All The Right Moves
November 29, 2016
What Are We Doing Out Here?
December 7, 2016

Throughout his 11-year career, Brandon Marshall has been known for his hands.

He ranks among the top-25 receivers in NFL history in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches, and a year ago he set new team records in all three of those categories. On Monday night, though, the outspoken wide receiver for the New York Jets made his boldest statement with his feet.

Marshall laced up a unique pair of cleats for the Jets’ Week 13 game against Indianapolis. The cleats were green, but not the simulated grass green of the synthetic turf carpeting MetLife Stadium nor the hunter green of the Jets jerseys and socks. They weren’t quite lime green; more like something you’d find on a pack of spearmint gum or maybe in a box of 64 crayons, labeled either as green-yellow or yellow-green, as if there’s really a difference.

Officially, they were Crazy Stigma Green, a color created by Project375, an organization Marshall co-founded after being diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder back in 2010. The cleats were decorated in a display of letters arranged in indecipherable patterns to look like a computer programmer’s monitor. In fact, Marshall called them “the Matrix” in his Instagram feed, explaining that the letters represented the “Codes to Mental Health statistics.”

Which makes perfect sense. Eradicating the stigma surrounding mental health issues and providing support for the millions of people suffering from a mental illness is the stated mission of Project375. And spreading awareness was exactly the point behind Marshall’s impossible-to-ignore footwear, with the 375 emblazoned on the outside of one of the Under Armour shoes and #MindOverMatter on the other.

Marshall wasn’t the only player dressed to deliver a message. Several of his teammates wore the 375-branded cleats to show their support, and plenty of players on both teams sported specially designed shoes as part of a league-wide movement: #MyCauseMyCleats.

NFL games traditionally haven’t exactly a place where individual expression is accepted or even allowed. A year ago, two Pittsburgh players were fined for making unsanctioned statements with their accessories: DeAngelo Williams was flagged for illegal use of eye black (his message “Find the Cure” promoted breast cancer awareness) while William Gay was penalized for wearing purple cleats (to raise awareness of domestic violence). Both players had lost their mothers – Williams’ to breast cancer, Gay’s to domestic violence – and yet the National Football League wouldn’t condone these violations to its unyielding uniform policy.

Which is why this week represented such a dramatic and significant departure from precedent for the NFL. The league lifted its ban against personalizing gear, and 500+ players wore cleats customized to carry messages supporting a cause or charity of their choosing. None but Marshall’s came in Crazy Stigma Green, but all were evocative and effective in their own fashion.

Some advocated for familiar national organizations – the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Ronald McDonald House Charities, the American Heart Association. Others opted for less prominent programs, like local hospitals or personal projects.

Like Marshall’s, Denver linebacker Von Miller’s cleats featured strands of letters, only his represented an eye chart. Miller created his foundation, Von’s Vision, to provide access to eye care and corrective eyewear to lower-income Denver-area kids so they can perform better in school.

Washington tight end Vernon Davis designed his to feature colorful splotches and spent paint tubes. The Vernon Davis Foundation for the Arts exists to provide art education opportunities and art appreciation programs to students from disadvantaged situations.

Eric Berry’s cleats were purple for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (a disease he was diagnosed with in 2014 and overcame). Jameis Winston’s were blue for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

Mike Evans and several other players donned gold cleats to spread the word about RISE: the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality, an organization created by Miami Dolphins owner, Stephen Ross, to help improve race relations through sports.

The result was a veritable color wheel of causes, many of which were taking their first steps onto a national stage and, perhaps, into a national conversation.

The designs were so dynamic and the response so enthusiastic, there already is talk that the NFL might turn #MyCleatsMyCause into an annual event. And why not? Television ratings may be down for football this season, but there remains no platform in the sports world more visible or viable than an NFL game.

Through the campaign, football players were afforded the rare opportunity to stand for something that matters to them, with the hope that it might matter to us, too. It created a chance for football fans (who tend to root for the names on the front of the jerseys) and fantasy football fans (who root for the names on the back) to coalesce around the names and causes on the sides of someone’s cleats.

The Shield deserves to be celebrated (not excessively, of course; that remains a penalty) this week for its open-mindedness and its willingness to take a vital step in the direction of social consciousness. And the legion of players who took that step in their designer cleats deserve kudos as well.

For one week, at least, football was just as much about the foot as it was about the ball.

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