In a 1991 episode of The Simpsons, Homer shows up to work dressed in pink after Bart tosses a red hat into the laundry; his boss assumes he’s gone crazy and later gets him committed to a mental institution. The episode is ridiculous, but it underscores an entrenched yet fairly recent cultural belief in the U.S. that pink is a feminine color and thus inappropriate for men to embrace. At best, a (straight) man who wears pink is seen as “daring,” “brave,” and “strong,” the implication being that he is secure enough in his sexuality. Regardless of individual feelings about the color, pink products are still marketed heavily to women and girls (just look at the gender breakdown of any major toy store).
In recent years, exhaustive breast-cancer-awareness campaigns have led the charge to widely destigmatize the color pink among men, with mixed results. As October draws to a close, so too does the most visible of these efforts: Pinktober, a pervasive campaign of pinkification that has gripped major sports teams within the last 15 years. Declared National Breast Cancer Awareness month nearly 30 years ago, October is perhaps the best time to spot teams in major professional sports leagues wearing pink.
But the gender perceptions entangled with the color have changed little—it remains unmistakably feminine, to the point where it seems unlikely pink will ever be neutral enough to become the color of a major sports team.
Pink, as Anna Broadway wrote for The Atlantic last year, wasn’t always seen as girly. In the 19th century, Penn State’s student body unanimously picked dark pink and black as the school’s—and thus the football team’s—colors. They later changed their colors to blue and white, after the pink uniforms began fading in the sun. In the years since, virtually every color but pink—even purple, aqua, action green—has found a home with a major team. The visitors’ locker room at the University of Iowa, painted pink in 1979, has been criticized for using the color’s effeminate connotations to demoralize visiting teams.
Around the turn of the millennium, Major League Baseball players started pinning small pink ribbons to their uniforms in May to coincide with Mother’s Day for breast cancer awareness. The trend eventually took root among different sports, trickling down to the college, high school, and peewee levels. “A little pink ribbon seems almost laughably subtle, compared to what we now see throughout the sports world,” said Paul Lukas, who runs ESPN’s Uni Watch blog, the only blog dedicated to sports uniform history.
Now, during October athletic competitions, the color is everywhere. Hockey teams have held "Pink in the Rink" games, where players skate on ice dyed the color of a watermelon Jolly Rancher. Quarterbacks, receivers and running backs tuck pink towels into their waistbands. The Miami Heat recently hosted a Red, White, and Pink opening scrimmage.
For all its good intentions, Pinktober has done little to salvage the color’s reputation. For one, it has proven the color’s lack of versatility design-wise; when the Green Bay Packers tosses pink accessories into its mix of forest green and metallic gold, the result is an eyesore. “From a strictly aesthetic standpoint you can’t say that looks good,” Lukas said. “No designer would ever [come up with] that color combination.” That said, pink uniforms can look attractive and be worn by a professional men’s team playing major sport—just look at Citta di Palermo from Sicily or Evian Football Club from Annecy, France.
Different leagues have come under fire for fueling the disproportionate attention paid to breast cancer, to the exclusion of other more deadly diseases or issues. For example, the NFL faced scrutiny for its “A Crucial Catch” campaign during October (also Domestic Violence Awareness Month) in the wake of recent assault scandals involving players Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson. Another recurring complaint concerns the lack of similar awareness efforts for prostate cancer. Controversies have arisen over the how donations are used, and some have snarked at the use of pink as being part of a clumsy, unsophisticated attempt by the NFL to appeal to female fans.
The American Cancer Society, which partnered with the NFL for its Crucial Catch campaign, of course sees such complaints as beside the point. "We’re putting emphasis in the wrong place if we say pink is the problem when we all know that breast cancer is the problem," said the organization in an email. "That’s what we need to rally against, rather than whether people embrace or reject a symbol."
In any case, a symbol is exactly what pink has become—rather than a viable, neutral uniform color like any other. Part of that is undoubtedly still gender-based; after all, breast cancer exists in the public mind as a disease that only affects women. But part of it is just that it’s been co-opted by a worthy cause. “The breast cancer [campaign] has been so overwhelming that I think any team that wears pink is assumed to be making some kind of breast-cancer statement, even if they’re not,” Lukas said.