It may not be football season, but the sport is never far from attention in the United States, where it rules professional sports by far in terms of popularity. Any Saturday during football season in the U-District is proof of the pervasive love for football, and any walk down Seattle streets means you’ll see dozens of 12th Man signs. But the players aren’t the only people involved in the massive phenomenon, and they aren’t even the only people who step on the field.
While cheerleaders certainly don’t receive the same name recognition as football players, they’re still part of the spectacle. That’s clear enough in the way the NFL teams work to control their cheerleaders’ images to the point of firing them for posting photos in one-piece outfits on their private instagram accounts.
Normally, I would be more in favor of supporting women doing their job rather than just doing away with it, but sideline cheerleading is different. I don’t think NFL teams should be employing women just to do what former Redskins cheerleaders felt like was “pimping them out” by forcing them to escort sponsors to a nightclub, or sending them to luxury suites where they would often be groped.
As I sat down to write about this issue of NFL teams severely underpaying their cheerleaders while placing unreasonable restrictions on their lives and sexually exploiting them, I started thinking about why we even have sideline cheerleaders in the first place.
The very essential purpose of the job is in the name. Cheerleaders lead cheers. But that isn’t really the purpose of their jobs anymore. In the NBA, the job title isn’t even cheerleaders but dancers, despite them doing relatively the same thing: providing entertainment when the players aren’t on the field or the court.
Hockey has a close approximation of cheerleading known as “ice girls,” who skate across the ice in short skirts and crop tops (which doesn’t seem like the best gear for getting out on the ice). There’s really no reason for ice girls to be dressed like that except for the purpose of sexual exploitation.
What happened to Redskins cheerleaders in 2013, being forced to pose topless for a calendar shoot while those suite holders and sponsors watched, is proof that cheerleaders are seen as objects purely for the use of the teams they work for. (You could probably make this argument for players as well, but at least they’re getting millions of dollars out of it rather than getting paid close to minimum wage.)
The whole purpose of cheerleading has evolved from being an active part of the fan experience to a supplement to it, and if that’s the only reason why we have cheerleaders, I question why we need them at all.
Competitive cheerleading makes sense to me far more than sideline cheerleading does. In competition, performance itself is the focus. Sideline cheering is merely supplementary to a larger spectacle: the game at hand. While I certainly don’t mind cheerleaders adding a little interest to timeouts during the many sports games I attend as a beat writer, I don’t know that I would miss cheerleading from the game. I’m probably about as interested in women as your average male sports fan, but I don’t see a point to watching women in short skirts dance at an event that I’m at for the sport being played.
Either cheerleading as it exists on the sidelines of NFL stadiums needs to end, or the requirements of the job need to change. As it currently stands, cheerleaders currently exist to be exploited for the gaze of football fans. They lack autonomy over their social media, their personal image, and, in some cases, what restaurants they can eat at.
Cheerleading is part of professional football, but it doesn’t have to be, especially if the only point is to exploit women within a sport that already doesn’t offer women much respect.
Reach Managing Editor Hailey Robinson at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @haileyarobin