Cheerleading : A Dangerous and Dubious Sideshow

One of the classic American discussion points – right up there with Mexican border walls and buffalo wings vs. jalapeno poppers – is whether cheerleading is a sport.

It is highly competitive, calls for strategy and incredible physical prowess, and comes with a bunch of risks. It even has uniforms. So, yep, it checks all the boxes. It’s a sport.

Perhaps those arm chair experts who are ordering their seventh Bud Light could settle that particular quandary and turn their inquiring minds to the real conundrum of cheerleading: should it exist at all?

Cheerleaders are underpaid, under-valued and overly sexualized eye candy who have been exploited in professional sport ever since the first sequined pair of short shorts was squeezed onto a woman’s behind.

The politics of the sport are pretty obvious to anyone with even a passing understanding of feminism. Can these women be considered as role models when their primary function is to stand at the sidelines in order to glorify the athletic skills of men? There secondary function, of course, is to be ogled by tens of thousands of men in the stands.

This argument is not readily accepted by the majority of fans and is confined to university lectures in liberal arts colleges or in hipster-dominated cafes where the muffins tend to swing towards the gluten-free end of the spectrum. Plenty of women think cheerleading is integral to sport, which is, after all, just entertainment.

And obviously the cheerleaders themselves don’t seem to mind twirling a pom-pom. Indeed, cheerleaders are highly trained, ambitious women who take pride in their careers. There is no such thing as a phone-it-in cheerleader.

The true misfortune of cheerleading is not to be found in its latent sexism – that is an argument for the future – but in how these incredible athletes are exploited and marginalized within their own work places. Given the nature of the NFL, for example, they would not exist without a financial imperative. The franchises are money-making juggernauts, and anything found within that stadium on game day is usually costing the fan and making money for the owner.

It is estimated that cheerleading earns teams an additional US$1 million annually. It helps get men through the gates, but there is a string of promotional activities tied to the job as well. Calendars, special event hosting duties, autograph signings…even auctions are held where you can rent your own cheerleader. The skin crawls when thinking of a rich retiree pays a few thousand to have a Raiderette cheer him during Sunday afternoon golf.

It would surprise no one, though, to discover that this arm of the merchandising department gets a raw deal.

These same Raiderettes are paid around US$1250 per year, which breaks down to less than 5 dollars per hour. This is below minimum wage, and unlike other low paying jobs, cheerleaders can’t exactly go into the crowd and ask for tips.

Other teams pay by the game, and the total for five hours of training and glamourising is around or even below US$100.

So naturally, this being America, law-suits have begun popping up. The Oakland Raiders were the first to get pinged and had to settle the matter out of court. They sprinkled US$1.25 million over 90 former cheerleaders, which amounts to one month’s basic salary for many of the star footballers being cheered on.

Lacy T., the originator of the raiders lawsuit said “you don’t make any money. You’re better off serving beer and hot dogs in the concession stand.”

The franchises are slowly moving their bloated hands to open their cheque-books as the threat of further litigation looms, but the tussle for fair pay will be long and fraught. Cheerleading is classified typically as part time work, which means they should have a main source of income.
But this mentality fails to account for the long hours of training, training camps and the fact that the cheerleaders are not functionaries who silently keep the stadium running. They are part of the image of the team.

And it is not just about turning up for the match. Many of the franchises impose behaviour restrictions on the cheerleaders, which range from patronising to down-right creepy.

The lawsuits have brought to light some of the clubs’ code of conduct manuals. A Raiderette could be fined from her already meager wage for gaining as much as 3kg, or for appearing “soft”.

The rules for the Buffalo Jills are even more absurd. Besides having to buy their own $600 uniform, they are not permitted to wear underwear under their sportskinis or to eat bread during official dinners.

Other clubs conduct demeaning periodic “jiggle tests” in front of administrators, where they are required to perform star jumps so the men can gauge whether they are packing contraband layers of fat. Some clubs insist that the cheerleaders limit how many times they refer to themselves as “I” or “me”, implying some weird shade of humility.

Cheerleading, clearly, is not even close to a picnic. And according to recent data, it is dangerous as well. “Over the last four years, we’ve had more concussions in cheerleading than we have in football and soccer,” Georgia sports medicine director Ron Courson has said.

Dangerous, underpaid, highly exploitable, sexist and anachronistic…despite this avalanche of negatives, cheerleading continues to be one of the most highly regarded team sports in American schools. Supporters cite the way it builds self-esteem and physical ability in its participants. Students will continue to be drawn to it. Women will continue to join teams in the future.

The minimum we can hope for is for the clubs to see them as a valuable component of their organisations and reward them accordingly.

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