NFL and American individualism

Polamalu_si_cover 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.

3 thoughts on “NFL and American individualism

  1. The Owner's Manual

    I have often complained about how gross the long hair looks hanging out the back of players’ helmets.

    Players wear uniforms that are dictated by the team/league. In the military, someone with ropes of hair spilling out would be penalized for being ‘out of uniform.’

    That’s why it’s called ‘uniform’ after all. It’s a team sport. Individualism should be reflected in one’s contribution to the team, not one’s appearance on the field.

    Off the field, they can do pretty much anything you and I would do. Considering the millions of dollars these athletes are paid, having to look professional on the field isn’t much to ask.

  2. Abandon Text!

    Americans are by and large “instrumentalists”, then, although they might delude themselves into thinking otherwise. The only reason we pay attention to Troy Polamalu at all is because he can really play ball. His “expressive” hair is rather accidental, a slight differentiator for his personal brand. It’s his instrumental value that provides the bedrock of our interest in him. I doubt he would disagree, either. He might not like the League trying to quash is his personal branding, but he would rather be remembered as a great NFL player than “that long-haired guy.”

    People who try to define themselves by their “expressive” nature — their looks, their tastes, their arbitrary whims — are usually the people who don’t have any instrumental value to speak of, either because they are adolescents who haven’t yet had enough opportunity to distinguish themselves by their achievements, or because they are losers. If expressiveness has utility, because it leads to great art or self-confidence or candor, then we can admire it. Otherwise it’s just trade dress.

    Good luck at the PSFK event. My spies will be in the audience. Say hi to Joanna for me.

  3. Donald A. Coffin

    What’s really instrumental about this proposed rule change is

    1. That it would make tackling a player more difficult (he couldn’t be dragged down by his hair, as happens more often than you’d think).

    2. It could reduce injury risks, as players whose hair is yanked back could lead to neck injuries.

    Or maybe it’s just a ploy to stifle the expression of a minority group which should be stifled anyway (not).

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