What it’s like to enforce the NFL’s dress code

About an hour before kickoff of a Los Angeles Rams game five years ago, Mike Karney braced for an uncomfortable conversation. It was Karney’s job to warn a Rams defensive back that the NFL didn’t approve of the trendy Kanye West-designed cleats the defender was wearing.

“You need to take those off,” Karney gently told the player, gesturing at the pair of newly released Yeezys on his feet. The NFL at the time banned players from wearing the cleats because their marled colorways and dual-colored laces violated the league’s dress code.

When the Rams player insisted that he didn’t care how much money the NFL fined him, Karney told him that he didn’t understand the ramifications. “They’re not just going to fine you,” Karney explained. “They’re not going to let you play.”

“He gave me this mean mug look and mother-effed me,” Karney, a former two-time Pro Bowl fullback, told Yahoo Sports. “I think he just wanted to get in some parting words to make himself feel better before he changed his cleats.”

Karney is one of 64 uniform inspectors who proudly put the “No Fun” in the so-called “No Fun League” by identifying players and coaches who stray from the NFL’s rigid dress code. Former players who once scanned the field for unmarked receivers or blitzing linebackers now search for untucked shirts, unsanctioned logos, rogue socks and accessories that don’t match team colors.

Karney is charged with monitoring the Rams. When the players begin trickling out onto the SoFi Stadium field for pregame warmups, Karney stakes out a clear vantage point adjacent to the tunnel. There he’ll stand for the next hour, iPhone camera, pen and clipboard in hand, recording uniform violations — and there are always violations.

Karney personally warns nonconforming players during warmups that they’re at risk of being written up. He also submits a full list of potential violations to Rams equipment manager Brendan Burger. Then, after kickoff, Karney patrols the sideline scanning for new infractions and documenting which players fixed the issues that he previously identified and which players ignored his recommendations.

Why would a former seven-year NFL veteran take a job that essentially requires him to inform on his peers?

It’s not because the job pays lavishly. Karney calls the stipend he receives “mail-box money.” Nor is it a popularity boost being part of the NFL’s fashion police. While most players understand he has a job to do, even his friends and family rib him by greeting him, “Here comes the 5-0. Stay away from him.”

For Karney, the role of uniform inspector is desirable because it allows him to return to an NFL sideline, to reconnect with friends around the league and to relive the electricity of a big-game atmosphere or the impact of a jarring hit. It’s his way of maintaining ties to a sport that drove him into retirement before he was ready to say goodbye.

Mike Karney has been a uniform inspector for the NFL for six seasons. (Courtesy of Mike Karney)
Mike Karney has been a uniform inspector for the NFL for six seasons. (Courtesy of Mike Karney)

Joining the NFL’s fashion police

In March 2009, Mike Karney learned the New Orleans Saints were dumping him on his way to his wedding rehearsal dinner. Having already cut aging running back Deuce McAllister, team officials informed Karney they no longer needed his bruising lead blocker either.

Karney, then 27, looked forward to a fresh start, but fullback jobs were becoming scarce in an increasingly pass-happy NFL. The Rams cut Karney in 2010 after using him sparingly. Then he didn’t receive so much as a training camp invitation the following year.

Those setbacks forced Karney to give up playing a sport that had been part of his identity since he was 7 years old. He scrambled to stay connected to football in retirement, dabbling as a high school football TV analyst, mentor and coach.

Karney was vacationing with his family at a Hawaiian resort in June 2016 when out of nowhere another opportunity arose. With the Rams leaving St. Louis for Los Angeles, an NFL executive reached out to gauge Karney’s interest in working as a uniform inspector at home games.

While playing part-time dress code enforcer couldn’t satiate Karney’s thirst for competition, it was a chance to regain a toehold in professional football. And it did so without taking Karney away from his two young sons for more than eight-plus Sundays per year, a far more manageable commitment than, say, a full-time NFL coaching gig.

“Coaching has always appealed to me,” Karney said, “but I wasn’t willing to give up my family time to chase that dream. I just got done with the dream of being a player. So you just kind of try to find little things you can do that keep you close to the game, stuff that gives you your fix. This was one of those opportunities. I was like, ‘I can’t pass this up.’”

On Karney’s first day on the job, the NFL sent the Chargers’ longtime uniform inspector to shadow him. Willie Buchanon arrived carrying binoculars and a stack of Sharpie markers to go with his checklist and clipboard. That was Karney’s first glimpse of how strict the NFL is about enforcing its uniform requirements. The league wants to convey an image of professionalism and will go to great lengths to ensure players dress neatly and uniformly.

First-time dress code violators who fix the problem right away might escape with a warning. Those who repeatedly get written up run the risk of landing in the NFL’s crosshairs and finding a dreaded FedEx envelope in their locker.

It’s difficult to estimate how many players are fined each season because the NFL does not release that data and the league’s vice president of compliance, Akil Coad, turned down an interview request. Dallas Cowboys receiver CeeDee Lamb alone, however, has reportedly been fined three times for dress-code violations, twice for an untucked shirt and once for socks that failed to cover his lower legs.

While any fines collected by the NFL are donated to charity, the league’s commitment to stamping out individuality sometimes draws more criticism than praise. Critics say the NFL came across tone-deaf when it fined Ryan Clark $5,000 for honoring the memory of Sean Taylor by etching his No. 21 into his eye black. Same with when the league fined Demario Davis $7,000 for wearing a headband displaying the message, “Man of God.”

Only once does Karney recall the NFL’s rule banning personal messages putting him in an uncomfortable situation. That was when wide receiver Tavon Austin honored a family member who passed away by displaying a tribute on his mouth piece.

“Hey buddy,” Karney told Austin before the game, “I know why you’re doing it. I get it. And I’m so sorry for your loss, but you can’t have that message on the mouth piece. I’ll have to write it up. If I don’t write it up and you catch a ball, the camera is going to zoom in on you and the league is going to see it.”

The way Karney remembers it, Austin changed his mouthpiece without complaint.

“Those situations are tough,” Karney said, “but thankfully there aren’t many of them.”

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - SEPTEMBER 27: Dalton Schultz #86 of the Dallas Cowboys celebrates his second half touchdown with CeeDee Lamb #88 while playing the Philadelphia Eagles at AT&T Stadium on September 27, 2021 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
CeeDee Lamb (88) has been fined multiple times this season for having his jersey untucked. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

‘I want to make sure you’re saving your money’

Not all uniform violations are a result of players trying to express their individuality with a flashy accessory or unapproved message. The league is particularly vigilant about forbidding players from covering the logo of a corporate sponsor with an untucked shirt or misplaced towel or from showcasing the emblem of a competitor that hasn’t paid for airtime.

After the NFL signed a sponsorship deal with Bose seven years ago, the league began fining players caught wearing Beats by Dre headphones on camera. Karney once had to send word to a Rams player during a game to remove his headphones after a league official spotted him on the bench with Beats by Dre in his ears.

Karney was also surprised to receive a phone call from a league official during the final three minutes of a 2016 Rams-Cardinals regular season finale with no playoff implications. Only diehards may have been watching the 44-6 blowout, but the NFL had spotted a problem: a Rams linebacker was wearing an arm sleeve displaying a Mueller logo. That logo needed to be blacked out since Mueller wasn’t an NFL sponsor.

“That’s how intense they are,” Karney said. “I tell guys all the time, ‘If I don’t get it, they’re gonna get it.’”

The NFL’s crackdown on unauthorized logos continues even after a game ends and players return to their locker room. Karney once had to halt a Rams player’s postgame interview with a few dozen reporters because TV cameramen were filming the player wearing a Gucci T-shirt.

“I hate to do this,” Karney said, “but you’ve got to put on a Rams shirt or something that’s not the logo of a company that doesn’t pay the league.”

When the player balked and said Gucci was paying him to wear their gear, Karney stood firm and pointed out that wouldn’t matter to the league. “I want to make sure you’re saving your money,” Karney told the player. “I want to make sure your grandkids’ grandkids’ grandkids still have that money.”

Scenarios like that help Karney rationalize his job. To him, the goal isn’t catching dress code violators — it’s warning fellow players that they’re at risk of being fined.

In a few weeks, Karney will complete his sixth season as a uniform inspector, a job that few are aware of outside NFL circles. Karney’s friends and family ask all the time, “Are you gonna do it again next year?” His answer is always the same.

“Why wouldn’t I?” he says. “As long as they want me to keep doing it, I will.”