Since 2009, the league has focused a monthlong charitable effort on breast cancer awareness, drawing both praise and some criticism. Beginning next fall, teams will be able to choose their own cancer causes to support

By Jenny Vrentas
December 13, 2016

In the fall of 2014, when Devon Still’s young daughter Leah waged her battle against Stage 4 neuroblastoma, Roger Goodell wrote him a letter. The NFL commissioner  offered support to the defensive lineman and his family and commended him for the way he in which he’d used his voice. Still had been sharing the ups and downs of Leah’s fight publicly, giving the world a window into what it’s like to battle childhood cancer (and ultimately put it into remission) while he bounced between the Bengals’ practice squad and 53-man roster.

Still wrote back to Goodell, offering a suggestion. He said he hoped the league would consider expanding its annual breast cancer platform during the month of October to raise awareness for other types of cancer, too—a change, the NFL says, that will go into effect starting with the 2017 season.

Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

“It lets me know that he’s listening,” says Still, who is now on injured reserve with the Texans. “For a long time, we have been supporting causes close to the heads of the NFL. To find out they are really following through with this, it makes me feel like the players are gaining more of a voice.”

Since 2009, the NFL has dressed up its fields, sidelines and players in pink every October to raise awareness and funds for breast cancer screenings and education in conjunction with the American Cancer Society. Teams were told last week in a league-wide conference call that each club will choose its own cancer cause to support during a three-week window next October.

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The initiative will still be called “A Crucial Catch,” but teams now have a say in the cause they’ll champion for about 18 percent of their schedule. They can still choose breast cancer, or another detectable, screenable cancer such as prostate or colorectal cancer—or one to which a player or coach has a personal tie. Teams can also support more than one cancer cause per season, and they can change their choice(s) from one season to the next. Similar to the “My Cause, My Cleats” campaign that debuted this year, in which players wore customized cleats to share a message for one game, it’s a break from the homogeneity of NFL campaigns in the past.

“It’s a balancing act,” says Anna Isaacson, the NFL’s VP of social responsibility, when asked if this is the start of a trend. “We have seen a lot of success in having focused, strategic campaigns. Focusing on one cause, fundraising for it, bringing it to life, choosing a message, spreading word among our fans. We are committed to that. But we are also committed to making sure the voice of our clubs are heard and making sure the voice of our players is heard.”

Devon Still wore "Leah Strong" patches for his daughter.
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Last fall, Still was part of small group of players who visited NFL headquarters for a meeting about the “My Cause, My Cleats” venture. While there, he asked Goodell if he’d read his letter. That’s when Goodell told him the NFL was planning to include other cancers in its annual campaign. The NFL had been discussing with the ACS over the last two years ways to expand the scope and appeal of its October campaign.

The campaign will still focus on preventing and detecting cancer through education and screenings (rather than committing funds to cancer research). “Screenings are one of the biggest gaps in underserved communities,” says Sharon Byers, the chief marketing and development officer for the ACS. That was the area where the ACS asked for the NFL’s help when they partnered for the breast cancer campaign in ’09.

The NFL says it has raised close to $15 million for the ACS during that eight-year span through the sales of pink merchandise, auction of game-worn equipment and contributions from corporate partners such as Dannon and Ticketmaster. Each of the past two years, grants of $50,000 have been awarded to underserved communities within 100 miles of all 32 NFL cities, as part of an ACS program that helps Federally Qualified Health Centers provide education, outreach and low or no-cost screenings to high-need areas. This model for screening and prevention will now be applied to the cancer types teams select in 2017 and beyond. The ACS is also using funds from the NFL to launch a free digital tool (planned for August) that will allow people to enter basic info such as age and family history to see what screenings they need, and help schedule them with local doctors.

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The NFL’s breast cancer campaign has been met with both praise and criticism throughout the years. Some cast the NFL’s efforts as a publicity stunt to draw female fans, particularly amid the run of mishandled domestic violence cases two seasons ago. The fundraising model has also been scrutinized. For every “pink item” sold, the NFL receives a royalty from the merchandiser, which it donates in full to the ACS. The NFL does not profit off sales of this merchandise. But the royalty is a fraction of the wholesale price, which is a fraction of what consumers spend (about 12.5% of the retail price, according to a 2013 report by ESPN’s Darren Rovell). Byers, for her part, said the NFL “is one of our strongest, if not our strongest, partner,” citing the success of the breast-cancer campaign as the reason for expanding the platform to include other cancers.

Details for 2017 are still being worked out, such as the design of a logo. There will likely not be an element on player uniforms in the first year of the campaign, and there’s not one signature color, so the NFL and ACS are looking into other ways to raise funds beyond the sale and auction of gear and game-used equipment.

“The truth is, as we transition in 2017, it will be a different kind of year,” Isaacson says. “Once we see how that goes, we will know more for 2018. We hope we raise, if not the same, more than we have, of course. The pressure is on to think about how we can do that. That’s the goal, but I wouldn’t say we have solved that yet.”

THE FINE FIFTEEN

1. New England (11-2). LW: 2. Just when you were thinking it’s a bad week for MVP candidates, Tom Brady swoops in on Monday night. Patriots holding position for home-field advantage, as expected.

2. Dallas (11-2). LW: 1. The Cowboys’ offense has mustered a mere 24 points over the last two weeks. A tough game next week against the Bucs will be a good indicator of whether or not this team is postseason-ready or slumping at the wrong time.

3. Kansas City (10-3). LW: 5. You might be surprised by the Chiefs’ success, but they’re not. Winning the AFC West is what they’ve had their eye on since losing in Foxborough last January.

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4. Oakland (10-3). LW: 3. Losing position in the race for home-field advantage was a double whammy for the Raiders. Here’s why: Derek Carr’s injured pinkie finger was not nearly as much a factor the previous week at home in mild California as it was in frigid Kansas City last Thursday night. Right now, the Raiders’ postseason road will go through cold-weather cities, an issue if his injury lingers.

5. Seattle (8-4-1). LW: 4. You can cite the loss of Earl Thomas as a key factor in the Seahawks’ 38-10 drubbing by Green Bay, but what happened to the offense? Because they’ve done it before, the Seahawks make us believe that the ups and downs of the season only make them stronger, but this has been a volatile season.

6. Detroit (9-4). LW: 6. Not a good year for MVP candidates and hand injuries. Now is my recurring opportunity to share the story about that one time I suffered some kind of ligament injury in my finger and for three months it still felt like a bee stung it. Point is, these things linger. And in a game of inches, any discomfort or modification to how a quarterback handles the ball matters.

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7. Pittsburgh (8-5). LW: 8. Le’Veon Bell in the snow looks an awful lot like a postseason run.

8. Atlanta (8-5). LW: 10. Rams last week, Niners this week. Great time of year to be hitting a soft part of the schedule.

9. Giants (9-4). LW: 11. Babe Ruth: Home run or strikeout. This is the 2016 Giants’ offense.

10. Tampa Bay (8-5). LW: 12. The Bucs have rattled off five straight wins, and a big reason why is their ball-hawking defense. Can they keep the streak going against the suddenly reeling Cowboys next week?

11. Denver (8-5). LW: 7. The Broncos postseason hopes took a hit with the loss to Tennessee, and they have perhaps the toughest remaining schedule of any team: vs. Patriots, at Chiefs and vs. Raiders.

12. Baltimore (7-6). LW: 9. Most likely, they have to win out to make the playoffs.

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13. Green Bay (7-6). LW: 15. Ever since Aaron Rodgers said he felt the Packers could run the table, they’ve won three straight. But, beware the calf injury. Rodgers led Green Bay to the NFC Championship game two seasons ago with a calf strain, but it greatly hampered his mobility, one of his best assets as a QB. And calf strains, perhaps more than many other injuries, can be tricky.

14. Washington (7-5-1). LW: 13. Ryan Kerrigan’s forced fumble saved the game and Washington’s postseason aspirations.

15. Miami (8-5). LW: 14. Ryan Tannehill is a lucky man for escaping without a torn ACL on Sunday. But the Dolphins will have to rely on Matt Moore to lead them to the postseason.

Also receiving consideration:

16. Tennessee (7-6). LW: 17.
17. Minnesota (7-6). LW: 16.
18. Houston (7-6). LW: 20.
19. Buffalo (6-7). LW: 19.
20. Indianapolis (6-7). LW: 18.

Question? Comment? Let us know at talkback@themmqb.com

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