Pro Football Talk is reporting that Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco is planning on honoring teammate Chris Henry by wearing Henry’s number 15 jersey. Henry, who was on injured reserve, died on Friday at the age of 26 after falling out of a moving vehicle.
The league said that, while Ochocinco can wear number 15 in practice, he will be fined if he does not wear his usual number 85. The players’ union said that it would pay the fine.
This is not a new stance for the NFL. Commemorative patches have been allowed frequently to mark the passing of an indivdual, but these must be preapproved for the entire team, rather than for an individual or group of players. The Bengals plan to wear an approved “15” patch on their jerseys.
Being fined would be inevitable, but, should Ochocinco enter the field wearing number 15, could he be excluded from playing?
The rulebook does not address whether a change in uniform number is disallowed within the context of game administration. In 2007, previous to Ochocinco’s legal name change from Chad Johnson, he wore a uniform with a removable flap with OCHO CINCO covering C. JOHNSON. The league fined him $5,000. He did not draw a flag for an altered uniform, because he removed the flap prior to entering the game.
The rulebook addresses jersey numbers in the context of position-specific numbering only in Rule 5, Article 2. Since Henry was a wide receiver, Ochocinco would still be in compliance. But, an overarching rule could be applied to Ochocinco:
5–4–8. Throughout the period on game-day that a player is visible to the stadium and television audience (including in pregame warm-ups, in the bench area, and during postgame interviews in the locker room or on the field), players are prohibited from wearing, displaying, or otherwise conveying personal messages either in writing or illustration, unless such message has been approved in advance by the League office. Items … to honor or commemorate individuals, such as helmet decals, and arm bands and jersey patches on players’ uniforms, are prohibited unless approved in advance by the League office. All such items must relate to team or League events or personages.
And, if the league chooses to do so, it could advise its officials to be aware and enforce this section accordingly. The penalties that can be enforced:
(a) For violation of this Section 4 discovered during pregame warmups or at other times prior to the game, player will be advised to make appropriate correction; if violation is not corrected, player will not be permitted to enter the game.
(b) For violation of this Section 4 discovered while player is in game, player will be advised to make appropriate correction at the next change of possession; if violation is not corrected, player will not be permitted to enter the game. …
(c) For repeat violation: Disqualification from game.
(d) For illegal entry or return of a player suspended under this Section 4: Loss of five yards from succeeding spot and removal until properly equipped after one down.
(e) For violation of this Section 4 detected in the bench area: Player and head coach will be asked to remove the objectionable item, properly equip the player, or otherwise correct the violation. The involved player or players will be disqualified from the game if correction is not made promptly.
According to Football-refs.com, Carl Cheffers’ crew is officiating the game against the Chargers.
So, yes, the league could do something. But will they in the wake of a team and fans who are grieving. Likely, we will see a substantial fine levied on Ochocinco, but no in-game discipline.