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Commentary: Another NFL Pinkwashing Campaign Comes To An End

NFL games look different today, the first Sunday in November. The color pink won't be nearly as prevalent as it was in October. In this commentary, Ryan Basen says the NFL's "A Crucial Catch" campaign for breast cancer awareness is also a manipulative image-enhancer for the league and its corporate partners.

On a cool, overcast Sunday afternoon in October, the Panthers honored breast cancer survivors before a game against the Seattle Seahawks. As NFL Films music echoed throughout Bank of America Stadium, a few dozen women jogged out of the tunnel and crossed the field to the opposite sideline -- promoting a widespread, influential campaign to combat the disease.

That campaign is the National Football League's "A Crucial Catch.” It’s the NFL’s breast cancer awareness month initiative. Its primary goal: to encourage women 40 and up to get screened for the disease annually. The league has partnered with the American Cancer Society, and corporate sponsors including Gatorade, Topps and Nike.

While this campaign helps some women catch breast cancer early, it drops the proverbial ball by possibly leading others to harm, and using a cause to appeal to female consumers and to enhance corporate images.

The NFL aggressively markets to women, now nearly half its fan base. It launched a women’s clothing line two years ago; and touts that last year’s A Crucial Catch campaign reached 58 million female viewers 18 and up, and 64 percent of female NFL fans could identify the campaign’s screening message.

This is “cause-related marketing” at work -- using marketing strategies in a partnership to benefit both a community cause and an enterprise. In this case the cause gains attention and donations, while the images of the league and its corporate partners are enhanced. Applied to sports, cause-related marketing can be especially potent because of consumers’ emotional attachments to teams and to athletes.

The NFL has been promoting breast cancer causes for a dozen years. This October, like the last three, players, coaches and referees wore pink gear during games. Some gear is auctioned off, and sponsors sell officially licensed pink merchandise – hats, jerseys, even Christmas ornaments -- to fundraise. The last three campaigns combined have raised $3 million for the Cancer Society and team charities.

However, while all auction proceeds go to the cause, only a portion of merchandise sales do. The league declines to say how much.

And, many researchers argue that annual screenings for women in their 40’s are not recommended; they can lead to false positives and unnecessary biopsies.

A Crucial Catch, then, is not as virtuous as the league stages it to be. It’s an example of “pinkwashing,” applying breast cancer activism lazily in what The New York Times called “the pinking of America…a multi-billion-dollar business…almost unrivaled in scope.”

During October, pink ribbons were designed into NFL fields and immense pink banners hung behind the sidelines. Promotions featuring players affected by breast cancer, including Panthers DeAngelo Williams and Greg Olsen, are posted online – as are PSA’s read by clean shaven and helmetless NFL glamour boys Drew Brees and Eli Manning.

Then there’s the full-page magazine ad featuring survivor Tanya Snyder, wife of Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder. She and another woman model officially licensed NFL T-shirts and A Crucial Catch’s official logo: a pink ribbon with the NFL shield pinned in the middle.

The slogan “IT’S MY TEAM” is typed in bold uppercase letters at the bottom of the ad, followed by text: “It’s your team, so get your apparel at NFLShop.com.”

If you do, take heed: You may have been pinkwashed.

Ryan Basen is a former sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer. He's now a graduate student at the University of Maryland, where he studies sports marketing and media.