National Football League is contemplating a rule that would forbid the likes of Troy Polamalu of Pittsburgh, Al Harris of Green Bay and Mike McKenzie of New Orleans from wearing long hair on the field.
Professional players are constrained in what they can wear on and off the field. They are also forbidden certain acts of celebration in the end zone. These restrictions have been accepted by the players but this proposed rule was scorned this morning by Kyle Turley, a former player. A larger protest might follow.
Certainly, this sort of constraint suggests an anxiety on the part of the owners, a wish to control the "product" on the field, and protect the "brand" as it it were their’s alone. It also encourages the widespread suspicion that professional football secretly conforms to the Roman gladiator model, the one that says that the League owns players…until it sacrifices them for its own advancement. In this scheme, the individuality of the players couldn’t matter less. It is all about the League, it is exclusively about the League.
But there is another way to look at this. Daniel Bell proposed a distinction between instrumental individualism and expressive individualism. The former encourages the individual to define himself according to his utility. It enables this instrumentality. The latter encourage the individual to define himself according to his individuality. It promotes his self expression.
There is a lasting tension between these two forces in American culture. There are moments when instrumentality has the upper hand. There are moments when expressiveness wins out. But notice that these two forces exist always in a state of opposition. It is never ok to dial one or the other out of existence altogether. And that appears to be precisely what the NFL is on the verge of doing. Hair was the last medium of self expression. And even this is now at risk.
I am speaking today at the PSFK event. My theme is "intellectual appliances," the ideas that help us think. Bell’s distinction between expressive and individual individualism and its application here to NFL policy will serve as an example. But, listen, if you are reading this while sitting in the audience of the The Art Directors’ Club, I have a request. Look up. Listen to the guy on the stage. Stop reading this. Please.