DAYTON, Ohio — A few weeks ago, a former New Orleans Saints cheerleader, Bailey Davis, filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She had been fired from the cheerleading team for posting a photo of herself in a one-piece outfit on Instagram and investigated for supposedly going to a party where players were in attendance. Her Saintsations cheerleader rule book, one of many among N.F.L. cheerleading teams, places strict limits on social media use and prohibits fraternization with players. (Ms. Davis says she was not at the party in question.) What’s interesting about her complaint is that she is arguing that the N.F.L. violated its own anti-discrimination policy in its treatment of her — by targeting her because she is a woman.
I joined the Cincinnati Ben-Gals, the cheerleading team for the Cincinnati Bengals, when I was 40, making me the oldest cheerleader in the N.F.L. at the time, in 2009. Not once during my six seasons cheering did I feel discriminated against because of my age. But as a woman I became well acquainted with the kinds of gender-based discrimination Ms. Davis describes in her complaint: the strict rules, the demeaning and objectifying behavior from often inebriated fans and the extraordinarily low pay.
The Ben-Gal rule book, when I joined, consisted of nine single-spaced pages. Rules covered missed practices, ideal weight, wardrobe and appearance. Even when the rules were reasonable, there was sexist thinking and language throughout. For example, the only time a cheerleader could miss practice with no penalty was for her wedding. As a divorced mother of two, I would have preferred an exception for emergency child care.
Other rules dictated weight: Any cheerleader more than three pounds above her goal weight could not cheer the next game. (After a 2014 lawsuit, the Ben-Gals rule book was changed and there are no mandatory weigh-ins. Still, the director and coaches can decide, based on a cheerleader’s look, whether she is fit to cheer a given game.)
Our wardrobe, even on our days off, was highly regulated — no T-shirts that showed belly, no belly button rings, no body piercings, no glitter. “Professional attire and glamour is expected at ALL TIMES,” the book stated, “and you may be sent home and/or benched before any game, practice, job, team function, charity event, etc. Well-groomed hair and makeup is expected at ALL TIMES!!” We lived in fear that a fellow Ben-Gal might see us buying groceries in terry sweats and report us to our director.
For practices, we were required to wear sports bras and short shorts, with pantyhose underneath, and sneakers with socks. “No panties are to be worn under practice clothes or uniform, not even thong panties” was a rule that made some cheerleaders particularly uncomfortable.
One of the strictest and longest-standing rules was no fraternization. Cheerleaders could not socialize with Bengals or Bengals personnel except at public events. Players, however, were not penalized for approaching us, in person or online. Ms. Davis’s E.E.O.C. complaint argues that the Saints’ anti-fraternization policy is unfair to women because it penalizes them for contact for which players are not penalized.
The rules might not have felt so humiliating had we received fair pay for our work. The year I joined, we got $75 per game and nothing for practices — standard then for league cheerleading teams. This came to around $2.50 an hour.
We did not even own our uniforms. Instead we paid a $100 rental fee, refundable only if the uniform was returned in good condition. If special outfits were required for private events, we had to buy them (and weren’t reimbursed). When I left after six years, I could not take my uniform with me because it was still in good condition; it was used for two more seasons by another Ben-Gal before I could purchase it.
To supplement the low pay, I could bring in extra money by signing up for special events with fans, which came to several hundred dollars per season. But at these events, groping, sexist comments and ogling were par for the course (sometimes literally, since we often made appearances at golf courses). And while there was a security person provided for us at stadium events, at off-site events, which could draw hundreds of fans, we were on our own.
At our orientation, our captain told us to expect harassment from fans. “When a fan gets too close or gropes you,” she said, “always smile. If a guy grabs you too tightly, take his hand off you and put your arm around him instead.” We were told to be polite and courteous, and to never get angry with fans, no matter what they did.
Some male fans leered, stared at our breasts and tried to grab us when we posed for photos with them. Bar events were particularly unpleasant because the men were often inebriated. When I posed with them, they would try to do a “boob hug,” reaching their hands around, raising them slowly and trying to touch the side of my breast. I had to delicately (but never angrily) move the hand to my waist or arrange myself far enough away that they couldn’t touch me.
Fan interactions could even be punishment for breaking the rules. On the Ben-Gals, once the cheerleaders were chosen for the four corners of the field, any women who did not “make corner” (often because of their weight) were not allowed on the field for the game. Instead, they had to go to the private suites to mingle with fans, who could be rude and ungracious. One of the reasons we all worked so hard to “make corner” was to avoid having to make a suite appearance.
In the past, most cheerleaders put up with these brutal conditions, figuring that cheering was a temporary job and there was no point fighting to change it when it was meant to be a steppingstone. Those who did complain were often shunned or punished. The overriding message we received from our directors and captains was that complainers were replaceable. Some of the more vocal women would be disqualified (by the captains) from participating in paid events, as punishment for speaking out.
Fortunately, cheerleader conditions are improving. The Seattle Seahawks were the first to offer minimum wage to their cheerleaders, in 1997. Cheerleaders for the Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers now get minimum wage and overtime, as do the Ben-Gals, after lawsuits and settlements. After one of my fellow cheerleaders initiated a class-action suit against the Bengals for violation of federal employment laws, we received $255,000 in back pay. My own payout was $7,500 for three years of cheering. Today a minimum-wage cheerleader can make several thousand per year, which might cover a chunk of the cost of pantyhose, hair extensions, cosmetics and gasoline that they buy with their own money.
Some football fans adore us and can’t envision the game without us. Others think we’re bad dancers and relics of a more sexist era. But one thing is indisputable: Cheerleaders bring in money. A 2003 Forbes magazine article estimated that N.F.L. teams with cheerleaders bring in $1 million in revenue per team in calendar sales, appearances, sponsorships and clothing lines. Cheerleaders also bring traffic to team websites with blogs, photos and contests. Public events and web traffic can lead to increased ticket sales for games and a higher profile for team sponsors.
So we bring in seven figures and earn in the low fours. Football players, who are unionized, receive millions of dollars and are not subject to anywhere near the same level of scrutiny about their behavior and appearance on and off the field.
I am hopeful that Ms. Davis’s case will lead to a change in the treatment of N.F.L. cheerleaders and a rethinking of the outdated rule books that dominate our cheering lives. Until then, cheerleaders, who must be at least 18 or 21 depending on the team, will continue to be underappreciated and infantilized.
There was one page of the Ben-Gals rule book that I will never forget. It had bold capital letters that made me wonder what I had gotten myself into: “Authority — ABSOLUTELY NO ARGUING OR QUESTIONING THE PERSON IN AUTHORITY!!!”
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