NFL cheerleaders are grossly underpaid relative to the time they’re forced to commit to their duties. That’s been the subject of a few lawsuits in which cheerleaders have successfully won judgments.
Many of those judgments focused on the non-game duties required of cheerleaders, including promotional appearances and other events. And a New York Times piece today from Juliet Macur and John Branch outlined the pervasiveness of sexual harassment faced by women in their line of work.
In interviews with dozens of current and former cheerleaders — most of them from the N.F.L., but also representing the N.B.A. and the N.H.L. — they described systematic exploitation by teams that profit by sending them into pregame tailgating and other gatherings where they are subjected to offensive sexual comments and unwanted touches by fans.
“When you have on a push-up bra and a fringed skirt, it can sometimes, unfortunately, feel like it comes with the territory,” said Labriah Lee Holt, a former cheerleader for the Tennessee Titans in the N.F.L. “I never experienced anything where someone on the professional staff or the team said something or made me feel that way. But you definitely experience that when you encounter people who have been drinking beer.”
The entire thing is frustrating, and it’s also probably not something unfamiliar to any women who have worked in service industries. But obviously the dynamics are a bit different in this case. One example was particularly harrowing, as Washington cheerleaders describe being sent to a private home with no warning or accompaniment:
Several years ago, she said, she and five teammates were told to drive to an address the Redskins had given them. To their surprise, it was not a business — it was a house. Inside, there was no party, no charity event, or even a large gathering of people. There were seven men in their 40s who quickly sized up the cheerleaders.
“O.K., who’s single and who’s married?” said the homeowner, according to the former cheerleader.
The men were drinking and asked the women to join in, but they declined. Then the women did a two-minute dance for the men in the basement and spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the house or having awkward conversations with the men while they were watching an N.F.L. game on TV.
First of all, of course this was Washington. Second of all, that is one step below the NFL sending their cheerleaders to pop out of cakes at bachelor parties. How was it allowed? How are literal strippers more protected by unwanted touching? (As they should be, to be clear.)
And if you’re wondering why cheerleaders don’t simply refuse to do things like this:
The attitudes of some teams were laid out in the handbooks, which further squelched complaints. Those cheering for the Cincinnati Bengals, for example, were warned sternly about insubordination, with bold, capitalized letters and underlines.
“Insubordination to even the slightest degree IS ABSOLUTELY NOT TOLERATED!!! You will be benched or dismissed!!!” said the handbook, which was submitted as part of a 2014 lawsuit. (A spokesman for the Bengals said that language was no longer in the handbook.)
Every single NFL team rakes in money every year. Paying cheerleaders a living wage, protecting them from harassment, and not requiring them to do things that endanger their safety would go a lot farther towards demonstrating respect for women than having players wear pink gear for questionable charitable benefits. Maybe the league should try it.