriotic standpoint, but purely logical from a cold, sleek branding one. When the NFL sees any image, even that of the World Trade Center towers, as a distraction from The Shield, there’s no room for even the noblest of gestures. Just imagine what would happen if a politically active player wanted to wear cleats with, say, images of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton … and that’s the most innocent example. Banning everything is just easier for the NFL, even if it’s a bit awkward every now and then.

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Email him here, and find him on Twitter (@jaybusbee) and Facebook.