Critics have long been rooting for a ban on professional cheerleading.
The argument: young, attractive, scantily clad women high-kicking and shaking pom-poms on the sidelines and cheering on male players reinforces women’s subservient role as eye candy in a man’s world.
A recent spate of cheerleader-led lawsuits in the NFL alleging below-minimum wage pay and, in some cases, degrading treatment has only helped reinforce the notion that the job demeans women.
“Cheerleading should be abolished,” former professional basketball player Mariah Burton Nelson told me.
“Cheerleading implies that women's proper role is to support men, smile at men and fulfill the sexual fantasies of males,” declared Nelson, who played for Stanford University and in the first women's pro-basketball league in the U.S.
She added that a woman’s place is on the field, “not on the sidelines.”
It’s a sound argument. Many women’s pro-sports teams still struggle for recognition. Meanwhile, men’s leagues take centre stage, where women’s main job is to look good and entertain the crowd.
In the National Hockey League, some cheerleading squads, such as the Calgary Flames’ Big Country Ice Crew, also have to clear the ice during breaks - in skimpy outfits. It's hard to imagine any female pro sports team using professional cheerleaders or ice maintenance workers in mini-skirts.
Vulnerable to exploitation
But some women enjoy cheerleading, and perhaps it’s not our place to tell a woman (or a man) what job she can do (as long as it’s legal, of course).
Even so, it's becoming increasingly clear that some cheerleaders are being mistreated. They are vulnerable to exploitation because of the nature of their business: they work in a male-dominated field where their main role is to please male sports fans.
If you disagree that that’s their primary role, check out the countless calendars, where they often pose provocatively in bikinis, or do a Google search with the keywords “hottest cheerleaders.”
Now let’s talk about working conditions. We got a peek into the cheerleading world because of documents that have surfaced during recent court proceedings.
The first of six wage-theft lawsuits involving five NFL teams kicked off early this year when a former cheerleader filed a class-action suit against the Oakland Raiders. Lacy T. (she withheld her last name to protect her privacy) alleged Raiderettes cheerleaders were paid below minimum wage and could be excluded from games for misdemeanours such as declining skills or “gaining as little as 5 pounds or appearing ‘too soft.’” The Raiderettes would then be fined for missing the game, she claimed.
The Raiders just settled the case, agreeing to pay $1.25 million to 90 former cheerleaders. The football team is now paying the Raiderettes minimum wage - $9 an hour, which is not exactly a grand victory considering the team is worth $970 million US, according to Forbes.
Five former cheerleaders are also suing the Buffalo Bills, alleging not only that they worked for hundreds of hours for free, but also, that they were subjected to degrading treatment such as a jiggle test to check their weight as well as sexual harassment at community events.
A Buffalo Jills glamour and etiquette guidebook has also recently surfaced. It instructs cheerleaders how to wear tampons, wash their vaginas and how much bread to eat when dining at a fancy restaurant.
A Jills 2013-2014 Agreement and Code of Conduct has also been leaked. Among other things, it explains that Jills must buy and maintain their $600 uniform, do unpaid appearances and pass a “physique evaluation” before they can perform at games.
Perhaps it’s no shock that NFL cheerleaders, unlike football players, are not represented by a labour union.
Looking for rationales
I was surprised by some reader comments when I recently wrote an article about the miserable pay and treatment alleged by suing cheerleaders. A recurring comment was that if a cheerleader didn’t like her working conditions, she should just walk away.
“No one is forcing them to be cheerleaders. Suck it up!” commented one reader.
“If they don't like it, quit,” wrote another in agreement.
So it’s OK to exploit and degrade your employees as long as they aren’t being “forced” to do the job? If, say, a bakery was underpaying its workers and telling them how to wear their sanitary supplies, that would be OK, so long as the workers weren’t being held at gunpoint? Is the rationale that any company can exploit its employees as long as they are free to quit?
The bottom line is that any team that does not treat its cheerleaders fairly and with respect relinquishes the right to have a squad cheering on its players. The Buffalo Jills are sitting out this season because of the ongoing lawsuit.
Teams that want to keep their squads should perhaps look to the National Basketball League's Toronto Raptors Dance Pak for guidance. These women call themselves dancers rather than cheerleaders, don’t shake pom poms and, according to Dance Pak choreographer Amberley Waddell, “are paid for all rehearsals, games, as well as appearances” and “definitely make more than minimum wage.”
As long as pro cheerleading continues to exist, perhaps that’s the kind of gig we should be cheering for.