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The grass isn’t greener on the sidelines: the reality of NFL cheerleading

Cheerleading is a longtime controversial sport—or is it a sport? That’s another controversy. In fact, it is so contested that six teams in the NFL refuse to have a cheerleading squad. The Buffalo Bills suspended their team after a 2014 lawsuit alleging lower-than-minimum-wage earnings. The Cleveland Browns said it’s too cold for a squad up in Ohio, and wearing warm enough coats looked “ridiculous.” They were disbanded by the early 70’s. And as for the Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears, New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers, modern cheerleaders simply don’t fit their philosophy.

“We have always had issues with sending scantily clad women out on the field to entertain our fans,” said John Mara, Giants co-owner, to the New York Times.

But it wasn’t always that way. Before the 1940’s, cheerleading was male-dominated and referred to as “yell squads.” The men pridefully led the crowd in cheers and incorporated in some gymnastics and stunts—though, not nearly to the same extent as cheerleading does today. 

It wasn’t female-dominated until young men were shipped off during World War II. And by 1948, the National Cheerleading Association (NCA) was founded to establish training camps and better educate cheerleaders on the craft.

But somewhere along the way, it lost its integrity. What was once a well-respected role is now a seemingly-pompous clan of girls in short shorts and low tops. But does that mean the craft of cheerleading is tainted or is it simply the way the NFL sees and treats it?

Brittney Pauls, captain of the Oral Roberts University cheer squad, was a competitive gymnast for 14 years before joining the college cheer team. Pauls spent more than a decade developing physical agility and coordination—even competing for USA Gymnastics. She was an athlete turned collegiate cheerleader. But the NFL, the next level of cheerleading, isn’t something she would consider.

“College cheer is more about the stunts and flips and NFL cheerleading is more dance and ‘show girl’ based,” explained Pauls. “NFL cheerleading doesn’t quite fit my personality, as I would rather be flipping than dancing. I applaud NFL cheerleaders though; they are beautiful and extremely talented.”

It seems that once cheerleading reaches the national level, the fingerprints of the NFL leave it riddled with lawsuits and cases of abuse. Once these athletes began being overly sexualized in the NFL, the organization’s respect for the athletes became a needle in the money stack.

The NFL treats their cheerleaders like models, but expects them to perform with the intensity of athletes. In 1960, the most prestigious cheerleader organization in the NFL, the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, even tried hiring professional models for the sidelines—since that’s all they were, right? 

“It was a disaster,” said the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders on their website. “The models were beautiful, but they were not athletes.” 

Hannah Turnbow, former Houston Texans cheerleader, trained for 14 years in competitive dance before joining the league. Practice is three times a week, she explained, unless they called for an extra practice day. Workouts with trainers are twice a week. They are required to make an appearance at 50 events (parties, meet & greets, etc.), increasing hours on certain weeks. And no cheerleader is allowed to be just a cheerleader—all must also be employed elsewhere or be a student. They are expected to meet the demanding, time-consuming requirements and ideal weight, yet they’re still treated like eye candy and paid like it too.

Houston Texans Cheerleaders are paid minimum wage—about $300 a game—while 2018 NFL football-player rookies earn the league minimum base salary of $480,000 a season. The multibillion-dollar industry doesn’t consider the cheerleaders financially equivalent to the football players.

But sure, it’s unrealistic to pay athletes on the sidelines that don’t compete and only cheer—such as team mascots—the same salary. Yet, NFL mascots make around $60,000 a year. At that rate, an NFL mascot earns on average 17 times more than the highest-paid league cheerleader.

On June 1, 2018, Turnbow filed a lawsuit against the Houston Texans claiming they violated federal labor laws and minimum-wage regulations. She was accompanied by five other plaintiffs—all former Houston Texans cheerleaders—including Kelly Neuner. 

In August, the head coach of the Houston Texans cheerleaders––who several women had come out and accused of abuse in a prior lawsuit––resigned.

“My main goal was for change,” said Neuner. “The coach getting let go was a huge victory for us. More than any settlement could have ever provided. It was never about settlement money. It was about the fact they put glitz and glamour on something that actually wasn’t how they advertised at all and they paid you peanuts if and when they decided you were entitled to be paid.”

Additionally, cheerleaders do far more than just cheer on the field. After all, it is a full-time job with part-time pay, the teams claim. The women also attend signings and special events—which they may or may not be paid for—and pose for annual swimsuit calendar shoots.

In a New York Times article published in April 2018, several cheerleaders of the Washington Redskins spoke out against an unforgettable team trip to Costa Rica in 2013. At a private resort the women stayed at, they posed for the team’s routine swimsuit calendar photo shoot––some, even topless. However, many women said they felt their privacy and safety was compromised when the team invited an all-male group of team sponsors and suite holders to peek in on the action. At the end of that 14-hour day, nine of the women were instructed by their director to get ready for that evening in which they would escort some of the male sponsors (who hand picked the women) to a nightclub.

There was no gun to their heads to go and the night did not involve sex, but it was mandatory and frightening, according to one of the cheerleaders in the NYT article.

There are a dozen other cases of alleged sexual harassment and workplace abuse cases from cheerleaders in the NFL. Turnbow and Neuner’s case from 2018 was dismissed within a month and the cheerleaders decided to submit their complaints to binding arbitration. 

So why join NFL cheerleading?

“I can’t speak on anyone’s experience but my own,” explained Turnbow. “But if I had to guess, I would say the only reason I would stay is for the love of performing and role we play in the community.”

When the prestige and athleticism of cheerleading is ignored by its organizers, the NFL has proved that it cannot continue to stand on a foundation of sexual stimulation for male watchers and followers, who have more respect for men in the middle of the field than female athletes on the sidelines.

For all the young girls that are just beginning their first of 14 years falling in love with the sport that, at the highest level, will give her long hours, little to no pay and an increased opportunity to be sexually harassed, reform it or end it.

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