Football is a tough man's sport. It takes hundreds of pounds of muscle weight colliding at top speed just to stop a leather ball from crossing a line. The players are some of the strongest athletes in the country, many of whom will go on to retire with lifelong injuries, all for the love of the game. It's no surprise that most of these guys are reluctant to show emotion.
So when these massive men across the league came onto the field drenched in pink as part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, most football fans admit to doing a double take.
From gloves to cleats to headbands, pink is splashed all over the field in every game in October this year. Even the refs have little pink whistles to blow.
While this year's "A Crucial Catch" campaign has allowed breast cancer awareness to reach critical mass, seeing this much pink on the football field has also brought to light how some of our toughest men embrace a new definition of masculinity — one that's OK with crying and unafraid to support the most feminine color of them all.
"That actually shows how masculine you are — that you're confident in yourself to go out there and set aside your ego to promote something that's so important in our society," says Tennessee Titans fullback Ahmard Hall.
Hall wears as much pink as he can — from cleats to gloves to headbands — to show his support. The campaign is particularly meaningful to him because his mother is a breast cancer survivor. He says his mom thinks the marketing campaign is "awesome." They caught her cancer relatively late, and she lost a breast to the disease. More awareness encourages more women to get annual mammograms, meaning fewer women have to endure what she did.
Hall admits that the masculine image of football has changed over the years.
"I don't think you would have seen this back in the early '60s and '70s," he says. "Those guys definitely would not have done this. I had a chance to hang out with Dick Butkus, and I could never see him wearing any pink anything."
He likely couldn't see Butkus crying, either. But that doesn't stop Brett Favre, who sheds tears at the end of every season, threatening to retire. Maybe today's players are just that much more comfortable with themselves. In that sense, the color no longer packs an emasculating punch — it's truly about getting the message out.
But while the pink ribbons have clearly reached critical mass, the new sensitivity isn't exactly a full paradigm shift. For the most part, today's football players still embody that "tough man" spirit — both on and off the field.
When Titans starting linebacker Will Witherspoon's mother died unexpectedly just days before the season started this year, he insisted on playing in the opening game. He benched his emotions, took the field, and ended the game with a sack and six tackles. Players like him simply aren't ready to put it all out there just yet.
"I'm staying strong and representing, just like everybody in here, more than just myself and the close family that I have, I'm representing a lot more people than that," he says of his unshakable game face.
To Witherspoon, the masculine image of today's NFL player has not changed. What has changed is how much the public now sees. With technology and social media, athletes are constantly put in the spotlight.
"Things are different," he says. "You're more exposed, you're more out in front, so you've got to carry yourself differently. You've got to carry yourself with a level of respect that people are going to relate to. You can't just be a wild thing."
As for the pink this month, Witherspoon doesn't think it softens the guys' images, because everybody understands what it's about. He says the guys are having fun with it and creating their own kind of style to represent the cause in their own way.
While the fans may be a bit distracted by all the pink, Titans players say it does not affect their game at all.
"Once you're on the field you're not concerned with what you're wearing, you're trying to get the job done," Hall says. "But it's awesome that everyone's supporting it the way they are."
We may never get used to our favorite football players in pink, but the American Cancer Society and the NFL are accomplishing what they set out to do — and showing us a new kind of man in the process.
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