Zeke Elliott, the Salvation Army, and the NFL’s Fun Problem

ARLINGTON, TX - DECEMBER 18: Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys celebrates after scoring a touchdown by jumping into a Salvation Army red kettle during the second quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at AT&T Stadium on December 18, 2016 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Photo Credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

On Sunday, the Cowboys played and defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers by a score of 26-20. Star running back Ezekiel Elliott jumped into AT&T Stadium’s famous Salvation Army kettle after scoring a touchdown in the game. The internet may never be the same.

If you are living under a rock haven’t seen the play yet, this is what Elliott did after a second quarter touchdown:

The celebration was easily the best part of the play, as Elliott casually flipped himself into the kettle and played hide-and-seek with a couple of his Dallas teammates. The act was the seminal act of this NFL Sunday, as it was a fun, harmless moment that even brought attention to a good cause; the Salvation Army has reported a 61% increase in donations since the jump. While it was flagged, even the most jaded football fan could see the goodness in that moment.

And yet, amazingly, it underscored the NFL’s issues with fun and individuality. And yes, this is a discussion many in the sports community have had before.

This is why we’re talking about it: when Elliott did the deed on Sunday night, Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell voiced his displeasure with the NFL over their handling of the incident. The league opted not to fine Elliott (and rightfully so) because he jumped in the pot and drew attention to the object (and a worthy cause) instead of himself. That judgment is more than fair and the league made the right decision. However, this is what Bell said about the NFL’s treatment of him as compared to Elliott:

First of all, we should probably take Bell’s opinions with a grain of salt; after all, he once tweeted this about a “random” drug test he received this past April 20th. Ironically, Bell was suspended for four games roughly three months after sending out that tweet because he missed several drug tests. Interesting.

Anyway, Bell actually does have a point here. On Thanksgiving, he and wide receiver Antonio Brown engaged in a celebration after Brown caught one of his three touchdowns on the game. Bell was fined $12,154 and Brown was docked $24,309 for the incident (Brown had been previously fined for his infamous end zone twerking exercises).

However, there is an argument to be made in favor of Bell’s point. If it’s okay for Elliott to do what he did, why are other stars fined for similarly harmless acts that may not necessarily draw attention to worthy causes? I’m not arguing that Elliott was wrong to jump in the kettle; actually, I’m doing quite the opposite. I’m arguing that players should feel empowered to express themselves like Zeke did this past weekend. However, that clearly isn’t going to happen under the NFL’s current operating system.

And there’s also another point that needs to be covered here: why does the NFL support Zeke’s celebration while undermining the efforts of other players to bring attention to their own causes?

For example, take current Jets wide receiver Brandon Marshall. Marshall has gone through well-documented issues in his life with borderline personality disorder. He’s had a troubled past that includes domestic abuse incidents and disturbances with police. Since coming out in 2011 about having the disease, though, Marshall has turned his life around and used his platform to voice support for mental health awareness. Along those lines, Marshall decided to wear neon green cleats for several games during the 2013 season (bright green is the color of mental health awareness). And shortly thereafter, Marshall was, wait for it, fined a total of $25,500 by the league over the course of the season for being in violation of its dress code. Yes. Seriously.

Two weekends ago, the NFL briefly changed course on their stingy uniform policies, allowing players to wear custom cleats as part of their “My Cause, My Cleats” week. The initiative was met with praise but also with one question: why doesn’t the league let players do this every week? There were no fines during “My Cause, My Cleats” week, with the exception of Dorial Green-Beckham. He was fined for wearing custom cleats in honor something called the “Yeezy Foundation”, which is essentially Green-Beckham’s lame attempt to convince the NFL that Kanye West is a charity and not a rapper. He was fined slightly over $6,000. I personally don’t think it’s possible to legislate stupidity, but I’m happy to amend that opinion in this case.

Anyway, did you notice something? This is what I took from that anecdote: Marshall was fined more for promoting his cause (mental illness) than Green-Beckham was for promoting his (this dude). But that’s not the point. The point is that the NFL has exercised hypocrisy over the past few years when it comes to players and their charitable causes. It shouldn’t be a fine for players like Brandon Marshall who only wish to express support for their causes in their choice of footwear. In essence, “My Cause, My Cleats” should be the NFL’s policy, not just a one-week promotion.

And that brings us back to Elliott. While the league did the right thing when it comes to his incident, that does not fix the league’s mistakes in past years. While it was the right decision, the NFL now has to explain to some of its other players why their actions were finable offenses and his weren’t. Based on precedent, the league should have fined Elliott. Thank God they did not make their ruling based on precedent.

Here’s one final example. Every October, the NFL forces all of its players to wear some pink article of clothing in an incredibly showy and somewhat gratuitous display of breast cancer “awareness”. In fact, the league is so all-in on this cause that much of the memorabilia is sold in the NFL shop on the league’s website. This sends the message that breast cancer is important… but only in the month of October. I’m not saying that breast cancer isn’t an incredibly important cause that should be addressed and honored. What I am saying is that the league should allow players to honor that cause all year long and not shut down their efforts, just like they did to DeAngelo Williams.

Hopefully, in light of the Kettle Hop Heard ‘Round the World, the NFL can re-examine its policies in regard to letting players express themselves and support their own causes.

Unfortunately, something tells me that’s not going to happen.

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