NFL cheerleaders must be able to control their own sex appeal
The ongoing NFL cheerleading scandal took a turn Wednesday, when a New York Times report detailed a 2013 calendar photo shoot in Costa Rica, where Washington Redskins cheerleaders say they were required to pose topless in front of a group of invited sponsors and suite ticket holders.
After the 14-hour day, some of the women, who had been handpicked by sponsors, were ordered to escort them to a nightclub. The cheerleaders understood these dates to be mandatory and felt the team was "pimping us out."
This report highlights a tension inherent in professional cheerleading: Teams use cheerleaders to sell sex appeal on the sidelines. These women will tell you they're well aware of this and that they signed up for it. What they didn't sign up for is the extracurricular ways their sexuality is used to entice sponsors and high rollers off the field. And without a union, there's no leaguewide policy providing protections for their safety.
Stephanie Jojokian, director of the Washington cheerleading squad, disputed the report. Team president Bruce Allen said Thursday that conversations with other cheerleaders contradict the details in the Times, but he promised "significant repercussions" if any wrongdoing is found.
The NFL also released a statement, saying that the league and its teams "support fair employment practices. Everyone who works in the NFL, including cheerleaders, has the right to work in a positive and respectful environment that is free from any and all forms of harassment and discrimination and fully complies with state and federal laws."
The Costa Rica trip demonstrates a hypocrisy many have pointed out in NFL cheerleading for years. In April, former New Orleans Saints cheerleader Bailey Davis filed an employment discrimination complaint against the league after she was fired by the Saintsations for posting a photo of herself in a one-piece bodysuit on Instagram. The photo violated the squad's rules that prohibit cheerleaders from posing nude, seminude or in lingerie. But as the Washington incident shows, it's not that teams don't want cheerleaders to exhibit sex appeal -- some just want sole control over when and how it's displayed.
One of the Saintsations rules prohibit cheerleaders from fraternizing with players, to the point where a cheerleader required to leave a restaurant or a party if a player enters, even if she were there first. Davis' complaint points to this as gender discrimination, because the onus is solely on the women to avoid contact with players.
Many critics of cheerleaders' attempts to gain more rights often say that these women should expect to be treated this way because of what they initially signed up for, to dance in skimpy outfits for the men in the audience -- and to get paid for it. This is an insulting attitude, particularly for women whose work in some degree relies on their attractiveness, from models to actresses to dancers. A cheerleader should no more be expected to be an escort for sponsors than a swimsuit model should be expected to date a photographer after a shoot.
It's a vestige of old-school thinking that continues to blame women for men's behavior. Furthermore, this attitude ignores the central problem with incidents like the Costa Rica trip: The issue isn't that these women are being sexualized, but that they're stripped of their agency over their own sexuality.
These women are choosing to use their sexual capital in their jobs, but they have little choice over how that value is used by their employers. Teams have dictated when cheerleaders can dress a certain way -- when it suits their needs -- without allowing them freedom of movement when they're off the clock. It's a problem that stems from a conflict central to our culture: Men want women to exist as pretty things for their entertainment, but only on their terms. Oftentimes, men would like to simply gawk at them (without having to think about pesky issues such as fair wage practices), not thinking these women are entitled to protections -- but they're are entitled to these women's bodies.
That's what leads many male fans to feel entitled to these women's bodies, even when the cheerleaders are simply trying to do their jobs. In an earlier Times report from April, dozens of cheerleaders reported being sexually harassed and groped by fans at team-sanctioned events. "When you have on a push-up bra and a fringed skirt, it can sometimes, unfortunately, feel like it comes with the territory," one cheerleader told the Times.
The fact of the matter is that these women aren't taken seriously simply because they're beautiful, their jobs reduced to shaking their pompoms on the sidelines once a week without any consideration for the hours they put into their grueling training regimens and off-the-field promotional events. These women often have extensive experience in various schools of dance, and are very much athletes themselves.
The entitlement to cheerleaders' bodies, their lack of agency and the need for teams to control how their sexuality is utilized was the subject of the documentary "Sidelined," which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April. The film tells the story of the 1978 San Diego Chargers squad, the Chargettes, which was disbanded after some members posed for Playboy. The Chargers invited a camera crew from the magazine to attend practice, where cheerleaders were recruited to do a shoot at a later date. Despite no rules prohibiting the cheerleaders from posing, the Chargers fired the entire squad before the issue hit the presses.
Many former Chargettes in the film expressed frustration that the team seemed perfectly fine to let the Playboy crew on the field during practice, but then punished the women for what came of it. "It wasn't so much what the girls did -- it's what the guys did to the girls," Rhonda Bosworth, then-director of the Chargettes, said in the film.
Similarly, some Washington cheerleaders told the Times they were particularly bothered by the presence of team officials at the nightclub in Costa Rica. A former cheerleader who worked as a sideline assistant encouraged the women to drink and flirt. "The issue was that management seemed to condone all of this," one cheerleader said.
Some Washington cheerleaders dispute these allegations, and many in general disagree on the degree to which these off-field appearances fall outside their job descriptions. According to the Times, a recent Redskins cheerleader contract said off-field work includes "community and charitable events, youth camps, etc."
As part of its statement, the NFL said it will work with clubs in "sharing best practices and employment-related processes." It's time the league takes a firm stance on just what duties are appropriate to assign cheerleaders as part of their job, from explicit guidelines for things like squad photo shoots to other off-the-field activities, and provide stated protections for the health and safety of these women. The cheerleaders who went to Costa Rica insist they weren't assaulted, but it shouldn't take that level of violation to protect these employees.
"It's just not right to send cheerleaders out with strange men when some of the girls clearly don't want to go," one Washington cheerleader told The New York Times. "But unfortunately, I feel like it won't change until something terrible happens, like a girl is assaulted in some way, or raped. I think teams will start paying attention to this only when it's too late."