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IN 1985, WITH his Bears nearing the end of a 15--1 season, Jim McMahon received a warning, one of the first of its kind from the Pete Rozelle--led NFL. If the quarterback continued wearing Adidas-branded headbands on the field during the playoffs, the league said, he would be fined. McMahon (right), the rebel child of his era, took it under advisement and wore the headband anyway. He was fined $5,000.

In 2007, a little more than a year into Roger Goodell's tenure as commissioner, Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher dared to don a Vitaminwater hat during the expanded Super Bowl media day festivities that would later become a television spectacle for the league's in-house network. His fine: $100,000—or 20 times McMahon's pennance. Less than a decade later, running back Marshawn Lynch was fined the same amount for not speaking to the media enough over a period of two seasons.

This is the NFL Roger Goodell created. Stars are propped up in forums that have been invented entirely by the league, and for the league's own benefit. And if they step outside the bounds of NFL-approved branding and behavior—or abstain altogether—they are dealt harsh punishments for essentially taking ownership of their individual marketability. Even noble gestures—messages for charitable causes written into cleats, honoring a late father by wearing his nickname on eye black—do not escape the hammer of the league office.

Over the last few decades the NFL has striven to effectively manage the public-facing aspects of its players' lives, in large part because of the relative impermanence of players. The average NFL career lasts just three seasons, and the "next man up" mentality, parroted in the face of injuries, is at its root a consequence of the game's violence. The relative anonymity of the journeyman makes controlling the league's image easier.

The model of course makes sense. Team before individual isn't just good (if clichéd) sportsmanship, it's also good business for the long run. And letting a player, say, upset a major sponsor who has paid handsomely for its marketing monopoly—and do it without consequence—is an easy way to lose a major sponsor. But the issue seems to be that the NFL approaches attention as a zero-sum equation. As if a player's attracting too much (unsanctioned) publicity would take away from the league's brand.

It doesn't have to be that way. Individuality and corporate policy can coexist, even if they may conflict. Take the NBA: The league has a rule requiring players to stand during the anthem. It's a policy that seems counter to the culture of today's NBA, where players appear comfortable speaking out, even on political issues. But it's precisely because of this culture that the league gets away with legislating patriotic displays.

In the hoops media universe, there are entire websites devoted to the shoes that players wear, and the league doesn't just allow that form of individual expression, it encourages it. Players who don't speak to media are forgiven, and players aren't fined for writing messages on their shoes. And public relations staffers have less influence over what their athletes do or say.

Not so in the NFL, where players' social media followings were grown during an era when the league office was trying to stamp out the sort of individuality it couldn't manage and perpetuate boilerplate themes of unity. If the NFL could forgo a few hundred thousand dollars in fines and encourage an environment where players are given more freedom to do and say as they please, they might find it easier to mend inevitable divides.

The anthem demonstrations, as much as they are about protesting racial inequality, are also about a rejection of the NFL's measures to legislate individuality. In this environment of awakening and rebellion, don't expect the players to go quietly.



Times the NFL has fined a player for a uniform or equipment violation (including personal messages) during Goodell's tenure.