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NFL cheerleaders forced to smile through harassment

A recent discrimination case filed by former New Orleans Saints cheerleader Bailey Davis has opened up a window into the way the NFL objectifies, controls, and exploits its cheerleaders. 

Bailey Davis was fired from the New Orleans Saints after posting a photo of herself on Instagram wearing lingerie, which the team called “distasteful,” in spite of the fact that it exposed barely any more skin than the team-mandated uniform.. Her sentencing was exacerbated by accusations that she’d been seen at a party with one of the Saints football players, a violation of the team’s anti-fraternization policy. Since Davis’ story went public, several other professional cheerleaders have disclosed the ways in which the sports industry mistreats cheerleaders.

While the anti-fraternization policies involve both cheerleaders and players, only cheerleaders are disciplined for violating them. They are expected to block all 2,000 NFL players from social media and physically exit establishments when players enter.

All of the cheerleaders report that verbal and physical harassment from fans is part of the job. Fans are often drunk and will touch the women without consent, or verbally harass them with instances so extreme that cheerleaders have been told “to get raped.” Former Cowboys cheerleaders have said that fighting back against handsy fans would no doubt result in expulsion from the team. A former Cincinnati Bengals Cheerleader said that her coach instructed her to “always smile” while being groped or propositioned.  

Beyond just interacting with fans, cheerleaders reported that they’ve been asked to attend private parties (unsupervised) and “do dances” or mingle with men of power. In other cases the NFL has required that cheerleaders participate in swimwear photoshoots. Possibly most horrifying of all is the fact that cheerleaders are asked to sign non-disclosure agreements, or NDAs, upon getting hired. NDAs literally silence cheerleaders from reporting the exploitive behaviors that take place off the field such as parties, golf-tournaments, etc. 

Then there’s the issue of pay. Most cheerleaders barely make minimum wage – in past years salaries as low as $2 an hour have been reported – and are not subsidized for travel expenses, makeup, and uniforms even when mandated to keep them in crisp condition. Like other athletes, cheerleaders work incredibly hard. They train for copious hours, are subjected to physical scrutiny, get injured and have demanding schedules – all for very little pay.

The NFL has been getting away with this mistreatment for decades, relying on a hypermasculine sports environment to uphold outdated gender norms and justify exploiting women workers. Basic protections need to be implemented against harassment from fans, cheerleaders should be fairly paid, and given the liberty to interact with those they choose. These are no-brainer, fundamental rights and if the NFL can’t grant them without feeling as though that would destabilize the essence of cheerleading, then they expose their dependence on something built entirely off of the exploitation and subordination of women.

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