Lately I’ve noticed that the NFL is doing more to attract a female audience, whether it’s with league apparel or commercials set at a baby shower or even, I recently noticed, female announcers. So it’s hard to ignore the nagging feeling that jumping on the Breast Cancer Awareness bandwagon with intense fervor is the NFL’s way to not only bring the league some good publicity, but also expand their consumer base. That means instead of the usual black or white accessories to their shiny leggings and shoulder pads, the football players are accessorizing with pink cleats and gloves. Even the little penalty flags the refs throw are pink. The NFL is a multi-billion dollar industry (with league revenue for 2013 tracking above $9 billion), and like many large corporations they’re doing what they can to improve the image of the business. This entails donating a portion of merchandise proceeds to the American Cancer Society and auctioning off those pink gloves and cleats for money that will also be donated. It also means that the fields have been decked out with a giant pink ribbon at the 50-yard line, and that on-screen overlays periodically promote the NFL’s Breast Cancer initiative, “A Crucial Catch.” While I’m not totally against businesses benefiting from charitable campaigns, I am concerned about the gender norms and social significance behind this one in particular.
Everything is ribbons, pink T-shirts and limited edition jerseys, but all the merchandise and marketing only throw a stark relief on what the campaign is lacking. I’d actually like to become more knowledgeable about why breast cancer kills African American women at a 41 percent higher rate, the implications of the over-diagnosis of breast cancer, and the lack of information and existing research on environmental factors that may be contributing to the diseases increasing morbidity. The obstacle we face in publicly addressing issues like these is that they require the efforts of more than just the researchers who are doing what they can against a natural predator that we don’t fully understand. What we’re left with is a bland message of vague awareness that has become so diffused that it’s no more than useful than shouting “fire” in a crowded stadium.
For a sport that requires so much risk, the NFL’s taking the safest possible route when it comes to breast cancer awareness. In addition, some of the impetus falls on the American Cancer Society, which is the NFL’s partner in their breast cancer initiatives. The NFL isn’t the only company that’s guilty of this watering down, but something they have that other organizations do not is the high visibility. This is likely what has made them so cautious when it comes to anything they promote. The problem with such publicly promoted grand-gesture causes is that it makes it seem like the solution is straightforward when it’s not. Step 1. Become aware of the problem. Step 2. Donate. Step 3. Get your annual screenings. For the men, women, and families who don’t have access to healthcare and resources, doing just this is more than enough because it’s far better than the alternative of having no information at all. Problem solved. Once they’ve told you those three things the NFL can wipe their hands clean of the more far-reaching problems. I think they’re underestimating their audience by making cancer “cute,” when they have an opportunity to do more far-reaching and longer lasting good.
I’m also uncomfortable because sometimes I wonder whether behind the façade of compassion, an organization that embraces the tropes of masculinity and frequently objectifies women is preying on mens’ fear that breast cancer is a threat to part of what makes their girlfriends, wives, or fantasy objects desirable. To be fair, this isn’t the only campaign that’s made me feel this way; there’s been a lot of that “Save the Ta Tas” messaging that does little more than titillate. My feelings that this might also be the case for the NFL started when I considered how many of the men now decked out in pink paraphernalia are not allies of women. In fact, Slate and Jezebel pointed out how impotent the NFL has been in punishing players who commit domestic violence as well and sexual assault, but also how fans are eager to forgive, too. For an organization that’s done so little to punish the men who otherwise harm women with impunity, it’s difficult for me to wholeheartedly embrace that they’re actually considering the best interest of women. New York Magazine ran a must-read article about how breast cancer awareness has trumped domestic violence as the most buzzworthy cause in October mainly because it’s less controversial. Instead of facing an issue that hasn’t been adequately addressed within their own organization, they’re championing a publicity-friendly cause that doesn’t challenge them to reflect or change their internal culture. Overall, I’m concerned about the motives, implicit and explicit. This is not to say that the NFL shouldn’t support Breast Cancer Awareness or the American Cancer Society, I just think that the way they’ve embraced awareness is gruff and indelicate with little regard for the people behind the issue.
I don’t look to an organization like the NFL to get it right when it comes to social causes. But with more and more cases of young women being diagnosed, especially those in the public eye like Giuliana Rancic, Christina Applegate, and most recently Angelina Jolie’s preventive mastectomies (all women in their early- to mid-30s) who have brought a more youthful face to the disease. This means that breast cancer is no longer a disease that we worry about for just our moms and grandmothers, and it’s not something far off we’ll have to worry about when we hit middle age. From puberty, we’re conditioned to covet our breasts, the ones that hopefully come in once we hit middle school, and this interest is partially fueled by our knowledge of what other people value in them. While the NFL’s campaign is another step and huge victory towards validating the importance of breast health, it may simultaneously be a step backwards. A step I might add, that leaves me feeling groped.
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