This season, Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith added to his jersey nameplate the suffix "Sr." He did this to acknowledge his third son, also named Steve, born this past July. It seems an admirable and harmless enough action. Under NFL rules, however, the play should have been disallowed.
Sure, seeing that "Sr." on Smith's back immediately brought about fatherly feelings in me. It did so not only because of Mr. Smith's fatherly reason for the addition, but also because of Mr. Smith's jersey itself. You see, for years my sons and I have enjoyed a little game in which we playfully rate the best sports jerseys we see people wearing and declare a momentary winner. "Best" might be an obscure or surprising player, such as when we were at Walt Disney World in 2012 and saw a man wearing a Steelers Mewelde Moore jersey. Are you kidding me? "Best" might also be a unique or long name, like when, on the same Disney trip, we simultaneously spotted a young boy sporting a Seahawks jersey with "Houshmandzadeh" connecting his shoulders. Cha-ching! We do this everywhere we go, sharing a subtle wink or a giddy fist bump when a "good one" catches our eyes.
Nameplate oddities like suffixes, hyphens (Giants' Jason Pierre-Paul) and apostrophes (Chargers' Manti Te'o) can make for unique, eye-catching jersey backs. Robert Griffin III with his "III" suffix was the NFL's best-selling jersey in 2012 and remains a top-20 seller in 2014. However, as my sons know, suffixes such as "III," "Jr." and "Sr." — albeit family inspired — are disqualifiers from our lighthearted family contest. They simply do not belong.
Rule 5, Section 4, Article 2(b) of the 2013 Official NFL Playing Rules states, "Surnames of players in letters a minimum of 2 ½ inches high must be affixed to the exterior of jerseys across the upper back above the numerals; nicknames are prohibited."
Yup, surnames. There's no mention of suffixes — such as "III," "Jr." and "Sr." — because they are not really part of players' surnames. To the contrary, such suffixes relate specifically to players' first names. Robert Griffin III is Robert III, not Griffin III, in as much as his grandfather and father were named Robert Griffin and Robert Griffin, Jr. respectively. The "III" suffix is a strong and wonderful family tribute, to be sure, but should it be represented on Mr. Griffin's jersey? The same may apply to Steve Smith and that newly added "Sr." suffix. The lad and the dad are Stevonne Jr. and Stevonne Sr., respectively, and both are, of course, Smiths. However, there simply is no Smith Sr. Should the NFL have denied Mr. Smith's request, which was made even before his son was born? It's hardly the league's chief concern, but yeah, under its express surname rule, the NFL probably should have.
Bart Oates, a three-time Super Bowl champion with the Giants and 49ers, earned his law degree from Seton Hall University while he was an active player. Would the NFL have allowed him to amend his jersey to read "Oates J.D." on the back? That suffix is every bit as related to his surname — well, unrelated — as "III" and "Sr." are to Messrs. Griffin's and Smith's surnames.
Cal Ripken Jr. merely wore "Ripken" on his Orioles jersey, even when his father, Cal Sr., was his coach and manager. Ken Griffey Jr., while actually nicknamed "Junior," only wore "Griffey" on his Mariners, Reds and White Sox jerseys, including when his father, Ken Sr., was his Mariners teammate. No suffixes. (Note: Neither father wore a "Sr." suffix, either.)
A player's surname on the back of his NFL jersey is, in and of itself, a celebration of his family and rightfully a source of great pride. But as much as added suffixes might enhance my father-son jersey spotting game and add to our can't-put-a-price-on-it father and son bonding, they are simply outside the NFL's written (and my un-written) playing rules.
But hey, I'll pick up the penalty flag and look the other way. The NFL has more important things on its to-do list right now, for sure. I'll just keep on loving the game with my sons, all the while being on the lookout for a Patriots Michael Hoomanawanui jersey.
William J. Fishkin is an attorney and music licensing consultant in South Orange, NJ. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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