The NFL’s Pinkwashing Problem

Is the league actually doing any good with its big breast cancer awareness campaign?

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A pink ribbon recognizing Breast Cancer Awareness month is shown on the field of Bank of America Stadium prior to an NFL football game between the Carolina Panthers and the St. Louis Rams in Charlotte, NC Sunday, Oct. 20, 2013.

If you tuned into a National Football League game during the last month, you surely noticed that there was pink everywhere, from the gear worn by the players and coaches right down to the penalty flags. The stadiums are pink, the fields are pink. Even the goalposts are pink. The raison d'etre of all this pink is the NFL's annual effort to raise money and awareness as part of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

But while finding a cure for breast cancer would, of course, be a scientific victory for the ages, it's worth questioning how much good the NFL is actually doing. Is it really advancing the cause or just "pinkwashing," the term used to describe businesses that employ Breast Cancer Awareness Month to bolster their own bottom lines? (The Better Business Bureau actually issued a general warning for consumers to be on the lookout for pinkwashing scams.)

According to an analysis by Business Insider, just 8 percent of the money spent on the plethora of pink gear being sold by the NFL actually winds up going towards cancer research at the American Cancer Society, the supposed beneficiary of the league's efforts. Since 2009, when pink first appeared on the field, the NFL has donated a grand total of $4.5 million towards the cause, while the league made $9 billion (that's billion, with a b) in revenue last year alone. As Business Insider's Cork Gaines wrote, "if the point is to actually help fight cancer, fans would have a much bigger impact if they skipped the NFL and donated directly to the ACS or other organizations working to fight cancer."

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But an unclear picture regarding the distribution of funds is not the only reason the NFL's pink October is so maddening. Another is its elevation of one disease to the explicit exclusion of all others. Nothing symbolized that situation more perfectly than Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall and his green shoes.

Marshall, who has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, wanted to wear green kicks during a game on October 10 in support of Mental Health Awareness Week, which ran from October 6 to 12. The NFL fined him $10,500 for violating uniform protocol (a fine which Marshall happily paid and then matched with a donation to charity). The NFL is so pink-centric that one player wearing a pair of shoes for a different cause was seen as something worthy of punishment. Initially, the league even looked to prevent Marshall from playing entirely if he sported the green shoes, before relenting and settling on just a fine.

And mental health isn't the only cause steamrolled by the pink NFL juggernaut. "I was pretty sure we were toast," said Rita Smith, the executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, upon first seeing the NFL go pink. "There was no way we were ever gonna match them." The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence also uses October as its awareness month, with purple being its color of choice. As Ann Friedman noted in New York Magazine, domestic violence will actually affect more women than breast cancer, but attempts to prevent the former are losing fundraising ground to the latter, in large part due to the pinkification of October that gets a serious boost from the NFL's efforts.

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By focusing solely on breast cancer year after year – and by making its campaign mostly about raising the ever-ambiguous "awareness" of the disease, as if something affecting hundreds of thousands of women is somehow a secret – while sending little in the way of real funds towards research, how much good the NFL is doing is an open question. Is all this "awareness" actually worth anything? And if it is, why not try to highlight a lesser known set of diseases next year, or perhaps a problem that is not even medical? (Though I will admit, the fact that conservative shock jock Rush Limbaugh is enraged by NFL players wearing pink makes me like the whole thing a bit more.)

None of this is meant to diminish the very real horror of breast cancer or to undermine the monumental effort that goes into combating it. Plus, at the end of the day, every dollar the NFL puts towards cancer research is one more dollar that might have gone somewhere else had it not been for the league's efforts.

But the evidence seems to show that there's more sound than fury when it comes to the league's actual financial support in the fight against the disease. In the meantime, other worthy causes get buried under an avalanche of pink that mostly lets people feel good about "supporting" the quest against breast cancer with minimal time or effort. And that's not good enough, if the ultimate goal is to find a real cure.

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