Thursday, October 25, 2012

Pink Football - Sports and Cancer

 I was watching the Seahawks and Patriots the other day, and I know I should have been yelling about the Seahawks’ pathetic passing game, but all I could notice were pink flashes of color from the pink shoes, gloves and towels worn by many of the players. To be honest the pink did not really go with the Seahawks blue, yellow and green color schemes, but the color did its job, it etched into the spectators the importance of fighting breast cancer and all cancers. I remembered this was breast cancer awareness month. Those streaks of pink changed the game for me.

Color plays a huge role in sports culture. Many colors, like Michigan’s maize and blue or the St. Louis Cardinals’ red, grow from tradition. Color provides a uniform for teams and a unifying symbol of identity and community for fans. College and professional stadiums and field houses present restless seas of a team’s color. People signal their loyalties and commonalities as well as antipathies with their color-coded jerseys and paraphernalia. People on the street nod to a fellow supporter and may frown at someone wearingenemy colors.

Professional and college teams carry this to astounding depths. The NFL presents the epitome of a profession that demands uniformity of color in marketing and team activities. Professional and collegiate athletics color code everything from pens to socks to jocks to uniforms to stationary. Cheerleaders, bands, coaches, players and senior staff all wear mandated colors.

Walking into an operations center of a successful college of professional sports franchise you will walk on color coordinated carpets past color coordinated walls with decorations, awards and color coordinated logos lining the walls. Coaches’ and administrator’s offices will sparkle with official sanctioned logos and mascot likenesses. My favorites are the Top Pot Seahawk donuts with green and blue sprinkles you can get at the games.

Color binds together the sport’s communities and nurtures an emblematic connection. It joins players, fans and coaches together as a common army, oops, I mean community, bound together to support, celebrate and sorrow together.

 I was so used to the multi-level attention to color schemes that the incongruous pink shoes, neon pink gloves or chin straps or wagging pink towels shocked me. But then that was the point, wasn't’ it?
The color pink has become linked to an idea of femininity in modern America. A cascade of pink covered us when our daughter was born! Yet pink it not a primary color. It is watered down red—the color of blood and life. This dilute red caught some of the power of red but thinned the color into something delicate and fragile, compare a pink rose to a blood rose. Shrouding women and female babies in pink could begin the process of inculcating a particular vision of how to be a woman. This pink vision never included being an athlete or competing in sports. So the paradoxical connection of pink and sports carries even more power.

Yet female athletes have coopted pink and turned it not into a camp color, but a vibrant sign of celebrating feminine possibility. Their pinks tend to be brash and neon and pop out rather than fade into a gauzy background.

Young women and the women’s movement have elevated pink to a symbol to unite all people to remember the victims of breast cancer and to promise to engage the fight against it. Breast cancer had grown into a silent epidemic. The silence manifests a tendency of American medicine to be blind to certain diseases of women and the poor. Now worldwide breast cancer alliances fight cancer using pink as their rallying point to raise awareness, raise money and raise common allies across gender lines.

The marketing genius of aligning pink with sport not only defies the past, but it channels the color into a new vision. This pink expands the realm where women can succeed as well as highlighting a once hidden disease, a disease so hidden many women were not aware of its danger nor how to search for and act upon it. Now groups and events from races for the cure to pink biker groups celebrate the color and cause.

Linking pink to athletics works because professional and college sports embody youth, physicality and health. These athletes personify the strength, risk-taking and immortality only the young and healthy can exhibit. Many of us watch them and admire and celebrate them as well as root for our teams. Inserting pink to remind us of cancer carries a special potency given the audience who seeks out sports.

Linking pink with sports turns stereotypes inside out. Yesterday I saw pink boxing gloves in the window of a store both pointing to boxing as a realm women have entered but also reminding people to take breast cancer and all cancer seriously.  The UW pink basketball uniforms are actually quite cool. The athletes enjoy wearing them not just as a symbolic statement but because they look good in pink.

I attended a UW volleyball game last weekend that celebrated breast cancer awareness month and got the full immersive power of this alignment. Both teams wore pink warm ups. Coaches wore pink shirts with the mandatory purple W logo. Ushers wore pink. Student athletes in the student athlete section wore robust pink T-shirts with big W on them. The cheerleaders, of course, sported pink pompoms. The crowd cheered the messages on cancer awareness flashing on the huge scoreboard. All the breast cancer survivors and later all cancer survivors as well as those connected to cancer victims and survivors stood to be recognized. All the visceral power of sport, community and pink came together to recognize the threat and celebrate the struggle.

The NFL players provide another type of jolt. Here are some of the strongest toughest and most macho symbols of American culture. Yet the NFL gave permission to individuals to violate the league’s obsession with uniformity and wear pink during this month to show solidarity with the cause and with women. Just seeing these robust men wear pink, proudly and clearly, and proclaim their support with a pink chinstrap or shoe or towel sends a message of support to the 40 million people watching the games. But more deeply, it demonstrates that archetypical athletic males can connect to pink and not fear it or the women it symbolizes. I may be blowing in the wind here, but I believe these symbolic actions matter over time to erode the boundaries of gender identity that football can sometimes seem to enshrine more than any other sport.

Pink uniforms, pompoms, cleats, chin straps, gloves, warm ups appropriate and expand the possibilities of the feminine; but it also awakens, reminds and unites us all that we share a common enemy in breast cancer and all cancers. 

Pink football: bring it on. 


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  2. As a breast cancer survivor, and former NFL cheerleader I am encouraged by the evolution of breast cancer awareness. The Pink Ribbon has become a strategic marketing approach not only through increasing retail sales, but increasing viewership and fan base for many professional sports teams. It is not a coincidence that the profile of the average retailer buyer is the same as the profile of the breast cancer community

    I’m not that we remove the sea of pink from professional sports, however it is time that those profiting from these campaigns become accountable. (NASCAR and MLB not to be excluded.) As our healthcare environment continues to close access to care and treatment these millions of dollars are desperately needed in the breast cancer community.

    Please read the articles attached as evidence of what could be done.

  3. I agree. I think a number of fans would see RED if they knew how LITTLE of those pink campaign proceeds goes to the breast cancer charities!! 5% is the amount I have seen. Why should professional sports or retailers make a profit? Why not donate 100%? They are "double-dipping" and more than that--duping fans and consumers into believing their donations are being used in a meaningful way!

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