Do We Even Need NFL Cheerleaders?

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Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders perform prior to a game against the Green Bay Packers at AT&T Stadium on December 15, 2013 in Arlington, Texas. Photo: Tom Pennington

After decades of making pennies per game and enduring flagrant objectification, it appears NFL cheerleaders are realizing how short their end of the stick actually is. Last week, five members of the Buffalo Jills filed a lawsuit against their team, the Buffalo Bills. They’re the third cheer team to do so this year.

By the rule of trends, three is the magic number, and as the Jills join members of the Oakland “Raiderettes” and the Cincinnati “Ben-Gals” to voice complaints about abhorrently low pay and draconian team guidelines that dictate everything from weight and appearance to manners and hygiene, their efforts might be sparking a game-changer. So far, in response, the Buffalo Bills have suspended operations of the Jills; ESPN, Deadspin, Bloomberg, and other outlets have dedicated headlines to their cause; and Amanda Hess at Slate went ahead and declared 2014 the year the “cheerleaders revolted.” But as cheerleaders toss down their pom-poms and pick up the fight, someone has to ask: Is the institution of NFL cheerleading even one worth revolting for?

Funnily enough, cheerleading began as a man’s sport in 1898, when some University of Minnesota football fans started yelling chants to help inspire their team to win the game. The idea of cheer teams quickly became popular: Women began joining teams in the 1920s, pom-poms were introduced in the 1930s, and stunts in 1948. While the activity was a hallmark of collegiate sports, it wasn’t until the 1960s that the Baltimore Colts made professional cheerleaders an NFL fixture. In 1972, the owners of the Dallas Cowboys decided to recruit athletic dancers and teach them more complex choreography, as well as reduce the size of their costumes. Cheerleaders thus became part of the Super Bowl and a fixture in NFL culture. But that contemporary version of the cheerleader is a relatively recent development, all things considered. Those 1898 Minnesota fans certainly weren't submitting to weekly weigh-ins; they were amateurs cheering on other amateurs.

So how does that spirit map onto today's NFL? During the games, cheerleaders' big numbers are often rushed, unwatched spectacles in the end zone. Herkies and upbeat eight-counts take a backseat to paychecks when it comes to motivating players. None of that’s the fault of the cheerleaders, who dedicate long, underpaid hours to a sport they love — it's the fault of today's multi-million-dollar NFL machine.  Meanwhile, the cheerleading programs act like demented finishing schools. In the Jills’ lawsuit, the five women described practices such as weekly “Jiggle Tests,” where they are forced to do jumping jacks as some sort of taut-ass check. And as has been widely reported now, their guidebook dictated everything from how they should clean their vaginas to how much bread they could consume at dinner. One Jill describes mandatory team-promoting appearances that include walking around casino events in bikinis or sitting on men’s laps at golf tournaments. These women are treated more like booth babes than like dancers or athletes. 

Long hours, low wages, weigh-ins, ever-shrinking costumes: Clearly, something has to change. But why not do away with the whole thing? The problem with calling for a cheer revolution is that the peripheral role of today's cheerleader doesn't offer much leverage. If no one's depending on you to perform, will they notice if you stop? Of course it's a good thing (as Hess points out) that feminists working on behalf of labor rights and equal pay can now recognize common causes with women in short skirts and crop tops. And of course talented athletes and dancers deserve a stage. But maybe the NFL isn't the right stage — and maybe, rather than trying to fix an outmoded institution, we should try to find them a better one.