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The NFL has high school athletes thinking pink, but where are the proceeds going?

The sky goes pink behind the Broad Run student section for an Oct. 17 game against Briar Woods in Ashburn. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

For the eighth straight October, the National Football League has gone pink. Players wear pink gloves, cleats, hats and towels. Referees blow pink whistles. The league drops a pink ribbon beneath its shield on game-used footballs. All of these displays are part of the league’s partnership with the American Cancer Society to raise money and consciousness during breast cancer awareness month.

On many high school athletic fields, players also are going pink, incorporating the colored gear into uniforms and sideline gear and apparel. Retailers have responded by pushing the pink gear front and center on store floor space and websites.

But don’t judge the purchase by its color: Aside from specifically licensed merchandise bearing the NFL pink ribbon shield logo, pink gear sales usually do not benefit any breast cancer-affiliated causes. That means much of what is worn at the youth level is a fashion statement more than a philanthropic effort — whether athletes and their parents know it or not.

Student-athletes and their families make most of these pink purchases on their own, coaches and parents said, usually in anticipation of a designated “pink-out” game. It’s an informal but enthusiastic effort, they said, because student-athletes think they are being charitable. Players will purchase a pink towel or athletic tape ahead of a game, and if they cannot, teammates will help them improvise to present a unified look.

"At the high school level, I don't think there's an awareness of it," said Bill Park, whose son plays football for Lake Braddock Secondary. "It's certainly not at the forefront of what they talk about."

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While many apparel companies and retailers make donations that benefit cancer-fighting and awareness groups, such contributions are not tied directly to sales of the pink merchandise, a surprise to some athletes.

Stone Bridge running back Joshua Breece wears a pink Nike camouflage sleeve and pink socks during October football games. His Ashburn high school held an in-school fundraiser for breast cancer research organizations the final week of September, and he and his teammates figured some of their purchases for their "pink out" game against West Springfield would go to a good cause.

“I’m glad they do give some money,” Breece said of manufacturers, “but I really thought it was a percentage that goes to it. That’s what I was led to believe from other people.”

Charitable benefits vary

The NFL began its "Crucial Catch" program in October 2009 in partnership with the American Cancer Society. Used pink equipment is auctioned off after games, and the proceeds are donated. Fans also can purchase pink licensed NFL gear, and the league's proceeds from those sales also go to the ACS.

The league has raised almost $15 million, according to ACS chief development and marketing officer Sharon Byers. The “Crucial Catch” program and the society’s “Making Strides” fundraising walks are the society’s leading sources of revenue for breast cancer. And the attention garnered from the pink equipment showing up on TV every Sunday for a month is near impossible to value, she said. So is the impact of the awareness spread through other levels of football.

Within a week of the NFL’s first pink game in 2009, Anna Isaacson, the league’s senior vice president of social responsibility, saw the look gaining traction. She was driving past a high school football game in Cleveland on a Friday night and saw the bleachers full of pink-clad fans. Cheerleaders waved pink pom-poms on the sidelines. Players had colored their cleats in pink and wore pink tape. Isaacson pulled up to the school and started taking pictures. She said it’s one of her proudest moments working for the NFL.

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Sporting goods manufacturers and retailers have filled the demand for pink gear, though the charitable benefits of such purchases vary.

Dick’s Sporting Goods promises free shipping for 18 categories of “Show Your Support” pink merchandise, but only one category — items bearing the NFL logo — is subject to donations per sale.

Under Armour advertises a product line called "Power in Pink," which includes items bearing the pink ribbon used to signify breast cancer. Proceeds from those purchases fund a $10 million pledge to Johns Hopkins Hospital Kimmel Cancer Center in Baltimore to establish the UA Breast Health Innovation Center.

Other manufacturers and retailers often make large contributions to cancer-fighting and awareness groups. Dick's, which reported $597 million in profits in the quarter ending in August, donated $50,000 this year to the National Breast Cancer Foundation.

But individual purchases do not benefit any particular charitable organization, and the lump sum gifts are not derived as a portion of sales. A representative of Dick’s declined to explain how those donation decisions were made.

Both companies in written statements said they were “proud” of their affiliation with breast cancer organizations.

“If a company is putting out products that clearly consumers will think are supporting the breast cancer fight, they should make it very obvious that they have skin in the game in terms of the contribution they are making to that cause,” said David Hessekiel, president of Cause Marketing Forum, a company that produces conferences and an online marketplace for business and charity executives.

Measuring awareness

The issue is transparency, Hessekiel said. Customers deserve to know when their money is going to a charity or a business, especially when merchandise is presented as if it’s part of some larger effort.

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“This is where it gets difficult,” he said. “You can’t prosecute someone for making something pink. And nobody owns the pink ribbon.”

This year, the NFL has invited high schools, including Fairfax's W.T. Woodson, to sign up with "Crucial Catch" and borrow equipment such as goal post pads or pylons for pink-out games. And regardless of who's directly benefiting from the sales of pink socks, schools often organize fundraisers in conjunction with their "pink out" games. Plus, there's the "awareness" aspect of the campaign.

“That’s what’s been really incredible to see,” Isaacson said. “That the message could spread through youth football players who are encouraging their moms and grandmothers and the women in their lives to get screened.”

And the colorful campaigns go beyond breast cancer awareness. At Briar Woods High in Ashburn, players wore yellow socks and held fundraisers to raise money for a documentary film campaign about children battling cancer. They also have sported purple ribbon helmet decals and collected money for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund in memory of Coach Charlie Pierce's wife, who died of complications of diabetes.

Still, when fashion marketing gets conflated with charitable giving, consumers can be left feeling justifiably confused.

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“To the extent that it leads to a bump or moves the needle in terms of direct donations, that’s great. It’s all good on some level,” said Charles Lindsey, a professor of marketing at the University at Buffalo. “But when you get down to the nitty-gritty and we’re not just talking about indirect awareness and we talk about how much [money] passes through, it’s like anything in society: We all can improve.”