n October 25, Pittsburgh Steelers’ cornerback William Gay wore a pair of purple cleats with his black and gold uniform—committing both a fashion faux pas and an NFL uniform violation that resulted in a $5,787 fine from the league.
It was a brilliant play.
Bringing attention to October’s Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Gay donned his purple shoes to raise awareness of domestic and gender-based violence in memory of his mother, who was shot and killed by her husband when Gay was just seven years old. While he could have simply made a direct donation to a domestic violence charity, he purposefully challenged the NFL’s policy of fining players for awareness-related uniform infractions and, as a result, generated more press and discussion for the cause than a quiet donation ever would have.
Gay is also questioning how the league spends the money it collects from fining players. Following his payout, Gay requested that the league donate the money to a charity that supports domestic violence prevention and response, but the league is remaining firm in its policy for how fines are spent.
According to the NFL, all fines go to either the NFL Player Care Foundation—which provides medical, emotional, and financial assistance to retired NFL players—or the Gene Upshaw Players Association’s Player Assistance Trust, a fund that helps players’ families in a crisis. Basically, the fines go back into the NFL to offer additional help to those who receive, or at least have received in the past, a salary generous enough to be able to unflinchingly drop $5,787 for wearing the “wrong” shoes.
We agree with Gay that this money could be better spent.
Placed into the hands of a domestic violence charity, (such as the House of Ruth in Baltimore where we found information to calculate these numbers), Gay’s $5,787 donation could provide:
- Coverage for 289 domestic violence hotline crisis calls so victims and survivors can get emotional support, safety planning and linked to services. (Last year the House of Ruth hotline recorded 4,510 calls.)
- Almost 6 weeks of meals for women and children staying in a domestic violence shelter.
- 57 group sessions for abusive men to learn about equality, power and control and the aspects of a healthy relationship.
- Legal representation and accompaniment for 69 victims of domestic violence.
- 86 sessions of group therapy for children – like Gay was, who deserve adequate and professional care and support to help them overcome terrible circumstances.
Granted, last fall the NFL pledged to give “multiple millions over multiple years” to benefit the Austin, TX-based National Domestic Violence Hotline (NDVH), which fielded 377,968 contacts in 2014. According to a January article in The Austin Chronicle, the donations (the amount of which has not been made public) have been incredibly helpful—but the need continues to increase. NDVH CEO Katie Ray-Jones stated, “After the Chris Brown-Rihanna incident [in 2009], when Oprah Winfrey had talked about it on her show, we saw huge spikes. The number of calls never goes back to the original level.”
That means all this “awareness” we hear about is actually working, at least by encouraging more survivors to seek help. But awareness for awareness’ sake is not what those of us in the domestic and gender-based violence movement are working toward. What we want is an end to all forms of violence—and that will take not only awareness, but action. So we applaud the bold move Gay made to raise awareness of domestic violence and its traumatic effects on both victims and survivors, and we commend him as one of the few male champions in the call to end violence.
If only his teammates would have followed his lead and run the play with Gay. If only the NFL could boast an entire league of male allies engaged in the struggle to end domestic and gender-based violence, willing to run strategic plays to raise awareness and take action—even if that means paying a fine (or two, or six).
Interestingly, the NFL has taken significant steps to enhance player safety in recent years. They realize when a problem goes unaddressed that it will not disappear on its own. Domestic violence, unaddressed, will continue to claim the lives of people like Gay’s beloved mother.
We call upon the NFL to change the game for those who don’t have a referee to protect them. But until that happens, all of us should be wearing purple shoes.