In the wake of the outcry over a string of domestic violence cases, the National Football League would have you believe that it has learned its lesson. The league set up a committee of domestic violence experts, plans to roll out training seminars, and ordered a critique of its current policies, all to send the message: we're going to do everything we can to improve the lot of women with any ties to our league.
Well, except for the cheerleaders. They get nothing.
If the league and its teams really cared about women, they would step up and reassess the working conditions of NFL cheerleaders, and the message that this demeaning tradition sends to players and viewers. Isn't it ridiculous that they are putting on this veneer of caring about women while they're simultaneously objectifying and dehumanizing their most visible female employees? If the NFL actually considered these questions, it would ask another one:
Why does the NFL need cheerleaders at all?
Several lawsuits filed this year by cheerleading squads reveal how NFL teams control every finger that its cheerleaders move. Among the more absurd official guidelines: don't say "I" or "me" too often, don't eat too much bread in public, don't be opinionated, and don't argue with or question supervisors.
These infantilizing instructions are not things you would tell women if your intention is anything but to make mannequins out of them. Cheerleaders are underpaid and exploited. The Cincinnati Ben-Gals lawsuit claimed they were paid $90 per game and had no additional earnings for the 12 mandatory charity events they had to sign up for. The Buffalo Jills did unpaid work for almost 20 hours per week. The Raiders cheerleaders got $125 per game, far below California minimum wage, and that too only at the end of the year. Most of the 26 teams with cheerleading squads do not pay for rehearsal time or travel costs. What little pay cheerleaders do receive can be docked for "violations" such as wearing the wrong shade of nail paint and showing up with unpolished boots—the NFL's militaristic employee standards spare no one.
"You don't make any money," Lacy T., who sued the Raiders, had earlier told HBO's Real Sports. "You're better off serving beer and hot dogs in the concession stand."
Members of the Jills squad described how they were paraded at casinos and at the annual Jills Golf Tournament, where these women were auctioned off as prizes. The "winners" got to show them off while riding around in golf carts with them, often asking the cheerleaders to sit on their laps. In weekly body evaluations, the cheerleaders were made to do jumping jacks—or, as the cheerleaders termed them, "jiggle tests." The Ben-Gals rulebook says: no slouching breasts and no panties under practice wear or uniform.
These women are treated more like booth Barbies than the dancers and athletes they imagined they'd be. And the NFL couldn't care less about it.
Subjecting them to such demeaning standards is intrinsically linked with the message that women should be willing to do anything in the name of cheering on the mighty, virtuous men on the field. That women have no voice beyond that capacity. These women with accounting, philosophy, and nursing degrees are told not to discuss religion, politics, or sensitive issues while they're dining at team events. They're told how to clean their vaginas, they're told not to eat while in uniform, they're told to never complain … about anything! Because who wants to hear what a woman thinks? The message is that we own you, on the field and off it, and you should consider that a privilege because hundreds are willing to replace you.
What purpose is NFL cheerleading serving other than dehumanizing women and entertaining the male gaze with ever-shrinking costumes? It's clearly not to motivate the men who take the field. You'd imagine that the promise of money and fame does that better than pom poms and herkies. If you ask the NFL, it prefers to hide behind official statements that say the league doesn't recruit, train, or sanction cheerleading squads. Having cheerleaders is entirely a team decision. But as with everything else, their double standard is applause-worthy. Because every Wednesday, on NFL.com, the league posts a picture gallery of the week's "best" cheerleaders.
These women are owed a better platform for their talent and passion, especially given what they bring to the table in pure dollars. Forbes estimated that cheerleading squads bring in an additional $1 million per season for the teams. Why do NFL teams have cheerleaders? It's the money, it's always the money. Consider the NFL's bottom-line driven mentality and it becomes obvious that the league would never put an end to a practice that generates wild profits for teams at little to no financial cost. Morality, as usual, never even enters the calculus.
If the league wants to send a message to women, it should end the practice of cheerleading altogether. If not, the least it could do is make sure cheerleaders are paid better than indentured servants.