Why Is the NFL So Gung-Ho About Breast-Cancer-Awareness Month?

What Women Really Think
Oct. 27 2010 10:42 PM

Why Is the NFL So Gung-Ho About Breast-Cancer-Awareness Month?

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If you’ve watched an NFL football game recently, you’ve probably noticed the league’s all-out effort on behalf of breast-cancer awareness -pink ribbons painted on the field, pink jerseys, etc. Raising awareness of a disease that becomes less deadly when caught earlier is, of course, a wonderful thing. (Even if the pink ribbons aren’t everyone’s favorite .)

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Yet it’s a disease that mostly strikes women, and since all of the NFL’s players and the majority of its fans are men, it doesn’t seem crazy to ask why this particular cause has been anointed. Why not, say, raise money for research into traumatic brain injuries , or to donate to victims of domestic violence, since studies have shown there’s a connection between abuse and home-team losses ? Or if-and I get why not, I do--the league doesn’t want to remind the world about those problems more than necessary, why not raise awareness about heart disease or lung cancer, which not only kill more women annually than breast cancer, but strike men as well?

Among other reasons for the breast-cancer-awareness push, the league says that many of its players have had wives or mothers affected, and so the cause is a deeply personal one for some. And maybe there is something to the idea that men should push their wives and mothers to be screened and be unafraid to join the support communities that have sprung up for victims of the disease. But there’s also a way that supporting breast cancer’s become a stand-in for supporting women, somewhat generically. Maybe it’s all the pink, maybe it’s the word breast. Maybe it’s that being against breast cancer doesn’t involve polarizing political or moral stances or much alteration of everyday behavior.

One cynical answer to why the NFL is interested in being on very public record in this very uncontroversial dislike of breast cancer is that they might want to curry favor with and draw in more female viewers-some studies say that as much as 44 percent of the fan base is female, but the potential market there is certainly not as saturated as the male market. This year, i t launched a marketing campaign aimed at ladies and an official site for women -with a prominent link to merchandise, pink and otherwise, of course. (Women’s NFL clothing sales have doubled since 2004.)

Against that backdrop, the New York Jets recently announced that they’ll be supporting Lupus research when they play the Green Bay Packers this year. Nine out of 10 lupus victims are women, mostly of child-bearing age. The Jets’ owner lost a daughter to the disease and has since funded a great deal of meaningful research . This isn’t the first such awareness day the team’s hosted, either, but as only a casual sports fan these days, the thing that’s made me pay the most attention to the Jets this year was the alleged locker-room harassment of an attractive female reporter.

So an even more cynical answer as to why the NFL is so gung-ho about supporting awareness of women’s diseases might be that there’s plenty of bad press to counteract, and has been for years, about how poorly some of its players treat women. (Recently, for example, in a relatively minor example, a group of NFL wives started an anti-cheating club .) Even the worst offender can’t be a total misogynist if he’s against breast cancer, right? See: photo op of Ben Roethlisberger in pink cleats . And it’s not just the NFL; I assume that’s also the working theory behind the " Think Pink" Kobe V (as in Bryant ) or this year’s special breast-cancer edition of the video game Tiger Woods 11 .

Illustration of Pink Ribbon symbol by Wikimedia Commons.

Noreen Malone is a senior editor at New York magazine.