Bring it on: dissecting the NFL’s treatment of cheerleaders

Locker Room Talk

I’ve probably seen “Bring It On: All or Nothing” — the best movie in the franchise, don’t fight me — more than 20 times. In the movie, Hayden Panettiere and Solange Knowles’ characters bring their cheerleading team to a competition, demanding not only incredible skill and spirit but also acceptance and comradery. Like I said, great film.

The NFL’s professional cheerleaders bring “it” too. They bring in their technical dance skill and beauty to create spirit and revenue. Unfortunately, they also attract the sexism of an archaic and disturbing dichotomy of using women’s bodies to arouse a predominantly heterosexual male organization and fan base.

The profession has grown exponentially since its first appearance in the 1954 Baltimore Colts season: A 2003 Forbes estimate states that cheerleaders bring around $1 million in revenue per team. The rules that define and demean these women have also grown exponentially.

While teams do not release their etiquette handbooks, it’s a fair assumption that these policies aren’t commendable. Before the Buffalo Bills’ cheerleading squad was disbanded in 2014, the team’s tryouts once featured women being asked to do jumping jacks to see if their flesh jiggled.

Cheerleaders have reported earning between $75 and $125 per game without practice or beauty routine compensation, totaling sometimes less than $1,000 a year.

These policies have come to light after the New Orleans Saints’ cheerleading team dismissed cheerleader Bailey Davis for posting a picture of herself in a black lace bodysuit. Davis responded by filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission arguing that the rules she had to follow are blatantly sexist and degrading.

In her New York Times interview, Davis alleged that Saintsations, the New Orleans Saints’ cheerleaders, are threatened with termination if they break a “no fraternization” policy with the football players — if a player enters a party or a restaurant where a cheerleader already is, the cheerleader must leave. They must keep all social media accounts on private, cannot brand or show themselves posing in Saints attire, and are not allowed to appear in photos in the nude, semi-nude or in lingerie.

Players, on the other hand, are not subject to the same social guidelines or penalties. They can approach these women physically and online. They can post pictures of themselves in underwear and use their social media sites for product placement. Some can even shoot themselves in the leg, fight dogs and beat their wives and still get a second and third and fourth chance to continue their careers.

The sexism that outlines these double standards is striking but excused.

Football players are more valuable employees, and thus, as with any job, are expected to have more leniency.

Cheerleaders understand what they sign up for: the uniforms, leering fans and sexualization should not only be expected, but must be wanted if these women still choose to pursue the career. They’re told the rules are meant to “protect” them from predatory men.

There is a larger lesson at play here — one that extend past big curls, the Superdome and the NFL. Women are not responsible for fixing sexism. The cheerleaders are not responsible for the predatory actions of fans or players. Davis is not at fault for exposing the Saints’ double standards.

Sexism is a male invention, and if the NFL, Saints and men are going to dismiss their responsibilities to solve this problem, Davis and countless other women have one thing to say:

“Bring it on.”

Alicia Sadowski writes the Thursday column about the intersection of sports and politics. Contact her at [email protected].