A woman I know from the gym told me that when she saw that the NFL has gone pink for Breast Cancer “Awareness” Month, she thought of me. I smiled politely and said thanks; she’s about the age my mom would have been had she lived, so I want to be respectful. I’m never quite sure how to handle this. On one hand, I don’t want to be the poster girl for breast cancer. On the other hand, I don’t want to seem ungrateful for an acquaintance’s goodwill and kind thoughts. I always limp along in such encounters, then I flee the scene wondering if I reacted in an acceptable way. But, like so much associated with the cancer “journey,” there’s no road map, no guidebook, no real clue on how to handle this stuff.
At first blush, the NFL going pink to support breast cancer seems like a pretty cool thing. I wrote about it last year, and my first impression was how cute! NFL players in pink cleats, gloves, chin guards, skull caps, and sweatbands was so cute! I took it at face value, not being much of a football fan, and I wasn’t bothered by the coaches’ pink ribbons or pink caps, nor by the refs’ pink whistles or the pink tees on the field. However, another year wiser about the pinkwashing phenomenon and another year exhausted by the “awareness” campaign, I’m thinking it’s not so cute. Some of the players have personal ties to breast cancer, having lost a loved one to or had someone they love affected by the dreaded disease. I give them a pass. Guys like Ravens’ wide receiver Jacoby Jones, who has two aunts who have survived breast cancer. He says that wearing pink shoes and pink gloves “means something. For my aunts to fight through that and beat it, that’s some strong women. So I’ll wear it for them.” Another wide receiver, Kyle Williams of the 49ers, will put on the pink for game days in honor of his grandmother, who died from breast cancer in 2005.
If it were just about the National Football League’s largesse and compassion toward a disease that kills nearly 40,000 women in this country every year, I’d say, that’s cool. If it were about players showing their love and admiration for friends and family members who’ve battled breast cancer, I’d be behind them. Even if it were about the NFL designating breast cancer as the charity du jour and earmarking some of the $9.5 million dollars earned in revenue last year, I’m good with that.
However, it’s never that simple, and because breast cancer is the “sexy” cancer, the “glamour” disease, there’s something inherently rotten in the pink plethora splattered all over pro football stadiums across the country. Because breast cancer involves well, yeah, breasts, it easily grabs everyone’s attention, and like so many other things that have been pinkwashed in the name of “awareness,” it means a breast cancer patient or survivor can’t even watch a football game without being smacked in the face, yet again, with the reminder of this damned disease.
In trying to nail down exactly what it is about the pinkwashing of the NFL that bugs me, I came up with this. First and foremost is the emphasis on breast cancer “awareness.” Perhaps the Vikings cheerleader pictured below wants and/or needs everyone to be “aware” of her breasts (BTW, the Denver Broncos cheerleaders are sponsored by Dr Ben Lee, a plastic surgeon who specializes in breast augmentation, and Laura Vikmanis, a Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader, says in her memoir that at least half of the 36 cheerleaders have implants, and a third of those without are planning to get them, and that there was much dissension in the cheerleaders’ locker room between the haves vs the have nots. A Philadelphia plastic surgeon cited Vikmanis’s book on his website in relation to the Philidelphia Eagles cheerleader tryouts. He commented on the rigors of NFL cheerleading: “Twice-a-week weigh ins and the grueling conditioning routines make it hard for women to maintain adequate fat reserves to have proportionate and shapely breasts, so breast implants are often the only way for women on the squad to remain both fit and feminine.” Breast implants are the only way for an NFL cheerleader to look fit and feminine? Wow. We certainly wouldn’t want women out there running around with disproportionate and unshapely breasts, would we?)
The NFL’s “A Crucial Catch” program aims to increase breast cancer “awareness” but I can’t help but ask why we’re so fixated on awareness, when being aware of the disease does nothing to cure it. Why does the program exhort women older than 40 to get an annual mammogram, when mammograms don’t save lives? Does anyone really find the “early detection” message touted by programs such as this to be effective? Sports Illustrated writer Peter King is of like mind, and after he tweeted “Please. Not pink for a month, NFL. A week, great. But a month?” he found himself on the receiving end of a lot of criticism, with people responding outright hatefully. Writer Mary Elizabeth Williams came to King’s defense on salon.com. She pointed out that it’s possible to hate the disease as well as the commodification. And, as she astutely points out, “because if we didn’t see pink on the football field throughout October, how else would any of us know that it’s breast cancer awareness month? How would we be aware?” Breast Cancer Action executive director Karuna Jaggar adds “We don’t need more awareness; we need solutions. We’re looking for progress that makes a difference in addressing and ending this breast cancer epidemic.” Does anything about A Crucial Catch speak to the breast cancer epidemic?
Secondly, show me the money. Several groups have had a little look-see into the NFL’s A Crucial Catch program and found that while it may be eye-catching, all that pink isn’t doing all that much good for the actual disease or the people suffering from it. Proceeds from the NFL pinking it up go to The American Cancer Society, which sounds pretty good, but Business Week discovered that just 5 percentage of sales will make its way to the ACS. According to Business Week, for every $100 in sales of pink products, $3.54 goes toward research while the NFL keeps approximately $45. Considering the NFL’s healthy revenue last year, and the crazy salaries NFL employees make, this seems particularly stingy. An NFL spokesperson countered the Business Week report by saying that while the league does not dispute the numbers above, it does not profit from the sale of pink merchandise, but that whatever money isn’t donated to the ACS is spent covering the cost of the Crucial Catch program, which is designed to increase “awareness.” Ah yes, the same type of accounting that caused the Susan G Komen for the Cure to fall out of favor with the very women it’s supposed to be helping. Spending such a disproportional amount of money on “awareness” instead of research is nothing short of irresponsible.
My third issue with the NFL going pink may be unpopular, but the fact is, the NFL doesn’t seem overly concerned with women’s issues or our bodies. Exhibit A: the cheerleaders. What exactly does a bunch of tarted-up, implant-sporting women gyrating on the sidelines have to do with the game? Do the fans in the stadium need to be encouraged to cheer for their team? Do the viewers at home require a bit of eye candy to break up the monotony of seeing big, sweaty men up close and in high def? More importantly, did anyone from the NFL think about how breast cancer survivors might feel seeing the NFL cheerleaders decked out in pink boy shorts and itty bitty tshirts that can barely contain all the breastly goodness of those augmented cheerleaders? Does the NFL think that breast cancer survivors need yet another hit to their flagging body images and fledgling self-esteem after radiation mutilates our breasts and surgeries remove them altogether?
Exhibit B: the league is historically soft on players who’ve been charged with crimes against women. Columnist Maura Kelly wrote about this for the New York Daily News, citing cases such as the one against Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor, in which he admitted to raping a 16-year-old girl in 2010. And that of famed quarterback Brett Favre being accused by more than one woman of sexual harassment. And that of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger being accused of sexual assault by two different women. Defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth got handsy with a waitress last year and pleaded no contest to her charges of sexual assault. None of these players received more than a slap on the wrist from the National Football League. Yet, during the month of October, the league wants me to believe that it cares about me and million of women across the country? Throw a bunch of pink on the field and call it good?
Nice try, NFL, but I’m not buying it. It’s going to take more than pink accessories and lip service about the importance of screening to convince me that the league really cares about women.
How many more days until October ends?