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Examining the NFL's uniform rules

We examine a section of the NFL rule book where the league is notoriously strict.

Christian Petersen

The National Football League is a multi-billion dollar company, and like most companies, the league enforces a strict uniform policy for its employees. In fact, nine pages of the NFL rule book are dedicated to what is appropriate for players to wear before, during, and after games. If a player is in violation of the rules, they may not be permitted to enter the game or be subject to fines, thereafter.

Prior to the start of the 2014 season, the NFL increased the fines associated with the league's uniform and equipment policy, in hopes that the players would shy away from committing a violation. Fines that used to have a minimum penalty of $5,250 and a maximum of $15,000 can now carry a maximum payment of $100,000.

The number one reason for the league to implement such a strict uniform and equipment policy is to protect itself. With the NFL contractually obligated to a number of sponsors, rules are set in place to prevent players from wearing the logos and merchandise of their sponsors' competitors. Due to the league's current contract with Nike, which runs through the end of the 2016 season, players donning visible markings from competing apparel companies would be subject to discipline.

The origins of the NFL's uniform policy can be traced back to when the NFL implemented its numbering system in 1973. According to Rule 5, Section 1, Article 2, all numerals must be by playing position, as follows:

- quarterbacks, punters, and placekickers: 1-19;

- running backs and defensive backs: 20-49;

- centers: 50-59 or, when those are unavailable, 60-79;

- offensive guards and tackles: 60-79;

- wide receivers: 10-19 and 80-89;

- tight ends: 80-89 or, when those are unavailable, 40-49;

- defensive ends, guards, and tackles: 60-79 and 90-99;

- linebackers: 50-59 and 90-99.

Two major changes have since been made to this rule, and only to make up for the lack of numbers associated with a specific position. In 1984, the NFL allowed defensive lineman and linebackers to wear numbers 90-99, as more teams were choosing to employ a base 3-4 defense. Previously, linebackers were only allowed to wear numbers 50-59.

The other change occurred in 2004, when several-high profile receivers were having their numbers retired by their respective teams. In response, the NFL allowed wide receivers to wear numbers 10-19, in addition to the previous 80-89. One notable wide receiver, Keyshawn Johnson, wore 19 prior to this rule change, willingly paid the fines associated with his decision each week.

Having to adjust the rules in the past, the league now discourages teams from retiring jersey numbers to avoid running out of numbers for each position. Few teams actually follow the NFL's suggestion, including the Dallas Cowboys, Oakland Raiders, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Washington Redskins.

As a team that has always looked to gain a competitive advantage, it's surprising that the Raiders have followed the NFL's advice. Until 1981, when it was banned by the league, several Raiders players used Stickum, an adhesive to help grip the football. In fact, cornerback Lester Hayes lathered the substance on his arms and uniform, intercepting 18 passes as the Raiders went on to win Super Bowl XV. Hayes was also named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year that season, but failed to record more than four interceptions in the subsequent seasons after the NFL implemented "Lester Hayes rule".

In 2012, the San Diego Chargers were under investigation for the use of an adhesive substance on towels, but were ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing. Even so, the NFL fined the team $20,000 for failure to immediately hand the towels over to an official.

Even before the NFL increased the penalties associated with a violation, breaking the dress code didn't come cheap. Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardywho has been in the headlines for other reasons, was informed that he would be fined for wearing his signature face paint this season. Hardy has donned the "Kraken" face paint since 2012, but a league spokesman told that they could not confirm whether or not Hardy was fined in the past. If Hardy had been previously fined for his actions, the then-league minimum for such a violation carried a minimum fine of $7,500, as is the case for any foreign substances on a player's body or uniform.'s David Newton pointed out an image of the league's uniform code in the Carolina locker room, however, every NFL locker room has had a poster outlining what is illegal for decades. In fact, game programs as far back as the early '90s used to have the same diagram detailing uniform and equipment standards, as well as a page copied directly from the NFL rule book.

As far as I can tell, the rules from that program essentially seem in place today, although there have been additions since. The locker room poster includes images outlining the violation, as well a summary of Rule 5, Section 4, Articles 1-9, including:

- Players are not permitted to wear bandanas, stockings, or other unapproved headwear anywhere on the field during pregame, game, or postgame periods, even if such items are under the helmet.

- Jersey must cover all pads and other protective equipment worn on the torso and upper arms.

- The jersey must remain tucked into the uniform pants throughout the game.

- Towels are limited to a maximum of four inches wide and 12 inches long and must be tucked into the front waist of the pants.

- Pants must be worn over the entire knee.

- The exterior stocking must be a one-piece unit solid white from the top of the shoe to the mid-point of the lower leg, with approved team color or colors from that midpoint to the top of the stocking.

- Tape worn over footwear must be the same color as the dominant color of the shoe.

Other violations listed in Newton's report from the Carolina locker room include unbuckled chin straps, which carries a league minimum fine of $7,500, and the aforementioned face paint.

The NFL places these posters near the entrance/exit of the locker room, so that players are aware of their possible violations before they step on the field. Rule 5, Section 4, Article 9 states that "players must present a professional and appropriate appearance while before the public on gameday."

"If any violations are discovered during pregame warmups, officials will advise the player to make the appropriate correction, and if the violation is not corrected, that player will be unable to enter the game."

This section of the rule book is rarely enforced, and instead, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and his office will "subsequently impose disciplinary action on the involved player, up to and including suspension from the team's next game."

One misconception of the NFL uniform rules, however, is that teams are limited to one helmet throughout the season.

"Our Head, Neck, and Spine Committee, chaired by Dr. Hunt Batjer and Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, and the Player Safety Advisory Panel, chaired by John Madden and Ronnie Lott, have recommended that players no longer wear different helmets as part of a ‘Throwback’ or ‘Third’ uniform," the league office told Pro Football Talk. "Our office supports this change and has reviewed it with the chairman of our Health and Safety ownership committee, Dr. John York, who concurs with this recommendation."

The league safety committee simply suggested that players wear one helmet the entire season to help prevent concussions that can occur when helmets are not properly fitted.

In reality, the NFL has a number of reasons to implement its uniform policy, from - but not limited to - the safety of its players and to protect its sponsors' interests. Should players continue to wear unapproved apparel, as San Francisco 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree did against the Cowboys, expect that player to donate an hefty amount of money to the charity of his choice.