Not OK: The outrageous demands placed on NFL cheerleaders
On Wednesday, the New York Times published a scathing piece about the NFL, cheerleaders, and the negative, domestic violence-related publicity that’s overshadowed much of the current season. The story centered around former members of the Jills, the Buffalo Bills’ cheer squad, Alyssa and Maria. Alyssa and Maria are two of the five cheerleaders who sued the team earlier this year for alleged violations of state minimum wage laws.
According to the two women, they were required to appear and perform at a number of often embarrassing and degrading events — such as an appearance at a local casino’s “Men Show,” as well as a stint at a “Flips for Tips” event at a golf tournament, in which they did back flips while wearing bikinis while men “placed bids on which women would ride around in their golf carts” — receiving little to no pay. Alyssa and Maria tell the Times that they only made $420 and $105, respectively, for more than 800 hours of mandatory public appearances.
The audition process was doubly degrading, with Alyssa claiming that cheerleaders were forced to do jumping jacks as part of a “jiggle test.” Upon selection, they were presented a contract and were required to visit a plastic surgeon who offered the team’s cheerleaders “a small discount if they opted for breast augmentation and other services.”
Furthermore, the “General hygiene & lady body maintenance” section of the Jills’ handbook goes into oddly specific detail on how squad members are expected to bathe, shower, dress, and even manage their periods.
“When menstruating, use a product that’s right for your menstrual flow,” reads the handbook. “A tampon too big can irritate and develop fungus. A product left in too long can cause bacteria or fungus build up. Products can be changed at least every 4 hours. Except when sleeping, they can be left in for the night.”
Additionally, on game day, team members are forbidden from discussing politics, religion, sex, their personal life; from making inappropriate jokes, having strong opinions, and “saying ‘I’ or ‘me’ too often.” They are also strongly discouraged from being “overly opinionated about anything,” as “[hanging] out with a whiner” is “exhausting and boring.”
The cheerleaders and the players on the football team have two things in common: the field they share and their status as world-class, professional athletes. Outside of that, there’s little commonality between the two groups. Football players are well-paid, adored, and respected by fans; cheerleaders often make poverty-level wages, are subjected to demeaning treatment, and are seen by fans as little more than pieces of meat.
Lest it appear that these issues are limited to just the Jills squad, it should be noted that these conditions appear throughout the league. The Ben-Gals, the cheerleading squad for the Cincinnati Bengals, have to follow a rule that states, “no panties are to be worn under practice clothes or uniform, not even thong panties.” Additionally, Ben-Gals are subjected to a weight check twice per week to “determine ideal weight,” as set by directors. Cheerleaders who weigh in more than three pounds outside the pre-determined “ideal weight” “will be required to stay 30 minutes after practice for extra conditioning,” and may be suspended from the team.
Earlier this year, the Oakland Raiders became the subject of a lawsuit from Lacy T., a member of the Raiderettes, the team’s cheer squad. According to Lacy, Raiderettes are paid less than $5 per hour, weren’t paid on at least a bi-weekly schedule as required by law, and are subject to fines for minor infractions such as not having their boots polished in time for the game.
Last month, Smriti Sinha at VICE Sports penned an essay, titled, “It’s Time for the NFL to Ban Cheerleaders.” In Sinha’s view, the league’s mistreatment of women — from the domestic violence incidents to the way they treat the cheerleaders — should prompt a review of the working conditions female employees and contractors are subjected to.
“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,” writes Sinha. “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?”
All but six out of the league’s 32 teams have an official cheerleading squad; the Chicago Bears, New York Giants, Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns, Green Bay Packers, and Detroit Lions remain the few hold-outs among an otherwise vast sea of pom poms. The Bills have suspended the Jills for the 2014 season while their lawsuit is pending, but have no plans to put a permanent end to the squad.
Reading stories detailing the rampant abuse faced by cheerleaders league-wide is enough to make anyone feel uneasy. It’s truly a shame that while some of the athletes on the field — namely, the football players — are paid millions of dollars and protected by a powerful players’ union, the others —the cheerleaders — are subjected to questionably legal working conditions. If the NFL wants to improve its image with women, it needs to overhaul how teams handle cheerleaders. And it needs to do so STAT.