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Football and Breast Cancer

The NFL could play a role in the effort to save lives, perhaps by donating millions to the right kind of research, to true prevention and to figuring out how to stop women and men from dying of breast cancer, or to help the un- and underinsured pay for treatment. Using this incredible platform to help change the conversation to ending breast cancer would be an enormous gif.
10/09/2015 05:26pm ET | Updated October 9, 2016
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I admit it. I like professional football; I think it is in my DNA. My father watched the Philadelphia Eagles every Sunday and did some coaching for the Pop Warner league. I have vivid memories of him, in front of the TV, sighing "if they only had an offense" to be followed moments later by "if they only had a defense." He taught me all about the game. My brother played in grade school. I went to every game. Then I married someone whose family has had Eagles season tickets for over 50 years. I attend whenever I can. Yes, I am bothered by the violence on and off the field. So I am uncomfortable in my football affinity.

Over the past several years, I have also been uncomfortable with the National Football League's breast cancer awareness month campaigns. There is something a bit disconcerting in seeing very large men pummel one another wearing pink shoes and gloves to raise awareness around a woman's issue. I know the sentiment is well meant and not just about marketing the sport. But still...I can't figure out what it does to help breast cancer.

This year I noticed that the NFL's "Crucial Catch" campaign focused on the American Cancer Society and early detection. Maybe it always did and I just didn't pay attention, but my discomfort grew. There has been so much written about the misunderstanding of the benefits of early detection, especially over the past few years. There is a growing understanding that it is not the answer to breast cancer, but it is a multi-billion dollar business. Part of the NFL/ACS campaign is about early detection in underserved populations. The fact is that, for example, while breast cancer mortality has been slowly decreasing in this country in all populations, it is decreasing at a lower rate in African American women. A terrible situation and one that we have to figure out. But there are two important things to keep in mind here: first, the discrepancy in mortality has existed since at least 1981, before screening mammography and early detection were in vogue. And two, the goal should not be to bring African American women's mortality to the level of other women. It should be to make certain that no women die of breast cancer. Early detection would never accomplish that goal.

So the message, while simple, is just not right. Raising awareness of something that will not be of much help to women is not a good use of the NFL's platform or that of the ACS.

I look at the football game and I see pink wristbands on the referees, pink gloves on everyone, pink towels, banners, shoes....and I wonder what is the cost to produce those items? And what is the marketing budget? On its website, the NFL reports that since 2009 they have raised $7 million for the Crucial Catch Campaign. So a little over $1 million a year. It is important to ask how those millions have been raised. The answer is: from you. The funds come from the sales of pink NFL products and the auction of some of the pink paraphernalia used by players.

I do believe in corporate philanthropy and that institutions have a social responsibility to the public, including around the issue of breast cancer. The NFL could play a role in the effort to save lives, perhaps by donating millions to the right kind of research, to true prevention and to figuring out how to stop women and men from dying of breast cancer, or to help the un- and underinsured pay for treatment. So many men and women watch these games, follow individual players and look up to them. Using that incredible platform to help change the conversation to ending breast cancer would be an enormous gift and a big win. Without all the pink.