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.