So a few years ago, I was at a wedding in Dallas at one of those mega hotels. The kind of place where if you get on the wrong elevator, you might end up in Fort Worth. And besides the people there for the wedding, the entire rest of the hotel was booked for people competing in a high school cheerleading competition. At one point in an elevator, I was having some small talk with one of the parents, and she looked at me and said, “you’re not here for the cheerleading competition, are you?” There were about 200 ways she’d know that, starting with my somewhat unkempt appearance, which stood in stark contrast to the finely tuned and dressed competitors – and their families. Throughout the course of the weekend, I don’t think I saw a single hair out of place or one mismatched outfit. As that parent reminded me, cheerleading has a distinct culture.
Of course, there’s cheerleading, and then there’s cheerleading. So the cheerleading these young athletes were doing in Dallas – an athletic, demanding, and highly stylized competition – was very different than what happens just down the road from there, in Cowboys Stadium, home of the world’s most famous cheerleading squad – the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. Now, unlike competitive cheer, Cowboys Cheerleaders, and others like them for teams across the NFL – and other sports, for that matter – they’re not really tumbling or jumping or doing flips. They’re, well, cheering. And typically dressed in a way that would make most parents cover their children’s eyes.
This is, and has been the legacy of the NFL since the 1970’s, when the Cowboys cheering squad made national news by dressing and dancing a little more night club than sideline. And since then, NFL cheering squads have been intensely sexualized, marginalized, commodified, and otherwise treated as underpaid eye candy in the glamourous world of elite athletics.
That world may be coming to a halt – or at least a slowdown – thanks to increased press scrutiny and the fact that some cheerleaders are becoming more vocal about their oppression. Just to be clear, NFL cheerleaders, despite their public presence, are paid less than your average intern. Most are regulated by a rule book that’s just slightly less regressive than what you might agree to when entering the priesthood. And, as reported by the New York Times this week, they endure nonstop harassment – verbal and perhaps physical – and are seemingly placed in harm’s way by their employer. That general state of employment isn’t particularly sustainable in the modern landscape of MeToo and Title IX, which, believe it or not, is often in the cross hairs of competitive cheer. And of course, all of this comes in the context of a sport where very large, aggressive men fight for property to the adoration of fans that ensure their wealth and fame. So there’s that.
All of which is causing NFL team owners to at least consider the role of the cheerleader in 2018, when we supposedly know better – although you’d never know it if you just got here. Teams have ensured the public they take the utmost concern in making sure their employees are never placed in a situation that could be unsafe. And yes, that’s ironic at several levels. Some will reconsider their handbooks – like the ones that restrict cheerleaders’ social media accounts, but post their own photos of them in less clothing than you’d find at a nude beach. And a small number of teams – like the NY Giants – don’t have cheerleaders at all.
I’d say this. There’s really only one simple answer to this problem – such that it’s now recognized as such. It’s time to end the practice of cheerleaders on NFL sidelines – and you can throw in NBA if you’d like as well, although there are some contextual differences. And I’ll leave aside the very obvious cultural critiques here. Like that we shouldn’t use America’s favorite pastime to reinforce demeaning gender stereotypes, or putting scantily clad women performing in front of thousands of intoxicated male fans is a recipe for assault. And on and on.
I’ll make my reasoning more simple. In 2018, when the NFL is struggling to maintain its fan base in light of concussions, competition from other sports, deviant athletes, video games – you name it – in that business climate, it’s probably smart for the business that is the NFL to cater to this vast broad audience, many of them female, that no longer wants to see a scene from Coyote Ugly at a sporting event. And they don’t want their kids to see it either – like I don’t. So ending cheerleading – not the kind I saw in that Dallas hotel but in God’s favorite stadium down the street – it’s not just a moral imperative. It’s a business one.
Now, will it happen? Hard to say. As it’s been noted, I’m not exactly a cheerleading expert.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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