The heartfelt proposal (later rescinded) by Chad Ochocinco to wear the jersey number of fallen teammate Chris Henry was met with no such sentimentality from the NFL. In fact, Ochocinco was given strict instructions from the league not to do so, for which he relented on the plan. The stonewalling of this seemingly sincere tribute is an example of the "me vs. we" push and pull that exists between the NFL and its players on a weekly basis.
The NFL has become the most successful sports venture in history in large part due to being built around an egalitarian league-first mentality. The mantra of the league is that the power of the shield (the NFL logo) is paramount and supersedes the brand of any other team, or certainly any other player. Indeed, the strength of the league is derived from the collective spirit of teams sharing the most revenues of any major sports league.
However, the "league first, individuals second" mentality tends to get a bit messy with characters such as Ochocinco. He and many others like him are brands unto themselves, promoting their brand in unique and interesting ways that don't necessarily mesh with the corporate bent of the league office. Whether it involves clever antics following scoring a touchdown, running his own news and information network, or the more sentimental wearing of a deceased friend's jersey, Ochocinco attracts attention and is very strategic in building his brand.
His team, the Bengals and the league, however, know that while Ochocinco is building his own brand, he is also marketing theirs. While we may rail about his self-serving and attention-seeking behavior -- which I have often done -- we still want to see it. How many of us feel disappointed when we see a highlight of one of these players scoring a touchdown that is not followed by an entertaining dance or celebration?
This is the contradiction of the "look-at-me" players like Ochocinco and others. While team and league officials shake their head at his antics, they -- in their private moments -- are happy that these players are on their rosters, bringing attention and the interest of casual fans to their product. Certainly, when Bengals officials socialize with their friends, do you think the subject is about blocking schemes? It probably is often about Chad and either "Did you see what he did?" or "What do you think he'll do next?"
An area that will continue to be at the forefront of where the individuality of players meets the collective good of the league is Twitter. The NFL instituted a Twitter policy prior to the season but it is directed at competitive issues such as tweeting before, during and right after games. The league -- perhaps on advice of counsel -- does not legislate what how a player expresses himself to his legions of followers. We will probably continue to see players' individual remarks/comments/observations bump up against the league interest in muting some expression.
As a collective business about shared interests and propping up the weakest link, the NFL wants players to care more about the name of the team than the name (or number) on the back of the jersey. The NFL has been successful having uniformity in everything, especially in the uniforms, fining for shoe color to sock length to untucked jerseys. However, the league wants some individuality as well as individuals market the league, especially individuals like Ochocinco, or for last week, Quince (15 for Chris Henry's number).
It is interesting that Ochocinco, once lumped in with Terrell Owens and other malingerers that were selfish and boorish, has become somewhat of a fan and media favorite. He is still the player who complains about his contract on an annual basis, flaunts the rules and regulations of the league and engages in much "look-at-me" behavior such as running a race against a horse. However, he has strategically and cleverly built a nice brand, aided by the recent success of the Bengals and his genuine suffering for the loss of a friend last week. Maybe the name change from Johnson to Ochocinco has helped the image.
Ochocinco perfectly illustrates the anxious relationship between the NFL and its players, wanting them to be the marketable commodities yet not overly individualistic in their expression. Ochocinco can be a delight to watch but can also upset the natural order of sameness the league so desires.