I have never been impressed with the National Football League’s campaign to raise awareness and funds for breast cancer. It seemed like a glib mass marketing/publicity stunt that didn’t really match the NFL’s target audience or purpose. I love the idea that the NFL is choosing to support a cause, but why this one? I think the exposure is wasted on a cause that already gets a lot of attention and money.
The NFL has millions of spectators so an NFL public service campaign has wide reach and potential. But I don’t think NFL players and spectators are the target audience that needs to hear messaging about breast cancer. I know many NFL fans are women but most of them are men. I said this to a guy once who countered that NFL players and spectators are impacted by breast cancer because it affects their mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters. Borrowing that line of reasoning…
Sexual assault and domestic abuse impacts their mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters too. And unlike breast cancer, where prevention depends mostly on women and their doctors, sexual assault and domestic violence are problems that men can prevent on their own. Men commit most of the violence, so we need interventions and messaging targeted towards men. And the NFL could reach a lot of men.
It’s easy to put on pink gloves and jerseys to “fight” breast cancer. Cancer is an easy opponent – no likes cancer, everyone agrees cancer is bad. The NFL’s campaign is an easy, cheap form of support – especially when America gets covered in thick blanket of pink each October. And while people also dislike violence against women and children, people don’t actively support this cause because of the cultural myths and narratives we have developed. It’s easier to fight a disease than it is to fight what Don McPherson calls the “myth of the monster” sexual predator.
Recently, allegations broke that administrators at Penn State had known about defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky’s sexual abuse of young boys since 2002 and engaged in a cover-up. No one contacted the police and Sandusky was able to continue his predatory behavior. And the NFL has had many allegations of players engaging in violence against women and sexual assault.
I’m not heaping blame on the NFL. The NFL and college football have a problem with sexual assault and violence because America has a problem with sexual assault and violence. This is a deep systemic cultural issue. An NFL campaign about sexual assault and violence would reach the true target audience, help women and children, and raise funds on a level that few if any other campaigns could. It could assist the NFL address an issue that it needs help with.
America’s cultural perception of football as all-American and a positive symbol of masculinity gives it a level of credibility with men that a women’s or government’s campaign could not achieve. An NFL campaign could be a game changer for stopping victim blaming, raising awareness and encouraging people to stop looking the other way. It has the potential to change our cultural response to sexual violence. I don’t think the NFL campaign for breast cancer is producing the same impact.
About 1 in 8 women will get a diagnosis of breast cancer in their lifetime. Each year, there are approximately 200,000 new cases of breast cancers and 40,000 deaths.
It is estimated that somewhere between 1 in 3 and 1 in 10 American women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime and that 1 in 4 children are molested. According to the Centers for Disease Control’s fact sheet on sexual violence, nearly a quarter of college women experienced forced sexual contact. Each year, women experience over 4.8 million physical and sexual assaults from intimate partners.
I’m not trivializing breast cancer or the impact of breast cancer on women and their families. I’m saying that violence against women and children is a huge societal problem that gets much less attention, sympathy, and funding - and whose outcomes could be much better impacted by an NFL campaign.
The NFL has the right to support any cause they want to, and there are a lot of worthy causes to support. It’s awesome to see the NFL run public service campaigns when it’s not part of their core mission – credit and praise is due. But if the NFL really wants to make a difference in women’s lives, promote public health, and improve the lives of a lot of Americans, I think they’re picking the wrong cause to promote year after year.
I hope the NFL wears green or purple next year.