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Is getting rid of NFL cheerleaders the answer?

“No place in the NFL for cheerleaders in 2018.”

“The underlying premise of NFL cheerleaders is degrading, presenting women as nothing more than objects to be leered at. With skimpy, suggestive outfits as their ‘uniform,’ their only purpose is to titillate.”

“It’s always been an appalling message to send and, in this #MeToo era, there’s no longer any place for it. NFL cheerleaders need to go. NBA dance squads and NHL ice girls while we’re at it, too.”

What you just read were the headline and excerpts from the first five, or so, paragraphs of USA Today Sports writer Nancy Armour mid-April column. What you’re about to read is my initial reaction to this headline and the paragraphs that followed.

Whoa, Nancy. Girl. Pump the breaks. Before we get rid of anything, let’s talk about this for a second!

As a former NFL cheerleader, I found Armour’s tone and word choice unnecessarily demeaning. As myself, I was profoundly offended by Armour’s use of the word “titillate.” Honestly, I just don’t like the word, and it really made me uncomfortable. I digress.

I spent four years as a cheerleader in the NFL, and the experiences that each year brought helped shape me into the woman I am today. I had the opportunity to perform on many stages with some of the biggest names in the industry. I saw countries I never imagined seeing. I made a positive impact in lives, young and old, and I did it all with 30-something incredible women.

I wouldn’t trade my time as a cheerleader for anything. Yet, even with all of my wonderful nostalgia, I can still admit that there are, indeed, flaws in this institution.

That’s my perspective. And I’m just one of some thousand cheerleaders, past and present, with just as many different perspectives. I also realize that perception is reality, and there’s no such thing as a wrong perspective.

I can’t and won’t argue that Armour is wrong. Instead, I encourage her, and anyone who shares her views, to be open to different perspectives. To see other sides and possible solutions before jumping to a rash resolve.

In her article, Armour mentions two former cheerleaders who filed complaints with their respective teams and bravely told their stories. She sees their experiences, among other things, as justification for abolishing the entire institution. I see it as reason to speak up and advocate for much needed reform. Just because I had it good doesn’t mean I can ignore those who didn’t and don’t.

Open your mind, and let’s discuss.

Late March, Ken Belson of the New York Times broke the story of a New Orleans Saints cheerleader’s dismissal from the team because of a post on Instagram. Bailey Davis, who cheered three seasons in New Orleans, posted a photo in a lacy, one-piece number to her private account, violating a social media policy that prohibits cheerleaders from “appearing nude, seminude or in lingerie.”

Davis was also questioned about attending a party with Saints players in attendance, violating the “no fraternization” with players rule. She denied breaking both rules. The 22-year-old has since filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission accusing the Saints for having separate rules for men (the players) and women (the cheerleaders).

When I read articles of this nature, I try to see both sides. For those on the outside looking in, meaning those who have never been an NFL cheerleader, I completely understand the outrage. While these rules are meant to protect the women, they are oddly restrictive and pretty sexist for 2018. Belson detailed one rule, for example, regarding players, cheerleaders and restaurants.

“Cheerleaders are told not to dine in the same restaurants as players or speak to them in any detail. If a Saints cheerleader enters a restaurant and a player is already there, she must leave. If a cheerleader is in a restaurant and a player is already there, she must leave.”

I have questions:

1. What if it’s my birthday dinner (that had been planned for months) with all of my family and friends, and Drew Brees walks in?

2. Am I required to immediately get my cake, my presents, my family, my friends, the check and leave?

3. If I don’t leave by a certain point (or at all because it is MY birthday dinner), is my job on the line?

4. Do we all agree that this is a ridiculous rule that needs to be changed?

But, to be fair, I have to look at it from the inside looking out. As a former cheerleader, I know that the rules are the rules. To my knowledge, all NFL teams have some sort of anti-fraternization policy in place for their cheerleaders. Strictness may vary. And it can be subjective, unfortunately.

The moment you sign your name on that contract, you agree to abide by the rules of that contract. No matter how ridiculous. Your signature indicates your understanding that any violation can result in your termination. Period.

Fast forward a few weeks, and a second cheerleader comes forward with a complaint for gender and religion discrimination. Kristan Ware filed a complaint with the Florida Commission of Human Relations against the league and the Miami Dolphins because she was not treated the same as the many players who openly express their faith. In the form of a touchdown celebration, for example, or on their social media. The former three-year Miami Dolphins Cheerleader said she felt harassed by team leaders after posting a photo of her baptism to her social media.

“My coaches sat down and said, ‘Let’s talk about your virginity,’” said Ware in an interview with People Magazine. “And I thought, ‘That isn’t right.’”

Hello? Invasion of privacy. An employee should not be shamed for his or her beliefs, and cheerleaders should be treated with that same respect. If this is, in fact, how the conversation went, that’s just terrible judgement on the team leaders’ part. I’ve got nothing to justify this.

Okay, so. At this point in our discussion, I can understand if you’re considering joining Armour’s crusade to end NFL cheerleading. Well, hold your horses. Thing are going to get worse before it gets better.

Just days ago, Juliet Macur exposed the Washington football teams’ transgressions from a 2013 calendar photo shoot in Costa Rica. In this shoot, cheerleaders were required to pose topless or in body paint, and FedEx Field suite holders and team sponsors were granted access to the action. The article also detailed an evening when nine cheerleaders were selected to escort a few sponsors at a nightclub.

“They weren’t putting a gun to our heads, but it was mandatory for us to go,” one of the cheerleaders said. “We weren’t asked, we were told.”

And they probably didn’t speak up because they were afraid of losing a job. Administration should not coerce women into doing something that makes them feel uncomfortable. Pretty sure that’s textbook harassment, among other things.

Though not as extreme as Washington’s situation, I’ve been in many scenarios where I had to mix and mingle with male sponsors. I’d be lying if I said I’d never been in a position where I was devalued as an intelligent woman, physically or verbally, but I’ve always been thankful to have had bomb security to put rogue individuals in their place. Sometimes I even put them in their place myself, and I’d always just say, “It’s part of the job.”

How much more has to happen before we all can agree that it’s time for cheerleaders to stop saying things like “it comes with the job?”

Enough is enough.

The conversation NFL cheerleaders’ work conditions has been long overdue. While I’m glad we’re finally talking, I’d like to change the narrative. Most of the articles and tweets I’ve seen regarding the state of NFL cheerleading spotlight the pay, the restrictions, eating disorders, etc. Armour, for example, suggested that “skimpy, suggestive” uniforms are the reason for the harassment of these women.

I could go into a discussion about the reasons why beach volleyball players wear bikinis or even bring up examples of Sports Illustrated models being lauded for promoting body positivity. But, I won’t. Instead, I’ll point out that Armour, and she isn’t alone in this, missed an opportunity to point out the root of the problems in this industry. I think sports writer Jane McManus said it best in this tweet:

I couldn’t have said it better. Getting rid of NFL cheerleading sends the message that these women are doing something wrong. They aren’t. So why punish them?

I have a thought.

How about we get rid of the men (and women) in power who place cheerleaders in these unjust circumstances?  Let’s also get rid of the men who don’t know how to act when they see a women’s midriff, while we’re at it. Because contrary to what Armour thinks, I was not hired to be “ogled” in my “skimpy” uniform. I was hired to lend my 20+ years of dance training to the creation of dynamic in-game entertainment. That is the premise of NFL cheerleading, and, quite frankly, what we wear to do that shouldn’t matter.

How about instead of shaming these women, we respect them as the quality entertainers they are? Increase their pay. (Quit playing. Y’all can afford it.) Offer health insurance. Offer scholarship opportunities for those still in school. Treat them as equal employees. If mascots can make anywhere between $20,000-40,000 annually for their work, cheerleaders can make well over minimum wage, guys. That’s no offense to mascots.

How about we ensure security details is assigned to cheerleaders at all appearances and events? That would be a more effective safety rule compared to the ones regarding social media and who can come to my birthday dinner. Maybe just let go of the dated, controlling rules and upgrade to ones that apply to all employees.

How about we focus less on sexualizing cheerleaders and focus more on their talent, careers, etc.?

How about we increase fan engagement through rally days and community service events (hospital visits, United Service Organization related events, etc.) and decrease suite visits with drunk fans?

How about we don’t punish these women for wanting to do a job they love, and, instead, discuss ways to reform NFL cheerleading?

This is where the narrative needs to go. The stage is set for change, and now it’s time to talk about ways to put this change in action. Take a look at both sides before jumping at the thought of doing away with the institution. View a different perspective. Let’s talk about that.

Oh! P.S. When we do write these stories, let’s try to avoid using photos that only show close-ups on the ladies’ assets. Don’t be part of the problem. OK. Thanks.


Staff writer covering the Dallas Cowboys | Dancer | Writer | Sports Enthusiast | Declare HOPE Founder

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