October is a month the NFL can appear to be a magnanimous patron of worth causes. Players don pink gloves and shoes, and the NFL invites women onto the field to show the leagues commitment to the battle against breast cancer. October is the month that the league that swept Ray Rice's episode of domestic violence under the rug and is home to the outspokenly misogynistic Greg Hardy can do something for women.
The NFL's pinkwashing has drawn criticism for years as being next to useless in the fight against cancer, but when cancer-stricken women take to the field, the NFL, for that moment at least, appears both charitable and noble. The emperor has no clothes, however, as the NFL has continued to fine Pittsburgh Steelers players for their personal crusades to support causes important to women.
Promoting pink products and parading ailing women in front of the cameras is a public relations ploy. In 2013, Business Inside reported that 50% of NFL breast cancer awareness merchandise went to retailers, 37.5% to manufacturers, 1.24% to the NFL, 3.24% to the American Cancer Society Administration, and only 8.01% to American Cancer Society Cancer research. That's right. Only 8.01% of funds raised through the October pink-fest goes to research.
October is a public relations gimmick for the NFL. There are several Pittsburgh Steelers players, however, who have a deeply authentic, painfully personal stake in causes related to cancer and women. Defensive end Cameron Heyward's father, Craig "Ironhead" Heyward, recently lost his life to cancer. Teammate runningback DeAngelo Williams' mother died of breast cancer last year. William Gay's mother lost her life to domestic violence, shot by his stepfather when he was only seven years old.
What do these players have in common? They lost love ones to cancer and domestic violence. What else do they have in common? They honored their dad and mothers in subtle on-field tributes. Heyward opted to wear the words Iron and Head on his eye black. Williams asked the NFL if he could honor his mother all season long by wearing pink on the field and wore "We will find a cure" on his eye black. Gay wore shoes of purple, the color of domestic violence awareness.
If the NFL were sincere about their efforts to raise awareness, battle diseases, and help women, they would embrace individuals' efforts to raise awareness. If they were sincere about their efforts to cultivate a climate of respect for women, they would have celebrated William Gay's subtle tribute to the mother he lost to domestic violence.
Instead Williams' request to wear pink throughout more of the season was denied, while Heyward, Williams,and Gay were all fined for violating the NFL's strict policy about uniforms and attire. Instead of the deeply personal Iron Head eyeblack, Heyward opted for the NFL-endorsed "Tackle Cancer" phrase in Week 7. Gay was deferential to the NFL rules:
William Gay very frankly told me: "I broke the rule." Said he hopes the NFL will send his entire fine to a domestic violence cause.— Aditi Kinkhabwala (@AKinkhabwala) October 28, 2015
With all of the negative publicity the NFL generates because of players' character flaws (and crimes), embracing Williams, Heyward, and Gay instead of punishing them-- or denying a reasonable request-- would do more for the NFL's image that Pink October.
Simply put, the NFL cannot repair its image until it changes its underlying values and attitudes.