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Rethinking The NFL’s Pink Breast Cancer Campaign

From the pros to college to high school, football players across the country have donned pink uniform accessories (and sometimes even pink uniforms) to honor Breast Cancer Awareness Month. In the National Football League, players are required to wear pink accessories for the first week of October, and the gloves, towels, and wristbands are optional for the remainder of the month. Most of the gear is then auctioned off to raise money for breast cancer programs.

But in Corbin, Kentucky, a high school football player who wore pink gloves and a pink towel during one game says he was disciplined by his coach and school for doing so:

A Corbin High School football player is upset because he was disciplined for wearing pink gloves on the field and using a pink towel during a recent game.

School officials say pink gloves go against their uniform policy.

“My best friend’s mother died. She had cancer,” said sophomore Austin O’Neill, the starting cornerback for the Corbin Redhounds.

O’Neill didn’t wear pink because he wanted to look cool or show off. He wore it because he wanted to highlight the terrible effect breast cancer had on the life of his best friend’s mother. And because he wore the gloves (and because the school punished him for it), his personal story is getting out in a way it otherwise wouldn’t have. The NFL can learn from that. There are countless stories like O’Neill’s in the NFL too, like that of Larry Fitzgerald, the Arizona Cardinals’ wide receiver who lost his mother to breast cancer and started a foundation to fight it.

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But the average fan tuning in on Sunday afternoons won’t hear stories like Fitzgerald or O’Neill’s. Fields are flooded with pink gear, pink ribbons, and even pink penalty flags. But all of that serves as one big dose of ambiguity, since for the average fan, the meaning of “awareness” is unclear. So too, is how much money the campaign generates for awareness, prevention, and research. I watch football every Sunday, but until I dug around the NFL’s pink web site and found quotes from NFL officials in other news stories, I had no idea what specifically the NFL’s campaign was meant to achieve or how it was doing it. To be honest, I’m still not quite sure.

The pink campaigns also seem to paper over what exactly we need to be aware of. The disease itself, after all, is well known. What we need to be aware of is the fact that mammograms are hard to get for uninsured women, that cheap providers like Planned Parenthood are being shut down, that for all the “awareness” we see, there still isn’t a cure and there is still a long way to go in the fight to find one. Seeing pink gloves and pink towels on a football field isn’t enough to make any of that clear.

The NFL deserves credit for highlighting and fighting the disease. But it could afford some clarity in its mission to help the American Cancer Society provide breast cancer screenings in underserved areas (again, a fact that isn’t clear to the average viewer) and its overall fight against the disease. It could afford even more clarity in how much money it donates to research and prevention, and why it doesn’t donate more. The league runs advertisements throughout the year highlighting its charity work with United Way, but while it has public service announcements from players like Fitzgerald on its web site, similar ads about what its breast cancer campaign is doing don’t seem to exist.

Breast cancer “awareness” is important, but it’s also ambiguous. By using players who have been personally affected, who are wearing pink because it means something personal and not just because it’s cool or required, to clarify and publicize its mission, the NFL could go a long way in making the campaign more effective — and more aware — than it already is.