Fuck the NFL’s Yearly Attempt to Cash in on Cancer

Image captured by David Jay as part of his The SCAR Project series

I remember the feeling of uncertainty when my mother told me, at age 15, that her breast cancer had returned, and that she would soon be back in chemotherapy.

After years of radiation, hair loss, and next to no energy, I had gotten back the closest approximation of the mother I remembered from my childhood. She was more lively. She showed up to football games and had started helping out in the concession stand. I didn’t have to stay at friends houses nearly as often, as she had began to regain enough energy to do things like cook and care for herself when not in the care of Mass General’s nursing staff. And now, all of these strides were in question.

Suddenly, my mother, who, in a macabre irony that has never really escaped either of us, made her living running a breast and cervical cancer education program for minority women, would be fragile again, thanks to the disease that took her mother from her.

It is through this lens that I’ve come to view the National Football League’s yearly attempts to cash in on breast cancer.

Of course, we’ll never get the NFL to own up to its shameless co-opting of a disease that, while diminished, continues to devastate women and families nationwide. But can’t they do it well?

Sure, fans appreciate the gesture: I’m sure the survivors who welcomed the Buffalo Bills to the field will remember their opportunity, along with the warm response from fans, for years to come. The NFL’s yearly Crucial Catch program, its effort to highlight the stories of players and coaches who have been affected by the disease, and its charitable donations to causes and organizations are all laudable. Still, the same league that refuses to let Deangelo Williams, the Pittsburgh Steelers Running Back who lost his mother to breast cancer in 2014, wear the pink accessories it makes available to its players in October for the duration of the season, which also happens to have a longstanding issue with pandering to its female fans in ways that would make Don Draper blush, leaves their October efforts under a cloud of suspicion.

The NFL, in the past two or three years, owes half its presence in the daily news cycle to something boneheaded, barbaric, or just plain stupid. Chief among those issues is football’s impact on the human brain, a phenomenon that the NFL spent years running from, and has only recently begun to address substantively. All it took to squeeze so little blood from that stone was a documentary they tried to quash, with commentary from a doctor they tried to ruin, which featured the story of a former player whose family they tried to nickel and dime.

Still, CTE, along with Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice, Ray McDonald, Deflategate and the rolling calamity of a team down in Jacksonville, have been unable to ease the NFL’s chokehold on American wallets. And, with the male demographic all but saturated in the eyes of the league, women, who make up 45% of viewership, need to be on board if revenue is to continue to soar.

Beyond viewership, according to Dr. Bennet Omalu, the NFL is keenly aware of another role women play:

“An NFL doctor said to me at some point, ‘Bennet, do you know the implications of what you’re doing?’” Omalu said. “He said, ‘If 10 percent of mothers in this country would begin to perceive football as a dangerous sport, that is the end of football.’”

Image captured by David Jay as part of his The SCAR Project series

So why not do more to highlight a very real issue near and dear to the hearts of men and women nationwide? Breast cancer and CTE have no known correlations, but the overwhelming majority of the news concerning head trauma has dealt with the NFL’s inability to treat their players with any empathy. It spent years denying CTE was an issue before admitting it was in the most underhanded way possible. A revamped handling of breast cancer, however, much like any ideal handling of CTE, would show that it was a league with a heart, if not a decent PR arm. Gillette, Lambeau, and other stadiums would face few logistical issues if the NFL decided to widen its focus on breast cancer.

45 minutes away from the Patriots’ home in Foxboro, the Boston Red Sox honor an armed forces veteran during each home game with a brief standing ovation and a gift. America’s problematic relationship with its veterans aside, the gesture is kind and simple with a negligible effect on gameplay. It’s also not a practice confined to Fenway, or a month.

Veterans are a far smaller demographic, with a sliver of the buying power of American women.

To be pragmatic, if not outright cold, think of the PR boon a decision to make breast cancer awareness a yearlong endeavor would prove to be for a league that just recently celebrated its first month without a player’s arrest. Surely the NFL isn’t worried that women and observant fans would take it as a goodwill grab. This is the same league that gave Greg Hardy the same suspension it handed down to Tom Brady. The latter played with his balls, and the former tried to choke the life out of an ex-girlfriend.

If the NFL isn’t going to rid its ranks of the type of reprehensible human being who would put his hands on a woman, it could, at the very least, stretch its faux-samaritan act out over the span of 17 weeks.

Or, it could do the sensible thing:

Let players and teams honor breast cancer as they see fit, be charitable towards the causes it deems fit without attaching them to limited merchandise and alternate uniforms. .

From the son of a breast and cervical cancer survivor, fuck the NFL.

Image captured by David Jay as part of his The SCAR Project series

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