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While it’s become more and more clear in recent months and years how poorly NFL cheerleaders are treated by teams, New York Times reporter Juliet Macur continues to show just how bad things are.
On Thursday, the Times published Macur’s latest story on the often-seedy side of cheerleaders with a little-known category of women: “alternate” cheerleaders, who are effectively scantily clad team ambassadors on gamedays.
What are alternate cheerleaders?
By definition, a cheerleader dances and chants in support of a team; in the NFL, that means being on the field during the game, performing during timeouts and after touchdowns.
It also means that if they’re on the field, there’s – gasp! – no one for fans in the suites to ogle and leer at up close during the game.
So some NFL teams created a secondary group of women for that purpose, ones that don’t have to have the dance talent of cheerleaders, but are scantily-clad models to mingle with deep-pocketed, often-inebriated male customers.
Macur interviewed a dozen women who worked as non-cheering cheerleaders and a half-dozen others who have knowledge of these groups, and they described jobs with low wages and high incidences of harassment and groping.
‘Alternates’ are meant to blend in
The alternate cheerleaders are almost always dressed the same as on-field cheerleaders; they’re not supposed to give the impression that they aren’t cheerleaders.
“It’s a really big secret, and now you know about it,” said Jackie Chambers, a model who was part of the Houston Texans’ non-cheerleader group last year. “But teams don’t want fans to know about it. All of the cheerleaders are supposed to blend in with each other.”
The Texans, Washington, New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints are among the teams that have alternate cheerleaders.
In the Patriots’ case, the team holds auditions for cheerleader promotional models; while they don’t dance, both groups of women are grouped together, and the models and cheerleaders are both part of the team’s annual calendar.
Washington uses its “cheerleader ambassadors” in promotional materials meant to convince monied fans to invest in a luxury suite. In the team’s online suite sales video, there are photos of suite-holders posing with the cheerleader ambassadors; at another point in the video a voice says, “membership has its privileges,” as a bikini-clad woman is shown on screen.
The Baltimore Ravens aren’t secretive about their non-cheerleading group, calling them the Playmakers and treating them like marketers — but marketers whose job application asks for bust size.
Poor treatment for cheerleaders and non-cheerleaders
Earlier this month, Macur detailed a trip Washington cheerleaders took to Costa Rica in 2013 for the swimsuit calendar shoot in which women described the surprising – and unwelcome – presence of male sponsors at a photo shoot in which they were required to be topless. Team officials took women’s passports upon arrival at the resort, and later in the trip, women were chosen as “personal escorts” for a trip to a nightclub with sponsors.
For women who aren’t official cheerleaders, the treatment isn’t much better.
Six women who were ambassadors for Washington described the gig as a sexualized saleswoman. Some had to go to team tailgate parties, where attendees were encouraged to drink, and men would grab them and hug them or make inappropriate comments.
“The Redskins wanted to come up with extra ways to make money, so they dreamed up the idea of the ambassadors,” said one woman who worked as an ambassador. “We were made to look almost exactly like cheerleaders, but we weren’t a member of that society. We didn’t get the perks of dancing. We were just low-paid, underappreciated, exploited moneymakers in a huge moneymaking scheme.”
“We wore low-cut tops with cutouts and your butt cheeks would be sticking out the back. That’s how they sell the suites,” she added.
Dennis Greene, who was Washington’s longtime head of business operations (he was recently replaced) and remains in charge of hospitality and suites, treated the women like cattle, they said. Greene had women line up on to examine them, then chose two to work with him on gamedays, visiting suites.
“He would look each of us up and down and say, I want that one and that one, and everyone hated when you got selected for that,” a former ambassador said. “It was humiliating.”
Washington convinced women who hadn’t been chosen as cheerleaders to accept the ambassador role as a way to prepare for the next year’s auditions and get into the good graces of cheerleading team director Stephanie Jojokian.
They were encouraged to take classes at Jojokian’s dance company, Capitol Movement, or to either donate to the non-profit organization or attend fundraisers, and steered to the hair salon and tanning salon that sponsored the groups, where they got the look the team wanted.
Another former Washington ambassador said: “It was like, if you want to make the cheerleading team, you’d better do all this stuff, and that included going to parties where there was a lot of drinking and there were definitely underage ambassadors. It might not be the best experience for the ladies, but you just shut up and do it because you want to be a cheerleader.”
Despite the degrading conditions, women focused on the thing they enjoyed: cheering on the sidelines, in front of the crowds. Many women didn’t give their name for Macur’s story because of confidentiality agreements signed with clubs.
Lots of requirements, little respect
Chambers had no dance experience when she was chosen as a Texans “appearance-only cheerleader,” and believed she’d be getting to do some good, like visiting with military members or attending events with children.
That wasn’t the reality.
As the team earned thousands per event and per cheerleader, the women themselves were required to work at least 50 promotional events per year and earned just $7.25 an hour.
Chambers said the team’s coach, Alto Gary, was verbally and emotionally abusive of women, which was confirmed by three other members. Their contract forbade “arguing or showing disrespect” to Gary, whom Chambers said used thick tape to constrict a woman’s midsection before one game, making it appear flatter under her costume.
Chambers often had to go into the stands for giveaways, and once a man ran his hands over her crotch. She told team officials and police, but nothing was done about the incident.
Earlier this month, three of Chambers’ former teammates filed a class-action suit against the Texans and Gary; Chambers will join the suit if it is certified.
And here’s a kicker: Last month, at the team’s year-end meeting, Chambers said women were given Starbucks gift cards as a token of appreciation.
When Chambers went to use her card, the barista handed it back to her, saying it had a zero balance. Some women had $5 on their cards.
“All of us said, wow, the Texans must have really appreciated us,” Chambers said. “We were laughing, but crying.”
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