Are the NBA’s Social Justice Jerseys Equivalent to the NFL’s Banned Eye Black Messages?

The current push for social justice in America is nothing new. But the pressure of the pandemic has inspired more athletes to say, “Enough is enough.” The NBA strike grew from players’ need to hit pause. They made a concerted effort to support social justice causes, as well as use NBA arenas and commercial time to raise awareness for voting. This recalls a different era when NFL players used their eye black for self-expression.

Why the NFL decided to ban eye black messages

Most NFL players have worn eye black at some point. Purportedly, the black strips absorb some light before it hits the player’s eyes, reducing glare. Business Insider reports that there’s no definitive research proving this works. But hey, it looks cool, and it’s a fairly non-committal way to get an edge that may or may not actually be there.

Some players added messages to their eye black. Shoutouts to friends, family, or meaningful phrases were common. The practice gained a huge boost in popularity when former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow put Bible verses on his. The Christian Science Monitor reports many of these were related to perseverance.

The NCAA and NFL banned the practice, despite the largely positive attention. Their reasoning, according to the Florida Times-Union, was about adherence to stringent, professional uniform standards. While there was some pushback among players, claiming it was a free speech issue, employers are within their legal rights to enforce particular dress codes. The ruling stands to this day, including for the 2020 season.

How the NBA handled this key moment in history

The eye black messages haven’t come back, but the ability for players to send personal messages has, in a sense. The NBA worked with the Player’s Association to come up with a list of pre-approved phrases players could apply to their jerseys. It has a similar effect as the eye black messages, with one major problem: Players don’t have the freedom to add any new, personal messages to the list.

Even with this system in place, players managed to run afoul of the dress code in trying to get their personal statements across. Notably, Jimmy Butler was forced to change his jersey mid-game. He violated the rules by having no statement, nor his name, visible. He said his message was that he is, first and foremost, a black man — not an NBA superstar. The NBA wasn’t having it, so he ended up donning a jersey that had his famous name on it.

Should eye black messages come back in the NFL?


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This could be an appropriate time for the NFL to roll back their 2010 ban of eye black messages. It’s a touchy time, to be sure, but clearly one where many self-expression battles are being won. And if the first game of the season was any indication, NFL players need to find new ways to reach out to fans during these tense times.

The NFL could be touchy on this topic, given ratings were down as the season kicked into gear. That’s especially notable given that, according to The Score, other sports returning from pandemic breaks saw huge surges in viewership year-over-year. But players don’t appear to be in a state of wanting to be seen simply as mindless performers.

While another strike might not be on the horizon, allowing more social justice expressions could be the best way to prevent one from fomenting.