Expression in Sports: When is Enough, Enough?

The past week in sports was a tough one. Sure my hometown Dallas Mavericks are the hottest team in basketball, spring training began, CMS won SCIAC in Men's Basketball, the NHL trade deadline made history, the uncapped NFL era was ushered in, and the New Jersey Nets won two games(!). Yet it still seems difficult to get rid of the bad taste left from Sunday. With just twenty-five ticks left, on Zach Parise's beautiful goal off of a rebound, US Hockey tied our neighbors to the north in the gold medal game for men's hockey only to be outlasted by the Canadians in overtime . I think I am finally coming out of my gold-medal-game coma, but it is probably only because of a certain vandal. Sidney Crosby's stick and gloves "went missing" after the celebration-- something tells me an American pulled off this cunning heist. Nothing like stealing priceless memorabilia to avenge a loss. Even if it wasn't a patriot who managed to steal the dreaded Canadian's gear, the Olympics were not a complete loss for the American skaters.

No, I am not talking about the silver lining of the second place medal or even the moral victory of doing better than expected (Team USA was a long shot to medal at all). No. I am talking about how cool USA goaltender Ryan Miller looked in that mask of his. Featuring a tatted and ripped Uncle Sam and a menacing bald eagle, the words "Miller Time" (which, the IOC made him cover up because they claimed it was advertisement) and "Matt Man," a tribute to Miller's cousin Matt Schoals, who died from bone marrow transplant complications in 2007, Miller's mask was easily the coolest of the Olympic masks, with honorable mention to Swiss goaltender Jonas Miller's for looking like someone taped on some pictures printed on computer paper.

Miller, the goaltender for the Buffalo Sabres, is only one of many who seem to be expressing themselves in between the pipes these days. NHL goaltenders tend to have a little more style than their Olympic counterparts...or at least what they lack in style they make up for in...creativity? Most goalies have illustrations related to the team or town in which they play (perhaps this is contractual?), but some are more expressive. Avalanche goaltender and Slovakian Peter Budaj has a Slovakian version of The Simpsons character Ned Flanders on the backside of his mask. Marty Biron’s mask is an odd tribute to Canadian lumberjacks. Antero Nittymaki of the Philidelphia Flyers earned the nickname Frank from former coach Ken Hitchcock after the mobster Frank Nitti--his helmet: Frank Nitti shooting a tommy gun and smoking a cigar. Carolina Hurricane John Grahame displays his love for NASCAR and scantily clad women on his mask. And then there is Kari Lehtonen. One of his masks contains two cartoon characters with swords and a picture of Lil Jon on the back. Another one displays female characters from the video game Final Fantasy X. I mean, really?

Expression is hardly limited to hockey. College football players have recently been in an embroiled battle with NCAA over eye-black expression. Former USC running back and current New Orleans Saint, Reggie Bush, was the first well known eye-black artists. He used to put his area code, 619, in silver ink in his eye-black. Former Florida Gator quarterback, Tim Tebow, displayed biblical quotes under his eyes over the last four seasons.

The NFL, widely dubbed by players as the "No Fun League," has managed to limit player expression. They have cracked down on post-play celebration and any sort of organized display of attention-grabbing not related to things going on the field of play.

This sort of expressive censorship is dangerous, however. Ryan Miller's mask was nearly banned by the IOC. Apparently "Matt Man" was a major point of contention. The NFL would not grant an exception for Chad Ochocinco, who wished to wear the number of Chris Henry, a teammate who passed away this year. Major League Baseball has done a great job finding the right time and place for exceptions to uniform rules, allowing pink bats on Mother's Day and entire teams to wear number 42 on Jackie Robinson Day.

I understand why the NFL does what they do. Most of the time, player expression is not about something important or worth protecting.  Enough is enough. Expression is one thing, but so many players in professional sports have made things about themselves. The team should be above the players, especially considering how much these players are role models for young people.

Editor’s Note: This sports column is a regular feature from “The Nightcap” crew,  made up of Ari Zyskind, Ned Schooler, Nathan Barnett, Dan Campbell, and Kevin Shuai, a group of 5Cers who air a weekly radio talk show on KSPC. You can listen in online at KSPC.org (click “Hear us Online via Live365”) every Monday from 8-10 PM.