For the past five years, the National Football League has run an extensive Breast Cancer Awareness campaign in October. This October, however, the NFL is scaling back its awareness efforts. As the league gets less pink, fans continue to talk about the relationship among the NFL, its female fans and larger social issues.

This surprising move on the part of the NFL — reportedly their plan for several months now — comes on the heels of the league’s domestic violence scandal last month. The league’s handling of the Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson controversies has alienated many fans and forced others to question the integrity of the league. The NFL’s “Pinktober,” reduced or not, presents another opportunity to question the social responsibilities of the league and its players.

The NFL’s Breast Cancer Awareness campaign has received its fair share of skepticism. I should qualify this by saying that very few people would argue that the awareness campaign itself is not a worthy cause, and that many people affected by breast cancer are deservedly recognized in the process. It is a disease and a problem that touches many lives, and deserves to be brought to light.

That said, there have been questions about the motivation and methods underlying the NFL’s campaign. While the NFL has reportedly raised $7 million since 2009, the bulk of that money has gone not to cancer research, but instead to cancer screening and community health-based interventions. One of the league’s largest screening efforts,
the “Crucial Catch” program, has received considerable criticism regarding its effectiveness. While these efforts are still commendable, their uncertain effectiveness has made them feel more like a PR scheme and less like strides toward real change in breast cancer research and treatment.

The NFL’s efforts are, of course, highly image-conscious, with a particular focus on appealing to female fans. The sale of pink merchandise and the support of a cause that affects mostly women approaches this goal. However, especially in light of the league’s recent issues with domestic violence, these efforts can’t help but seem insincere.

October also happens to be Domestic Violence Awareness month, and many fans are crying out for the league to recognize this issue in October. Like breast cancer, domestic violence is an all-too prevalent issue that deserves recognition, particularly for the sake of its victims. So should we, or will we, be seeing purple on the playing field this month?

The answer to the latter, at least for now, seems to be no. As to the former, however, it’s more complicated. That is, does the NFL have an obligation to champion particular social causes? I have no doubt that the people at the NFL — and indeed, most decent people everywhere — share similar sentiments about breast cancer and domestic violence. But how much should we expect the NFL, and other professional sports leagues, to address these issues?

As a fan of the NFL, and as a female fan at that, I’m torn. I certainly think that the NFL has an obligation to respond to issues such as the Ray Rice incident more responsibly and sensitively. I think it serves all individuals and organizations well to use morals to guide their actions, the NFL included. That being said, I don’t know how much social obligation a sports league actually has to address these issues beyond internal situations. That is not to say that the NFL and individuals within it don’t care about these issues; it is just that they might fall slightly outside their jurisdiction.

Just because the NFL doesn’t have an obligation to address larger issues doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t. The social reach of professional sports in America is vast. The NFL’s endorsement of certain ideals or causes can have a great impact spurring social change. This is the great power and responsibility of professional sports and their athletes in the U.S. and is perhaps one reason why there has been such an outcry for a domestic violence awareness campaign in the NFL.

It would be great if national sports leagues had the money and time to publicly raise awareness for each and every important social cause. But, as fans, we shouldn’t fault them if they don’t.