'I Can't Breathe' and the Not-So Protected Speech of Professional Athletes

Photographer: Hector Amezcua/Sacramento Bee via Getty Images

Black t-shirts emblazoned with three words across the chest—“I Can’t Breathe”—have become common warm-up attire in the National Basketball Association over the past week. The shirts refer to the last words uttered by Eric Garner, the unarmed man who died after being put in an apparent choke hold by a New York City police officer in July. The New York Times laid out in detail how the t-shirts spread in the days after a grand jury decided not to indict the officer, starting with the wearing of one by Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose and proceeding two days later to their pregame use at a contest between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Brooklyn Nets, with British royalty in attendance.

As players continue to don the shirts, NBA commissioner Adam Silver has decided, for now, to look the other way. “I respect Derrick Rose and all of our players for voicing their personal views on important issues, but my preference would be for players to abide by our on-court attire rules,” Silver told Yahoo! Sports on Monday. Like athletes in all the major U.S. sports leagues, NBA players agree to narrow controls over their clothing while on the job. The dress code restrictions in the collective bargaining agreements of the NBA, National Football League, and Major League Baseball all call for unaltered, team-issued apparel while on the court or field, with footwear as the only expression of personal choice allowed.

To varying degrees, the leagues control pre- and post-game attire, as well as haircuts, tattoos, and jewelry. The rules exist to protect the leagues’ apparel sponsors (“I can’t breathe” shirts displaced official Adidas warm-ups) and to help them control their images. Still, there are exceptions to the rules. Below, a sampling of what players in the NBA, NFL, and MLB have—and have not—gotten away with:

Beats by Dre headphones:

Photographer: Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers via Getty Images

The NFL rulebook (PDF) restricts players for 90 minutes after the end of a game from “wearing, displaying, or orally promoting equipment, apparel, or other items that carry commercial names or logos of companies in any televised interview on Club premises,” without prior approval. After audio equipment maker Bose became the official NFL supplier this past spring, the league fined San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick $10,000 for wearing rival Beats by Dre headphones in the locker room. The move backfired when players began sharing photos of themselves in the forbidden headgear, generating millions of dollars in free publicity for Apple-owned Beats.

Result: Not OK. Lesson: The NFL can’t get out of its own way.

“Pay Me Rick”

Source: Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle

In 2009, Dunta Robinson, then a cornerback for the Houston Texans, decided to use his cleats to ask the team’s general manager Rick Smith for a bigger contract. The team was not amused and fined Robinson $25,000.

Result: Not OK. Lesson: Demanding money is best done in private.

“[Expletive]”

Source: Getty Images

In 2012, Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar earned a three-game suspension, without pay, for an anti-gay slur printed in his eye black.

Result: Not OK. Lesson: Don’t be a bigot.

Adidas logo

Photographer: Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Last year, Knicks guard Iman Shumpert had the Adidas logo shaved into his head below an impressive high-top fade. The NBA prohibits a player from displaying a logo “on his body, in his hair, or otherwise,” and asked Shumpert to remove it. The league did not say whether it fined Shumpert.

Result: Not OK. Lesson: Not even the official apparel provider gets special treatment.

“RIP O.T #18”

Photographer: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

During game six of this year’s World Series, Kansas City Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura added to his hat a memorial to his friend Oscar Taveras, the St. Louis Cardinals outfielder who had died in a car accident earlier in the week. Ventura dominated, forcing a game seven, and the hat was sent to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Result: OK. Lesson: MLB has a heart.

9/11 remembrance

Source: Yahoo

At the 10th anniversary of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Chicago Bears linebacker Lance Briggs shared his intention to wear special cleats and gloves marking the anniversary. The league decided to ease the rules, as long as gear was from NFL licensees.

Result: OK. Lesson: The NFL sometimes gets out of its own way.

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