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Taylor A. Johnson
As we proceed through the fall season, we can enjoy the changes in weather, the various holidays, and the many offerings the sports world has to offer us. For the past few years, we have even been treated to the rare Sports Equinox; a day where four major North American professional sports ((Major League Baseball (MLB), National Football League (NFL), National Hockey League (NHL), and National Basketball Association (NBA)) all offer a game that day. If you’ve stumbled upon this article and wonder why a cancer blog is suddenly talking about sports, there’s a very simple reason: advocacy.
More than ever before, professional (and collegiate) sports teams and organizations are partnering and raising awareness for health causes. Sports have become a powerful outlet to increase awareness of cancer and increase donations and funding for research through both league-wide initiatives or grassroot social media campaigns. For this piece, rather than focusing on the latest cancer treatment, we will instead step back to recognize some sports-related initiatives that have resulted in increased awareness and funding of cancer research over the past decade. Note that this is not a complete list of all active initiatives launched, but some that are singular and unique in their own right.
The V Foundation is one of the premier charities designed to advance cancer research (1). Since its founding in 1993 by Jim Valvano, a former college baseball coach and sports broadcaster, the organization has awarded nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in cancer research funding throughout the United States. The V Foundation has designed many different grant opportunities, including grants that help young and early career researchers get their research program started (V Scholar Grant) and grants designed for “bench to bedside research” (Translational Grant). These initiatives allow research groups to take the results collected in a basic science laboratory (bench) and translate it to the clinic (bedside) Recently, special funds have been designated for specific areas of cancer research, including canine oncology research, cancer survivorship (the Thrivership Fund in honor of ABC’s anchor Robin Roberts), pediatric cancer (Dick Vitale Fund in honor of sportscaster Dick Vitale), and cancer disparities among minority populations (the Memorial Cancer Research Fund in honor of the late ESPN anchor Stuart Scott) (1).
Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C), founded in 2008, desires to be a catalyst for innovative translational research (2). In addition to highlighting certain research areas such as immunology (using your own immune system to fight cancer) and interception (detecting and treating cancer at very early stages), SU2C emphasizes the importance of collaborative initiatives across different labs and specialties (i.e. computational scientists, physicists, biomedical researchers) in multiple universities. Major League Baseball (MLB) has partnered with SU2C since 2009, raising over $40 million dollars (3). During the All-Star Game and Game 4 of the World Series, the games temporarily stop to raise awareness of cancer and highlight the work of SU2C. The MLB also partners with several additional organizations such as Alex’s Lemonade Stand and St. Baldrick’s Foundation to support research into childhood cancer; a leading cause of death amongst children in both the U.S. and Canada (3).
The NFL has partnered with the American Cancer Society through their Crucial Catch campaign since 2009 (4). As part of their campaign, the partnership resulted in the development of The Defender, a mobile tool used to help people understand and reduce cancer risk, while providing recommendations on how to reduce cancer risk. The campaign has contributed to over 250,000 breast cancer screenings and over 50,000 colorectal and cervical cancer screenings (4). The NFL also auctions off authentic game apparel such as game worn jerseys, signed footballs and helmets, with 100% of proceeds benefiting the American Cancer Society.
The NHL provides a different approach to cancer awareness. Since 1998, November has been known as Hockey Fights Cancer Month. This allows each team to celebrate their own cancer awareness (5). Teams, coaches and broadcasters wear lavender apparel and players wear special jerseys for the occasion. Rather than partnering with one organization, the NHL instead works with the American Cancer Society, the Canadian Cancer Society, and the Movember Foundation (5). Funds raised support cancer patients, their families, and caregivers, by funding transportation, lodging, and 24/7 helplines.
The annual Division I college football bowl game The Cure Bowl is very unique amongst other college football bowl games. Played in Orlando, Florida, funds raised from the Cure Bowl go directly to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF). Since the launch of the bowl game in 2015, over $3.5 million dollars has been raised (6). The Sun Belt athletic conference, which has a conference tie-in with the Cure Bowl, is further raising awareness by providing coaches and staff with pink armbands, towels, and other items for the month of October (6).
To these sports leagues and broadcasting partners; thank you. On behalf of all cancer researchers, whether we’re working on cancer in the liver, breast, testis or elsewhere, we greatly appreciate the role you have played in funding research and hope to have your continued support for the foreseeable future.
Taylor Johnson, M.S. is a Biomedical Sciences Ph.D Student in the Department of Anatomy & Cell Biology at East Carolina University; Greenville, North Carolina.
Edited by Kate Secombe
Sports images courtesy of http://www.clipart-library.com