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Should the NFL Abandon Pink?

Sarah Hale

For the past five seasons, NFL players have donned pink cleats, gloves, hats and towels in October to raise awareness for breast cancer. The league has been panned before for a perceived lack of transparency about how sales of pink merchandise fund breast cancer. This time around, however, the league announced that they would be dialing back on pink, perhaps as a result of backlash against its donation strategy in which a small fraction of the money from pink branded NFL products go to charity.

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Cork Gaines, a sports writer for Business Insider, explained in an October 2012 article:

… for every $100 in pink merchandise sold, $12.50 goes to the NFL. Of that, $11.25 goes to the American Cancer Society (ACS) and the NFL keeps the rest. The remaining money is then divided up by the company that makes the merchandise (37.5%) and the company that sells the merchandise (50.0%), which is often the NFL and the individual teams.

Despite earlier coverage of the issue, the backlash against what the Chronicle of Philanthropy dubbed “limousine philanthropy” reached a fever pitch in the past week. The NFL then decided it was time to let pink go, at least on the field.

Will ditching pink cause consumers to disassociate everything negative they’ve heard about the NFL connected with women’s health and welfare? Probably not, but I’d argue that moving away from pinkwashing is a good move overall.

Here, the symbolic meaning of pink is more important than the lengthy disclaimer the NFL now includes at the bottom of their Pink page. It communicates a message that isn’t necessarily reaching the wrong audience, but is reaching them at the wrong time. It’s the wrong time during the NFL’s history and the history of the fight against breast cancer, and pink has to go. Here’s why.

Female fans feel marginalized

On the field, the NFL has reduced breast cancer awareness to pink, much like they’ve pinkwashed jerseys and other merchandise while ignoring what women really want out of the games.

If you attempt to boil down any aspect of the football experience, women will call you out on it (as we should). Take Men’s Health, which recently published an article titled “How to Talk About Sports with Women.” The article has since been removed from Men’s Health’s website, but included this gem:

Not all women share your passion for sports, in case you hadn't noticed. The reason? They need story lines. Most women don't care about stats," says Andrei Markovits, Ph.D., coauthor of Sportista: Female Fandom in the United States. So while you're enthusing about Dominic Moore's scoring record, she'd rather hear about how he supported his wife's battle with cancer—and even took a season off from the NHL at the height of his career.

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The NFL is attempting to simplify a complex health issue in the same way. The answer to “How to Talk About Breast Cancer with Women” (and show that you care) isn’t turn everything pink. Yes, pink on the field does serve to increase sales of pink merchandise off the field, but far more consumers see pink during the game than purchase pink merchandise. Five years in, the connection to awareness and merchandise seems a bit cheap.

The message is all wrong

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Accurate or not, breast cancer is a disease associated with women. By including a dash of pink in their wardrobe, NFL players and teams are sending a message: we care about women, too. It’s a message that doesn’t resonate for two reasons.

One, it’s disingenuous to convey that a brand cares for women’s welfare when they’ve demonstrated the opposite (via the league’s initial silence of the Ray Rice incident). Two, adding a splash of pink to a sport played by men and traditionally watched by men doesn’t reflect today’s football fan. If you dare accuse women of being disingenuous sports fans, they’ll quickly call you out on it as the reaction to the Men’s Health article showed. One in three sports fans are women, and communicating that female sports fans are a minority in any way feels a bit dated.

Should the NFL continue to support breast cancer efforts? Absolutely. The “breast cancer affects everyone” message works. Pinkwashing is past its prime, however, and the NFL is right to alter how they communicate their commitment.