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Thursday, March 27, 2008
Hair today, gone tomorrow?

By Seth Wickersham
ESPN The Magazine

Talk about an endless saga: Football is continuing its longtime battle against hair. Next week at the owners meetings in Palm Beach, Fla., the league's competition committee will mull over a rule that would bar players from wearing long hair that obscures the nameplates on their jersey backs. Chiefs president Carl Peterson, whose clean, sophisticated, gelled 'do has never come under such fire -- although it certainly would catch -- reportedly proposed this regulation. If it's enacted, players like Troy Polamalu, Steven Jackson, Al Harris, Larry Fitzgerald, Rashean Mathis and others whose nameplates we can't see would have to either snip it or stuff it.

Peterson is currently on the road scouting for the draft and is unavailable for comment, according to the Chiefs. But if this suggestion is approved, long hair would be classified as a uniform violation -- you know, like wrong-colored shoes, socks, wristbands or helmet decals.

By that logic, it's amazing that hair isn't already a violation, especially after the 2003 Ricky (Williams) Rule, which had been named for the dreaded-up tailback, declared that grabbing locks was fair game for tackling.

Troy Polamalu
Steelers safety Troy Polamalu hasn't cut his hair in eight years.
Says Seahawks defensive end Patrick Kerney: "I'm just glad it wasn't an issue in 2001 when I had a mullet."

Everyone knows how the NFL takes to players tinkering with their uniforms: Not well. So it's not surprising that hair would fall into this category. Letting the locks grow is all about self-expression. Football isn't. Many believe what Ravens nose tackle Kelly Gregg says, "Only the cheerleaders should have long hair."

Judging by football's history, coaches would prefer every player have a buzz cut like Johnny Unitas. And it wasn't just professional ball. A former all-Big Ten cornerback named Rick Telander wasn't allowed to grow out his hair in the early '70s because his coach, Alex Agase, wouldn't stand for it. "You had to make a choice," says Telander, now a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. "Was I going to wear my hair long or was I going to play sports?"

He chose sports but let his locks loose after graduating. That didn't go over well with Agase, who saw Telander one day and yanked a handful, telling him to get it cut. The impact of that moment eventually had to be sorted out in the pages of Sports Illustrated. It was clear that control usurped fashion. And it still does, even though the collective bargaining agreement states that players cannot be punished for long hair.

"There has to be a limit to what they can control," says Bengals linebacker Dhani Jones. "Next, it'll be how long your fingernails can be or how white your teeth are."

I've talked to Polamalu about his hair. The Steelers safety hasn't had it cut since 2000 and wears it long because he celebrates his Samoan roots. Polamalu doesn't care that he has to purchase Aveda in bulk, and he isn't itching for a barber. Neither is Jackson, who has barely touched his dreads since high school. Considering the Rams tailback is such an individualist that he has yet to wear the exact same uniform twice -- he always rotates colors of wristbands, mouthpieces, socks, and sleeves -- he'll hate Peterson's idea. Lots of players will.

More on Hairy Issue
NFL owners will consider a proposal to ban players from having hair flow from their helmets below their names on the back of their jerseys.
• Clayton: Owners to look at hair length
• Zoom Gallery: Wild NFL hair
• Hashmarks: League out of touch
• Granderson: No fun league
• What do you think?

"I used to have long hair," says Packers tailback Ryan Grant. "It's someone's right, and for some, it's part of their religion or culture."

But this rule isn't being pitched in terms of uniformity or control. It's being sold as a safety precaution. Remember in 2006, when Kansas City tailback Larry Johnson pulled down Polamalu by his hair after an interception? Johnson says now, "I have no problem doing it again to anyone else."

Lots of players would, which is why the NFL needs to do something about it. But not what's on the table. The league needs a few guys with long hair for one reason: It's cool. Jackson looks cool breaking off 40-yard runs with his dreads bopping. Polamalu looks cool hunting like a lion. Harris looks cool with his ropes dancing as he returns an interception. "I get my strength from my hair," Harris says.

Who cares if fans can't see the nameplates? Everyone knows them already. Personalities have that effect.

Let's hope the competition committee vetoes the current proposal and instead makes a simple choice: Undo the Ricky Rule. Make it illegal to use hair as a means to tackle. If players know better than to horse collar or grab face masks, they can avoid dreads.

"That would work," Harris says. "Nobody has ever gotten hurt from having their hair pulled."

Exactly. So here's to hoping nobody gets clipped.

Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com.