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If You Really Want to Help Cancer Research, Don't Give Money to the NFL

Despite the National Football League's contributions to the American Cancer Society through its official "Crucial Catch" campaign, data shows the league doesn't prioritize much besides its own corporate interests.
Photo by Kena Krutsinger via Getty Images

Questions about the NFL's charitable disposition are getting more common these days: Is the NFL wearing pink to soften its image and increase profits? Do the NFL's pink donations go where they say they go? Is football masquerading as a charity? There's not a simple answer.

Despite the National Football League's contributions to the American Cancer Society through its official "Crucial Catch" campaign, the league is not really a breast cancer philanthropist. Sure, players wear pink cleats, halftime shows feature pink ribbons and breast cancer survivors, and clubs host events or reach out to select breast cancer charities, but data analysis shows that the NFL is first and foremost a major corporate entity that acts in the interests of themselves, their stakeholders, and employees. CNN Money reports the NFL to be the "most profitable pro sports league in the US, raking in an estimated $1 billion in profits on $10.5 billion in revenue."


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It's not easy to find solid information on the league's philanthropic endeavors. Each NFL club has charitable initiatives, often overlapping with those of the league. Individual players, current and retired, have theirs as well. Some programs are channeled through separate nonprofits; others are housed within private foundations. To get a sense of the league's priorities, it's necessary to look at the NFL Foundation—the 501(c)(3) non-profit that officially represents the philanthropic mission of the league's 32 clubs.

In the name of philanthropy

The NFL Foundation was established to fund charitable projects on a national scale. Restructured in 2012 to merge its predecessor NFL Charities (est. 1973) and the more recent NFL Youth Football Fund, the foundation actively promotes youth football. It also gives support to sports-related medical research and education grants, funding to former NFL players in need, and limited support to the philanthropic activities of the clubs and individual player foundations. But the major grant programs reveal the NFL's top priorities: to build football culture, to grow the market, and to sustain the franchises.

The NFL Foundation website reports $368 million in charitable contributions since inception; the most recent available tax filings are from the 2013 tax year. According to their Form 990 on GuideStar, a database of public information on IRS-registered nonprofits, the foundation reported $34.2 million in revenues, $28.4 million in expenses, and $28 million in grants and other assistance to governments and organizations. Almost all the clubs gave about $57,000 as a donation or tithing to the foundation. The clubs get a bit of a tax break from funding the foundation, which then gives money back to them through various grants.


The foundation's 87 disbursements in 2013 fell primarily into the following grant categories, which were challenging to identify, as the contact information of the beneficiary organizations was sometimes incomplete:

From these basic allocations, it's difficult to tell whether the NFL is effectively managing its charitable portfolio or having a meaningful impact. Neither the Better Business Bureau's BBB Wise Giving Alliance, which evaluates over 1,200 charities, nor the nonprofit guide to the "philanthropic marketplace" Charity Navigator has evaluated the NFL Foundation's effectiveness and oversight. What is clear is that the NFL is committed to creating a football culture oriented to the NFL; the NFL's annual giving portfolio certainly seems to focus public attention on the fun and safety of the sport and the NFL's role in protecting and caring for professional and amateur players—arguably with the intent of fortifying its legacy while cross-marketing NFL programming and distracting the public from negative press.

The NFL's annual giving portfolio certainly seems to focus public attention on the fun and safety of the sport.

For example, the highest allocation went to youth football camps, with $6.4 million to USA Football—the tax-exempt organization that is, since 2008, the official youth football development partner of the NFL, the NFL Players Association, and the league's 32 teams. Head coach David Shaw says that USA Football on the youth level "is allowing parents to say, 'You know what? My children are being taught by someone who knows what they are doing.' The coach has been certified. He knows how to teach the game, so the kids can play the game the right way—a safer way.'"


Coordinator of Corporate Communications at the San Francisco 49ers Emily Lucas told Broadly that the team's youth football program provides an opportunity for kids ages 5 to 18 to "experience football through a multitude of diverse programs aimed at creating young and healthy leaders on and off the field." However, this emphasis on "healthy leaders" exists against a backdrop of decades of denial concerning players' brain injuries from repeated blows to the head and numerous allegations of violence on and off the professional field.

The NFL similarly allocates a large amount of charity giving to programs affiliated with USA Football, like Heads Up Football and the NFL Grassroots Program. Heads Up Football, developed in 2013 to teach young players to keep their heads out of tackling, received $1.1 million from the Foundation that same year. There are 150,000 coach members and 5,500 Heads up organizations, according to the Heads Up website. The NFL Grassroots Program, with technical management from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), has helped to restore or build more than 256 football fields in 70 cities in NFL target markets. The Foundation's disbursement to Grassroots was almost $3 million in 2013, and nearly $40 million since the program started in 1998.

While Heads Up is centered on football culture and safe play, the Grassroots program serves communities in NFL markets more generally. LISC Senior Program Director Beverly Smith told Broadly, "These fields provide clean, safe recreational spaces in low- and moderate-income communities where people can come together. It's ultimately about health and quality of life."


This emphasis on 'healthy leaders' exists against a backdrop of decades of denial concerning players' brain injuries from repeated blows to the head.

In recent years, however, Grassroots started to collaborate more closely with USA Football. The 2015 grant application expressed strong preference for applicants that work with youth organizations "registered and compliant with USA Football Heads Up Football safety initiatives." Grant criteria state that teams scheduled to use the field should become USA Football members through Heads Up, and they are also urged to require all of their coaches to be "certified through USA Football's Level 1 Coach Certification course."

NFL Vice President of Communications Brian McCarthy emphasized in an email that USA Football membership is not required to receive a Grassroots grant, nor is the program structured to promote USA Football. Ms. Smith of LISC likewise stated that Heads Up membership, from her perspective, is "a suggestion, not a mandate."

The NFL's promotion of USA Football—both in the philanthropic domain and otherwise—cannot be overstated. The board of directors boasts membership from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell himself. The NFL, through the NFL Foundation and the NFL Youth Football Fund, provided grants to the nonprofit in the amount of $5.5 million and $7 million in FY 2014 and FY 2013, respectively. These grants supported programs including Heads Up Football, youth and high school equipment grants, helmet reconditioning grants, and general operations.


Another $6 million of the foundation's charity dollars go to NFL promotions such as Coach of the Week, Coach of the Year, Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year, Prep 100 Grants, Pro Bowl Grants, the NFL Youth Summit, and "miscellaneous" projects, as well as the Hometown Huddle program and Youth Education Towns, or YETs. Hometown Huddles involve an NFL-wide day of service when NFL players, coaches, families, and staff from each team participate in a variety of community-service activities in local NFL communities. YETs provide education enrichment centers for underserved youth. While both provide valuable services to communities, it's worth noting that both ultimately serve the NFL's interests.

Charity spin

The vast majority of the NFL Foundation's charitable contributions reinforces football culture and promotes the NFL brand. The foundation leverages what's left of foundation revenues (about 6 percent of that $28 million in 2013) across a few charitable initiatives that still manage to get the league major press coverage and warm public sentiment.

One of the foundation's most consistent charitable contributions (to something other than NFL programming) is to the American Cancer Society (ACS). Managing director for media relations at the ACS Elissa McCray told the New York Times that the NFL's "Crucial Catch" campaign has contributed $8 million to the society for screening in the last six years through the sales of pink merchandise. In 2013, however, the NFL foundation contributed just $460,000 of its $28 million portfolio to the society. According to Forbes, the NFL claims that "all money the NFL would normally receive from merchandise sales goes to support this program, either through direct funding to the American Cancer Society or covering the costs of A Crucial Catch."


The NFL's 'Crucial Catch' campaign has contributed $8 million to the society for screening in the last six years.

Some of the apparel players and coaches wear during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, along with special game balls and other pink paraphernalia, are auctioned off at the NFL Auction with 100 percent of the proceeds going to the American Cancer Society, but all that officially licensed NFL awareness gear in the online shop is another story. VICE Sports reported last year that the revenues from pink product sales in the NFL shop are first divided among the wholesaler, distributor, and retailer. The only portion that goes to the society is the NFL's royalty percentage.

ESPN sports business reporter Darren Rovell breaks it down like this: the NFL "takes a 25 percent royalty from the wholesale price (1/2 retail), donates 90 percent of royalty to American Cancer Society." In other words, for every $100 in pink merchandise sold, $12.50 goes to the NFL as a royalty. Of this amount, $11.25 (90 percent of royalty) is donated to the society. The remaining 87.5 percent is divided between the company that makes the merchandise (37.5 percent) and the company that sells it (50 percent). Now, here's the rub: The manufacturer/seller is often the NFL or one of the 32 franchises. In that scenario, the NFL ends up keeping $87.50 of each $100 sale.

But it's not just about the money. The NFL, like many corporations, works hard to create an extremely altruistic impression. CEO of Sports Media Challenge, Kathleen Hessert, suggests in her book Shift & Reset that the pedestals we put our beloved sports stars and teams on may hold them to higher, perhaps even unattainable expectations. "As fans we've become vested in their success and expect a return on our emotional and economic investment. That means we expect our superstars to care about the things we care about and use the clout that we have given them to make a difference."


Doing what the fans expect, the NFL and its clubs flaunt their generosity and community commitment. With media-friendly fanfare and team spirit to boot, the spectacle is stunningly obvious.

Screengrab via YouTube.

Every NFL club takes part in the pink display, as the NFL's own "Team Plans for Breast Cancer Awareness Month" reveal. The Tennessee Titans fans receive pink sunglasses that display a pink ribbon decal. The New York Giants host an on-field pre-game ceremony featuring breast cancer survivors who hold season tickets. The Pittsburgh Steelers honor survivors on the field, dressing them up in pink Steelers t-shirts. The Oakland Raiders' pre-game ceremony unveils a large pink ribbon. The New England Patriots march more than 300 breast cancer survivors and caregivers in pink onto the field to form a human ribbon. The Dallas Cowboys host a "PINK KOMEN activation" recognizing celebrity survivors and performing a halftime show with Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders and a cast of 200 survivors and co-survivors, also moving in formation this time to form two giant pink ribbons.

Along with the fanfare comes typical awareness messaging: "Annual screening saves lives." Even the American Cancer Society, after years of evidence pointing to the conclusion that mammography screening saves far fewer lives and causes greater harm than once believed, finally changed its screening recommendations. The NFL, however, still centers its awareness-raising on screening.

Based on the NFL Foundation's allocations, the league seems to define charity primarily in ways that fortify its brand.

Despite a general expectation that corporations should be responsible, contribute to the greater good, and alleviate problems they themselves created, not everyone believes in corporate philanthropy. Colts fan Rob Lime of Indianapolis, IN told Broadly he has no doubt that the NFL does just enough philanthropy to bolster is public image. "If they had an algorithm showing they could do less and get the same profits, they'd do it." It's plausible. Based on the NFL Foundation's allocations, the league seems to define charity primarily in ways that fortify its brand. The cross promotion of programming and events through the league and its nonprofit affiliations keeps the NFL logo radiantly shining on its target markets.

Ken Berger, former CEO of Charity Navigator and managing director at Algorhythm, a data-driven diagnostic and evaluation consultancy, told Broadly that the NFL is not alone in failing to produce credible evidence that it produces any social value at all. Weak regulations make it almost impossible to keep the nonprofit sector in check. The IRS audits only 4,000 out of the 1.5 million nonprofits annually, according to Berger. There's no incentive for these groups to do things differently, he added.

Berger believes that although the nonprofit sector will continue to play a vital role in tackling many social problems, "there is an unseen battle being waged for its soul." This is certainly the case for the National Football League. Forbes estimates that the average NFL franchise is now worth $1.97 billion—38 percent more than last year. With numbers like that, it should come as no surprise that league's charitable foundation is on a mission to serve itself first. The pomp and circumstance, pink or any other color, lives to serve the corporation.