The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Pittsburgh Steeler wanted to wear pink all season for breast cancer. The NFL said no.

Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III earlier this month. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
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Every October in the NFL, pink happens. To raise awareness about breast cancer, there are pink pom-poms, pink cleats and pink ribbons on game balls. This is what the NFL’s breast cancer awareness month looks like.

But one player — Pittsburgh Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams — wanted to to make every month breast cancer awareness month. For Williams, who lost his mother and four aunts to it, this was not just a league initiative — this was personal.

“My daughter, pink is her favorite color,” Williams said in an NFL spot for breast cancer awareness. ” … She always says, ‘It’s pink for Nana.’ ”

Pink and what it represents, Williams said, is a fundamental part of his life.

“Pink is not a color, it’s a culture to me,” he said. “I’ll wear the color pink on the field for the rest of my career. To all the survivors and the ones that’s going through it: We love you. You’re not alone. We will continue this fight against breast cancer.”

So Williams asked if he could wear pink accessories on the gridiron all season long. And an NFL official told him no. The news came from NFL vice president of football operations Troy Vincent, Williams told ESPN. Vincent said that there are no exceptions to the league’s uniform policy. And Williams was not happy.

“It’s not just about October for me,” Williams, who recently paid for more than 50 free mammograms for women in need, said. “It’s not just a month, it’s a lifestyle. It’s about getting women to recognize to get tested.”

In lieu of wristbands or shoes, Williams dyed the tips of his hair pink.

“The hair, it’s part of the uniform from the standpoint of being tackled, but it’s not specific on what color it has to be or if it has to match the uniform,” he said.

But the refusal of the NFL — a league with a shaky record on domestic violence that’s seen by some as disinterested in protecting women — brought outrage.

“No, Williams can’t suit up in pink every Sunday in honor of his lost loved ones, because of a static rulebook that everyone thinks is too rigid and complicated anyway,” Justin Block wrote at the Huffington Post. “Let the man wear his pink.”

A month, it seemed, wasn’t enough.

“Why stop there?” Rana L. Cash wrote at Sporting News. “Why not give players the option to continue the message, right through the Super Bowl? Nearly 232,000 cases of invasive breast cancer in women will be discovered this year alone. It doesn’t start and stop in Weeks 4-8. This isn’t making a fashion statement, pushing a brand or setting an agenda.”

Breast Cancer Awareness campaigns, and the licensed pink products they sell, are everywhere you look. But how much of that money goes toward finding a cure? (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

Indeed, the NFL’s embrace of breast cancer awareness month, which began in 2009, has been criticized as just that: mere advertising that offers little benefit to women.

“But if you think buying a $26.95 pink-lined Patriots hat means $26.95 toward the fight against breast cancer, think again,” The Washington Post’s Gillian Brockell wrote last year. “About 12.5 percent of the sales price of NFL-branded ‘pink’ products typically goes to charity, according to NFL spokeswoman Clare Graff. In the case of the hat, that would be $3.37.”

[The NFL is covered in pink, but only a sliver of sales goes to breast cancer research]

Even worse, Vice reported last year that the NFL’s donations support not breast cancer research, but breast cancer screening — the value of which has been questioned.

“Screening doesn’t save lives and screening mammography … is different from diagnostic mammography,” said Karuna Jaggar of Think Before You Pink, a campaign that “calls for more transparency and accountability by companies that take part in breast cancer fundraising.” “The NFL has no business providing medical advice to women that is outdated, unproven and misguided.” She added: “You can’t shop your way out of the breast cancer epidemic.”

Some have also wondered whether the NFL is guilty of “pinkwashing” — using breast cancer to, more or less, sell more flash.

“By focusing solely on breast cancer year after year — and by making its campaign mostly about raising the ever-ambiguous ‘awareness’ of the disease, as if something affecting hundreds of thousands of women is somehow a secret — while sending little in the way of real funds towards research, how much good the NFL is doing is an open question,” Pat Garofalo wrote in U.S. News and World Report in 2013.

The NFL did not respond to Vice’s requests for comments — or to ESPN’s requests for comment on Williams’s pink problem.