Turn on the TV any given Sunday and this will not come as a surprise: The NFL is a sexist institution. Professional football, after all, is a sport in which men are paid handsome sums to do irreparable harm to their brains, while conventionally attractive women are paid paltry amounts to wear small outfits and cheer them on. The concept of all-female cheer squads hailing male athletes is bad enough (despite the recent announcement that two men will join the LA Rams, NFL cheerleaders are almost entirely female). Even worse, though, is how some NFL teams treat the women they employ.
The New Orleans Saints have a long list of retrograde rules for the cheer squad that don’t apply to the male football players. A new lawsuit on behalf of Bailey Davis, an ex-New Orleans Saints cheerleader, prompted the New York Times to obtain the Saints’ internal handbook and communiqués from those in charge, revealing that cheerleaders aren’t allowed to attend parties with players – and it’s the women who have to leave, while the men socialize as they please. Cheerleaders are required to block players on social media, while players have no obligation to leave cheerleaders alone. Cheerleaders are supposed to keep their own social media accounts private and tightly controlled, while players can promote themselves and connect with fans. Cheerleaders aren’t even supposed to talk to players very much; if a cheerleader is eating in a restaurant and a player walks in, she has to cut her meal short and leave, while he gets to stay and eat.
Apparently the team says this is for the cheerleaders’ own protection. Which makes you wonder what kind of employer believes some of their employees are predatory, and instead of removing those individuals, put the onus on all women to keep men in line.
The overarching message is that players can do whatever they want, while it’s up to the cheerleaders to regulate male behavior, and to be objects of sexual desire for players and fans, but not sexual actors in their own right – or even young women permitted to have normal fun.
Davis was fired from the Saints squad after she posted a photo of herself in a lace bodysuit on her Instagram account, which she had already made private per team rules. That violated team rules against cheerleaders posting images of themselves nude, partially nude, or in lingerie. These rules don’t apply to the men who play for the Saints. A quick Google search turns up plenty of images of current or former Saints players posing for intentionally sexy shirtless photos while they were still members of the team: There’s one player in bright red boxer-briefs in an Under Armour ad (“Mark Your Man,” the text says); there’s another shirtless in GQ and for a milk ad.
Despite some players choosing to take a knee at games in protest of police brutality against black men, the NFL as a whole is not exactly a bastion of progressivism. But the Saints’ treatment of cheerleaders is nonetheless shocking. It hinges on old and destructive stereotypes about men and women: That men are naturally predatory but should nevertheless be given free rein to dominate public space; that women are both sex objects and the gatekeepers of sexual morality, required to appear sexually enticing for male viewing pleasure without actually engaging in sexual behavior – and making sure men behave, too. Male misbehavior, in this frame, is always a woman’s fault.
The Saints are probably not the only team that employs these sexist rules. We know already that the Oakland Raiders required its cheerleaders to wear skimpy bellybutton-baring outfits on “two-piece Tuesdays” and berated women who attended a player’s Halloween party: “The same player was suspended from the team for drug use, but also arrested for date rape,” the Raiderettes’ 2012 etiquette contract stated, according to a copy obtained by Mic.com. “For you on the squad who have attended those parties, just think how narrowly you missed having your photo in all the local papers and/or being assaulted!” The contract also stated that “negative facial expressions are strictly VERBOTEN!” and that Raiderettes needed to be camera-ready any time they left the house.
To add insult to injury, cheerleaders are criminally underpaid. Had Davis not been fired from the Saints cheer squad, she would have been making $10.25 an hour as a fourth-year cheerleader. Cheerleaders from other teams reported making as little as $1,250 a season – all for the privilege of being bossed around and having to adhere to a set of arcane and misogynist policies. And we see direct results of these policies: ex-NFL-players often go on to visible careers as TV commentators, but ex-NFL-cheerleaders are rarely heard from again, likely because they were never allowed to self-promote.
Cheerleaders are hardworking athletes, often professional dancers and accomplished gymnasts. As long as there is an NFL, the women who perform at halftime shows and rally the crowd on the teams’ behalf should be treated as valued members of that team – they should be paid fairly, and cheerleaders and players should be expected to adhere to the same code of conduct.
Sexist treatment of cheerleaders is hardly the only problem facing the NFL. When the league is covering up ample evidence of traumatic brain injuries, and when wealthy owners amass even more wealth by paying young men to pulverize each others’ brains for our viewing entertainment, something is already deeply rotten. Sexist expectations and chronic underpayment of cheerleaders is just the ugly icing on this already-unsalvageable cake.
But it is ugly indeed to watch a large, moneyed organization allow its male public-facing figures to use social media to promote themselves, build their brands, and position themselves as widely influential even off the field, while the women who cheer for them have to stay quiet (but smiling) in the background, unable to similarly leverage their time on the field into more money, influence or opportunity. They can’t even finish dinner if an unauthorized male walks into the room. Football isn’t America’s only favorite pastime; sexism is right up there, too.
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