The conflicting truth about the NFL's Pink campaign

Ronald Martinez - Getty Images

The NFL touts that it's raised $3 million for the American Cancer Society since 2009. But how much are they really giving them? Contrary to previous reports, the NFL denies that only 5% of the money from pink products go to charity.

Every October, in recognition of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the NFL sets aside the bravado and testosterone the league has become famous for and coerces its players to wear pink gloves, shoes and towels with a pink breast cancer awareness ribbon. The resulting image is that some of the manliest, burliest athletes on the planet can be seen, each week, in the most unmanly of colors.

Most would agree it's a pretty neat way for men to show their support for a women's issue, assuming of course that what the NFL does each October is making a difference. But now that it's in its fourth year, people have begun to ask just what the NFL has accomplished since it began its "A Crucial Catch" venture with the American Cancer Society in 2009. No one has a problem tolerating the color pink so long as it's for a good cause. But that's the question: how much has the NFL really done to eradicate breast cancer?

The NFL touts that it's raised $3 million for the ACS since 2009, "with the majority of the donation coming from the sale of pink items at retail and on NFL Auction." How impressive that total is depends on how much the NFL is actually donating to the American Cancer Society from what they make through the sale of pink products. A recent Business Insider article stated that when B.I. asked the NFL's online shop for the precise amount, the number they got back from the league was 5%.

"If the pink products have a typical 100% mark-up at retail, that means the NFL is keeping 90% of the profit from the sale of Breast Cancer Awareness gear," author Cork Gaines wrote. "And then consider that only 70.8% of money the ACS receives goes towards research and cancer programs. So, for every $100 in sales of pink gear, only $3.54 is going towards research while the NFL is keeping approximately $45 (based on 100% mark-up)."

The immediate reaction to the 5% number was decidedly negative. For context, I asked Ken Berger, the CEO of Charity Navigator, how bad that number is if it's true. (Keep in mind that the NFL is actually listed as a non-profit organization.) "Assuming the facts presented are accurate, this is horrible!" Berger exclaimed. "Here, you have a corporation that's actually getting tax exemptions from the government -- essentially, we're all subsidizing the NFL. You'd like to think they would be more generous with their donations."

I asked Berger what grade Charity Navigator would give the NFL for donating 5% of its proceeds to the ASC. Berger said on their grade scale of 0 to 100, the NFL would get a 0; Charity Navigator considers charities that give 75 cents on the dollar as excellent, and charities that give under 25 cents on the dollar as bad. "If people knew that only 5% of what they were giving was going to charity, I think people would seriously reconsider giving their money," Berger said.

But is it 5 percent? In the Business Insider article, Gaines said that the NFL reached out to him multiple times, once to clarify that the league doesn't profit from the sale of breast cancer awareness merchandise and that any funds not going directly to charity cover the administrative costs of the program. But when I contacted the NFL for comment, I was told this: "The B.I. writer reached out to a sales rep at NFLShop.com, a licensed partner of the league and not an official spokesperson at all, and received inaccurate information about the campaign." The NFL claims that 100 percent of the net proceeds of both auctioned-off game-worn merchandise and regular pink merchandise goes to the American Cancer Society.

Gaines said that while he was told that 100% of auctioned-off products goes to the ASC, he heard a very different number regarding the NFL's at-retail donations. "If the information I obtained was inaccurate, why didn't anybody say that when I spoke with the NFL after the story was published?" Gaines said in an email. "And if the number is inaccurate, then why won't anybody say what the real number is? And if they don't want to divulge the real number, then why are they so quick to divulge that 100% of the auctions from the on-field gear goes to ACS?"

If it is 5 percent, that percentage is actually not inconsistent with what other major corporations donate to select charities through consumer purchases, according to Charity Watch president Daniel Borochoff. Perhaps the most infamous example of a breast cancer partnership was in 2010, when KFC unveiled a pink breast cancer awareness bucket of fried chicken, which was roundly lampooned for being detrimental to women's health since obesity is a major cause of breast cancer. Before the tie-in was discontinued, the amount KFC donated per six-piece bucket was 5 percent.

"If people want to support breast cancer, rather than buy a pink product they ought to directly make a donation to a good charity because you don't really know what portion, if any, of the purchase price is going to help," Borochoff said.

If there is a transparency issue with the NFL, it's because NFL.com/Pink -- the homepage of A Crucial Catch -- does not say how much money goes to charity, merely saying: "To help support this important cause, purchase your NFL pink merchandise at NFLSHOP.com." It's also not the only piece of information missing from the website. A Crucial Catch is listed as being "focused on the importance of annual screenings, especially for women who are 40 and older," and there is a list of 17 markets -- all with NFL teams in them -- where money from the American Cancer Society's "Community Health Advocates National Grants for Empowerment" (CHANGE) program helps to provide screenings to women. However, that's the extent of the information listed about the CHANGE program from both the NFL and the ASC; there is no information as to what the CHANGE program actually is, who it goes to, what it goes to or how it's distributed.

"The program is different in every city based on need and our community partner," Judy Fortin, a spokesman for the American Cancer Society, told me. "In Jacksonville for example, the Society is working with Baptist Health System to utilize Breast Care Coordinators to conduct outreach and screening in Duval County to the under-insured or uninsured members of the community."

Fortin also confirmed that the CHANGE program is a $50,000 grant that is distributed to select hospitals and community centers in each of the 17 markets listed on NFL.com/Pink. That money goes to providing free mammograms to women, who can sign up at the corresponding health center associated with A Crucial Catch. In order to get a free mammogram, a woman must be within a certain zip code of the place providing it. Because the mammograms are intended for proactive women 40 or older, women who have already had breast cancer or who have had a mammogram recently are not eligible.

Unfortunately, neither the NFL nor the ASC provides a list of the hospitals and health centers within each of the markets where a woman could sign up for a free mammogram. And on the Baptist Health's website (e-baptisthealth.com), there is no quick link to sign up for a free screening, or even a mention of the NFL on the front page; it's entirely believable that a woman living in Jacksonville might have no idea that she could get a free mammogram, let alone where she could get one, if she didn't go out of her way to find out.

I asked Clare Graff, a spokesman for the NFL, if the NFL could do a better job at being transparent. "We are very public about the campaign," Graff wrote me, "from annual press outreach to the message banners and on-screen reads you see during NFL games in October. In terms of the CHANGE program specifically, that program is run by the American Cancer Society, a fact we make clear in our press release about the campaign, as well as on our NFL Auction homepage."

I also asked why the CHANGE program only helps women in markets with an NFL franchise. "The cities were selected by the American Cancer Society based on need," Graff said. "Many are not the exact city of an NFL market, but close enough to count within the market, but that was pure coincidence. For example, for New York City, the city that ACS said was most in need was in Freeport, Long Island, about an hour outside of Manhattan. But certainly still within the bounds of an NFL market. Same goes for Youngstown, OH, which is near Cleveland. Being part of an NFL market was not a piece of criteria on our end in terms of which cities we wanted to help with the CHANGE program. We defer to the ACS in terms of choosing the regions in need."

Of course, what makes analyzing the merits of the charity difficult is that, at the heart of it, there are thousands of women getting free mammograms from this -- which is excellent. Even if the NFL is doing this for the most cynical of reasons, even if it's just a way to cajole women into NFL stadiums, if a single life is saved from the NFL's partnership with the ASC, then that's a great thing the NFL has done. The American Cancer Society says that they're very happy with their partnership with the NFL, and I have no reason to doubt them. However, scale and perspective is also very important. If the NFL is indeed pocketing 90% of the money raised from pink products and only giving 5% to the ASC, then there's an enormous amount of money that isn't helping fight breast cancer, which would frankly be inexcusable.

The NFL says that 100% of the proceeds go to charity, and we should all hope that's the case. But even if the figure is 100%, and even if the NFL provided easily-accessible information on where and how women can get breast cancer screenings, it's not unfair to ask how impressive the $3 million the NFL has raised for the ASC really is. From when the NFL partnered with the ASC in 2009 to the end of last year, the NFL has earned roughly $26 billion, with about $8.8 billion coming from merchandising. That means that what the NFL has donated to the ASC amounts to 0.01% of what they've made since the start of the '09 season, and 0.03% of what they've made from retail sales alone. "A million per year out of between $8.5 and $9.5 billion in revenues?" Jezebel's Erin Gloria Ryan recently wrote. "Pardon me while I don't slobber all over the NFL's pink-drenched marketing campaign."

Even beyond the percentages, it's worth noting just how large an undertaking this has been for four years. The NFL has done everything humanly possible to get the color pink on the field; the players and coaches and refs wear pink, the logos of the teams are sometimes pink, there's a pink NFL logo coming out of many commercial breaks. And the NFL has done this each October -- a solid 25% of their season -- for the past three years, and will probably continue to do it every year from now on. Now consider this: in 2011, the MDA Show of Strength, formerly known as the Jerry Lewis Telethon, raised $31 million to fight muscular dystrophy in a single night, and that was down from the amount raised in 2010 ($48 million), when Jerry Lewis was still the host. That means that at their current pace, it would take the NFL another 76 years to raise as much money as the MDA raised in their last two shows. Which begs the question: is this truly the best the NFL can do?

There's certainly a place for the A Crucial Catch campaign. It helps women, and that's the most important thing. But whether it's the discrepancy in the donation numbers, the lack of clarity on some of the cause's finer points, or the paltry percentages from what the NFL actually makes annually, it's not unreasonable to ask if the league could do better. The question shouldn't be if the end justifies the mean, but rather if the end should be a lot bigger considering what the mean is.

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