Every NFL season, Bobbie Shay Lee sees a battle of pink vs. purple. In October, the National Football League turns pink. Players wear pink gloves and pink cleats, honoring the pink ribbon that symbolizes Breast Cancer Awareness Month. But October is also Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Its symbol is the purple ribbon. Lee is a former Tampa Bay Buccaneers cheerleader and domestic violence advocate who was diagnosed with breast cancer 16 years ago. She believes that the women's cause that the NFL chooses to support is telling. "Both of the issues share the same awareness month," she said. "Yet I've seen nothing to show support or awareness of the domestic violence community. "We're right back on the pink bandwagon."
Every October, the NFL joins with the American Cancer Society to spread the message that women need regular breast cancer screenings. But this year's campaign coincides with outrage over the league's handling of violence against women.
Now some wonder whether the NFL's issues with domestic violence by its players will cause women to take issue with the NFL.
That's a big concern for a league that makes billions in part because of 57 million women who watched the NFL in 2013. The league's problems could also affect the ACS' message.
"You can't say we're really trying to help with breast cancer awareness and toss domestic violence under the rug," said sociology professor Adrienne Trier-Bieniek of Valencia College.
ACS spokeswoman Tara Peters said that the NFL's failures on one issue should not detract from the good the league does for another.
"This is not an either-or proposition," she said. "These are both serious and important issues for women and families, and there's room for people to care about both."
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The NFL started the Crucial Catch campaign in 2009 to emphasize regular mammograms and clinical breast exams. The ACS estimated that 232,670 new cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed in 2014 and 40,000 women will die of the disease.
In five years, the league has also raised $7 million for the ACS by selling pink NFL merchandise and auctioning off game-worn apparel.
The NFL donates all its royalties from pink merchandise to the ACS (retailers and manufacturers still get their share). The ACS has used that money to pay for breast cancer screenings for more than 20,000 women who might not have access to regular health care. The campaign is not meant, however, to raise money for breast cancer research.
The ACS said the NFL helps spread its message to half the country, or about 150 million Americans.
But this year, female fans must reconcile the NFL's public concern for their health with how the league handled the case of former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has been criticized for his response to a video of Rice attacking his wife inside a casino elevator that was made public.
At first, Goodell suspended Rice for two games. But after the video spread, the Ravens cut Rice and the commissioner suspended him indefinitely.
Now the league is investigating its own handling of the Rice case. The cases of other players implicated in domestic violence cases is also being scrutinized.
In response, the NFL announced partnerships with the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. The league is also airing more public service announcements to prevent domestic violence and sexual assault.
"We are accountable to all of our fans, male and female," NFL vice president of social responsibility Anna Isaacson wrote in an email. "We work to earn our fans' trust every day on any number of issues, certainly including our response to the issues of domestic violence and sexual assault.
"We are committed to getting this right."
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Lee also accused the NFL of "pinkwashing," an unflattering term used by critics of the pink ribbon movement.
It's used to describe corporations that get more out of the pink ribbon, such as good publicity and profits, than they give back to the cause.
Lee was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998, the last of her three years as a SwashBuckler. (That's what the Bucs cheerleaders were called then.) She said that for corporations like the NFL, the pink ribbon is about sales, not public service.
"We want to believe and we need to believe that they're going to find a cure, and that a group like the NFL cares," said Lee, 42, whose cancer has not recurred. "But they don't care."
There's a lot of politics behind the pink ribbon, said medical sociologist Gayle Sulik, another pinkwashing critic who studies the culture and industry that has grown up amid the breast cancer movement.
She said the NFL's problems with concussions and brain trauma suffered by its own players, as well as its handling of players accused of abusing women, make the league an imperfect messenger to promote women's health.
"That makes this pink stuff look like even more of a smoke screen," she said.
The pink ribbon has become a polarizing symbol, Sulik said. Some women find it to be a cloying, corporate-driven spectacle that glosses over the grim realities of the disease. But others believe it is a powerful symbol of support and solidarity for their collective ordeal.
Cat Coats certainly does these days. The wife of former Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats had never been too keen on pink. That changed for her when she was diagnosed in 2011. The sheriff abruptly resigned from his office to help his wife.
Chemotherapy had left her bald when she walked out for the coin toss for a Monday Night Football game that year at Raymond James Stadium.
The Bucs' arms and legs were draped in pink. Cheerleaders shook pink pom-poms.
She remembered former Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber saying that his mother and grandmother both had the disease.
"He just gave me a big hug and kiss," she said.
Now she breaks out the pink every October. Coats, 59, is still cancer free and said the pink ribbon has a lot of meaning for her.
"Going through the cancer, every day is such a sad journey — every day you're fighting for your life," she said. "To have anything that gave you a little bit of joy, that helped your journey along, was good.
"And they did give me a lot of joy."
The ACS's Peters said the pink ribbon should not be so divisive.
"The enemy is breast cancer," she said. "The enemy is not the pink ribbon."
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Will the NFL's domestic violence issues detract from this year's breast cancer awareness campaign?
"That has not been our experience," Peters said.
But the more complicated question is: What effect will those problems have on the NFL's female fans, consumers and viewers?
DePaul University professor Ron Culp, who teaches public relations and advertising, doesn't think that the NFL's popularity with women will suffer too much.
"Female fans understand that the transgressions of a couple of fools doesn't make for the entire league," he said.
The NFL's sponsors, however, have been critical of the league. In September, Procter & Gamble canceled a joint breast cancer awareness promotion with the NFL. Anheuser-Busch, whose Bud Light is the official beer of the NFL, went further and called out the league.
"We are disappointed and increasingly concerned by the recent incidents that have overshadowed this NFL season," the company said in a statement. "We are not yet satisfied with the league's handling of behaviors that so clearly go against our own company culture and moral code."
When Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was indicted for whipping his 4-year-old son with a tree branch, leaving bloody marks, the Radisson Hotel chain suspended its sponsorship deal with the team. But so far the NFL has not lost any of its national sponsors.
Those sponsors might be waiting to see how the NFL's problems affect its ratings — so far, they haven't. According to Nielsen Media Research, 18 million viewers, including 6.2 million women, watched the NFL on Sept. 14. Both the number of overall viewers and the number of female viewers are up from the average in 2013.
"But what if ratings start to dip?" said Boston University professor Chris Cakebread, who specializes in sports advertising. "Then they'll have a real problem on their hands. That's when sponsors will start to get itchy and start taking their money somewhere else.
"Having said that, the reality is there really is nowhere else to go. There's no one else that has the power of live viewing of football."
One thing that could worry the NFL: In Culp's classes at DePaul, female students who already follow the NFL said they don't plan to stop watching — but those who don't watch seemed less inclined to start watching and become fans.
The NFL's woes could keep it from growing its future female fan base.
Still, the league seems to have weathered the storm, Culp said. But what if the storm's not over?
"You're only one elevator ride away from disaster," he said, "because the public will not be forgiving if there's another incident and it's as poorly handled as the last two."
Valencia College's Trier-Bieniek is in a family of Detroit Lions fans and plays fantasy football. Shell. She's not going to stop watching the NFL and doesn't think most women will, either.
But she, along with other women, might show their disapproval of the NFL in other ways.
"I'm going to continue to watch," she said, "but I'm not going to attend games, and I'm not going to buy merchandise."
Contact Jamal Thalji at [email protected] or (813) 226-3404. Follow @jthalji.