Wearing of the Pink

When the NFL wears pink, I see red.

Watching NFL football in October can be very hard on the eyes, and I'm not just talkin' 'bout any game involving Washington's football team. Hot, shocking pink is plastered everywhere on those behemoth bodies crashing into each other. Cleats, cap rims, penalty flags, towels --- heck, even the notoriously tough Patriots' Coach Bill Belichick sports a pink ribbon in October.

Who can quarrel with the nation's most popular and powerful professional league joining forces with the American Cancer Society to beat breast cancer? The NFL calls the campaign "A Crucial Catch" and promotes the purchase of pink merchandise as a way to contribute money to breast cancer awareness activities like screenings. The NFL "Crucial Catch" website says that since 2009 the campaign has raised $7 million for breast cancer awareness. (The NFL made about $9 Billion in revenues in 2013.)

Breast cancer may well be a woman's worst nightmare --- but it's not the only one. Violence against women is also a horrific disease in this society, crippling millions of women physically and emotionally, leaving even more children and families devastated when the violence is at the hands of a partner.

Recent notorious domestic violence cases have forced the National Football League to admit it has a serious problem with violence against women. NFL leadership came very late to that admission only after the Ray Rice scandal threatened to do serious PR harm to the brand. Even so, Proctor and Gamble withdrew its sponsorship for "Pinktober" in the wake of the scandal.

Even before this fall's ugly spectacle of abuse claims, however, the whole men-in-pink thing seemed like an uber-patronizing grab for women's fandom. Far from making a statement about solidarity with people suffering breast cancer (men as well as women), the pinkwash seems more aimed at generating green --- more fans, more TV ratings, more revenues from official gear purchases.

If the NFL really wants to support action to end breast cancer, it certainly could do so quite handsomely without the considerable investment in all that pink stuff. A genuinely altruistic endeavor would be an outright donation of, oh, 5% of annual revenues directly to cancer research without forcing anyone to buy or wear anything pink.

How much money does the NFL actually contribute for breast cancer research? Although the NFL website claims that 100% of the sales of its pink products go to the cause, various reports indicate that a very small percentage of the revenue from sales of NFL pink merchandise actually winds up supporting breast cancer awareness activities. Some reports claim that the NFL makes money on the deal, although the NFL denies this. What's very clear, however, is that for the NFL, appearing to care about this important women's cause is big business.

The National Football League --- the corporation, apart from its teams --- is a tax exempt organization. While its status is different from that of a public charity (for the tax mavens, the NFL is a 501(c)(6) while public charities are 501(c)(3) organizations), serious and valid questions have arisen about the NFL's tax exemption. Whatever the outcome of the legislative challenges, the fact remains that as a tax exempt organization the NFL has a public obligation to ensure full transparency and actual, demonstrable results for its fund raising initiatives beyond improving its own PR.

So far, based on the disclosure on its website, the bottom line appears to be that the NFL has raised about $7 million over 5 years in its breast cancer initiative. Given the billions in revenues the league and its teams have made in that same period of time, this amount seems paltry.

To gauge the effectiveness of the entire campaign, the NFL should release a full report detailing the total volume of pink merchandise sold, the expenses associated with outfitting all of those teams and personnel with pink gear, the PR and administrative costs, and, in the end, how much money actually made its way directly to breast cancer awareness and prevention activities.

And then, having made a full public accounting, the NFL can stop patronizing women with this annual pink frenzy and, instead, in exchange for remaining tax exempt, devote its considerable resources to making major contributions not only to breast cancer research but also to agencies that provide health and legal support for victims of domestic violence.