If you're a football fan—and, y'know, a good human being—you've probably once in the last six years been lured into buying the NFL's Pink October paraphernalia and then slept well thinking about your contribution to the league's effort to "help fight breast cancer."
In which case, this might keep you awake: The month-long campaign that paints everything from player's shoes to fields to penalty flags pink, doesn't actually result in a single dollar donated to breast cancer research. Yup, not a penny.
This is how it works: The NFL donates proceeds from its awareness campaign, auctions, and the NFL Shop to the American Cancer Society (ACS), which in turns uses that money to increase awareness, education, and screenings for women over 40.
"The money that we receive from NFL has nothing to do with our research program," ACS spokeswoman Tara Peters told VICE Sports. All NFL donations go to ACS' CHANGE program, through which the organization awards grants to "community based health facilities" located within 100 miles of an NFL city for educating women about breast health. The ACS could not provide the names of any of these health facilities, but it says that these centers have answered questions about early detection of the disease for at least 72,000 women in the last three years and screened 10,000 women at little or no cost.
Seems admirable, right? Actually, no, says Karuna Jaggar, who heads the Think Before You Pink campaign, a watchdog for the country's breast cancer programs. She finds the NFL's A Crucial Catch campaign's public health message, "Annual Screening Saves Lives," highly misinformative.
Dutifully branded Pink October towels at an NFL game. Photo by Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
"Screening doesn't save lives and screening mammography … is different from diagnostic mammography," Jagger says. "The NFL has no business providing medical advice to women that is outdated, unproven, and misguided."
Jagger quotes well-regarded and independently conducted research that shows screening mammography has no overall impact on survival rates of women with the disease. The most substantive mammography research, a study that followed 100,000 women for 25 years, concluded that annual screening does not result in a reduction in breast cancer specific mortality for women over 40 in any way that goes beyond physical examination. These screenings are the mainstay and only measurable aspect of the NFL's A Crucial Catch campaign, which Jaggar says is spreading an outdated message about early detection.
Her organization, Breast Cancer Action, urges people to follow the money before they buy cute pink things waiting for the next big breakthrough for the disease. The important questions to ask are: How much money from pink products is going to any effective programs that are actively trying to fight breast cancer? What are those programs doing with the money? And is there a cap on the amount of money that companies donate? In other words, are sales benefitting women's health after a company's self-imposed donation threshold has been met? In 2010, Reebok set a $750,000 cap on their contribution to the Avon Breast Cancer Crusade regardless of how many of their pink-ribboned products were sold. There was no way for the consumers to know if that limit had already been met.
In the NFL's case, too, there are some clauses written in fine print. Their website claims that, at retail, 100 percent of the NFL's proceeds from Pink October product sales go to the ACS. But that does not mean if you buy a $100 shoe from NFLShop.com, ACS gets $100. If you're buying any pink products from the official shop, the wholesaler, distributor, and retailer give 0 percent of their shares to ACS. The only portion that goes to the society is the NFL's royalty percentage from wholesale sales, which has little to do with whether you buy a $80 hoodie or a $30 cap. Unlike some companies that spell out on the tag exactly what percentage of your purchase goes to charity, you have no way of knowing with NFL branded merchandise.
In fact, the NFL's claim of 100 percent proceeds from auction and 100 percent proceeds from retail has translated to an average of just $1.1 million every year since they partnered with ACS six years ago. That's less than .01 percent of the approximately $10 billion the league made in revenue last year. And almost five times less than what ACS' other partners, such as Walgreens, manage to donate to the same program—a program that, again, gives zero dollars to cancer research.
"You can't shop your way out of the breast cancer epidemic," Jaggar says. "There's definitely a lot of hypocrisy in the NFL trying to choose a popular charity when there are other significant problems within the league."
If you'd really like to sleep well, donating directly to a cancer charity that is more transparent may be a better idea.
Editor's Note: Prior to publication, VICE Sports reached out to the NFL via email for comment. A response came at 4:02 PM EST on October 7 stating they would be "back in touch soon." VICE Sports received no followup response prior to publication.