In Defense of Cheerleaders and Cheerleading

By LARA TRAVIS

In a former life, before three children and a husband who requires the care of a toddler, I was an NFL Cheerleader. That’s why recent attacks on cheerleading from many media outlets have struck me as particularly ill-suited; unlike the people writing the articles I’ve actually been on an NFL cheerleading squad and know exactly what the experience is like. And the truth is this, for the vast, vast majority of us, it’s a tremendous way to pursue our interests in competitive dance, team camaraderie and community involvement all while getting a front row seat to the best football in the country.

When I tried out for the Tennessee Titans cheerleaders, it was to continue my passion for dance, and be part of a team or community of dancers. I had danced all four years of college for my university’s dance team (both at Oakland University, and at the University of Michigan). I studied dance at the Alvin Ailey School in New York City for parts of two different years, and through involvement at various dance studios in both Detroit and Nashville would be hired for small professional dance performances from time to time. I coached high school dance teams, and helped train youth gymnasts in ballet. While dance got me into cheerleading, my eyes were quickly opened to larger role it served during my first few months as a Titans cheerleader.

Think about this, most of you reading this can probably afford to buy tickets to football games, but maybe some of you cannot. There are millions of people who cannot afford a ticket to an NFL football game in this country who are still huge fans. I remember one paid appearance I did for Titans Cheer which brought home that fact to me. It was at a car dealership over two hours from my house in downtown Nashville.

At first I was lamenting my decision to sign up for the this community event — even though appearances were required, we got to choose those that fit our schedule — because of the long drive and having to stand around for a couple hours at a car dealership with strangers. When I finally got there I was greeted with great enthusiasm by the dealership owner and a family of four who had already been there for twenty minutes waiting for me and the other cheerleader to arrive. The family heard about our upcoming appearance from a flyer, and the young boy who was in second grade rushed up for our autographs on a Titans’ poster he had. A little strange, I thought, to want cheerleaders to sign your Derrick Mason poster. I asked him if he ever went to games, and the dad answered; “No, don’t think we will be able to afford a game any time soon, but we try to get out to every event we can if a cheerleader or player might be there.” And boom, that’s when it hit me, this kid and his entire family loved Titans football. Anyone and everyone associated with the Titans organization was a hero to them even though they likely would never be able to afford to go to a game. This moment right here, this interaction with me, a cheerleader, might be the closest these huge fans ever get to a firsthand experience with their local team.

This family loved the Titans so much they even wanted a cheerleader’s autograph and I’d helped to make their day better by just visiting their community. During my time as a Titans cheerleader I saw this happen again and again. While the performances on game day may be what gets the most attention, the impact of NFL cheerleaders — and dance team members at colleges, universities and professional cheer organizations across the country — is monumental. Kids in particular absolutely love us. In fact, little boys and girls are often much more excited to meet us — and the mascots — than they are the actual players.

Furthermore while it may sound cheesy or trite given the current cynical environment in the country, but for many of us being an ambassador or example in our communities is a pretty great feeling, and I don’t need someone to pay me for it. Do we not encourage community service in every part of our society? When I worked as a school counselor it was one of the most weighted criteria of some of my students’ college applications. Cheerleaders frequently serve as a conduit between the community, their team, and their fans. That’s why it shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that someone in this position is expected to act in a kind and professional manner out in public, even when not in uniform.

Over the past couple of weeks I have read several articles and watched the media cover stories about former NFL cheerleaders filing complaints against their former cheer organizations.  I’ve thought a great deal about my own experiences, and talked with former teammates, both from college and the NFL. Many of us have filled out the online New York Times request for former NFL or college cheerleaders or dance team members to share their stories, but no one I have spoken to has been contacted by the NYT in response to that questionnaire. Is it because we have positive experiences to share? I certainly think so. For whatever reason the mainstream media has decided to attack cheerleading and in so doing they are focusing on a small minority of girls who have had poor experiences and excluding the vast majority who loved every minute of being an NFL cheerleader.

I’m wondering if the media, in a very group think manner, is attacking an industry that offers a specific opportunity to women, because they have decided that this particular opportunity does not fit their mold for what women should be doing.  That cloaked in trying to save that woman from baring her midriff on the sideline, they are actually admonishing the choice a woman can make to do so.  I know for me and thousands of others, we see opportunity, community, and connection on that sideline, and appreciate the freedom we have to make that choice for ourselves.

Think of a college athlete who graduates and no longer has that sport or team in her life. If she is a soccer or basketball player, she may find an adult league in her town and join it. She is not getting paid for continuing to play the sport she loves and it requires practice and time commitment with no compensation except for the continued enjoyment of being able to do your sport. For me, dance was that sport. The difference here is that NFL cheerleading is a professional gig — which pays, even if it isn’t a ton! — and the competition for entry is highly competitive.

Each year thousands of women try out to be NFL cheerleaders. Some teams have over 1000 candidates show up to the first day of auditions. Each of the 26 teams that has a cheer organization will fill approximately 20-35 positions. While a strong factor, attractiveness is not the only consideration. Not all attractive women can dance. Not all attractive women who can dance also make good ambassadors for your team. Coaches and judges often require college degrees, or at least to be in college if not yet graduated.  Most cheerleaders have full time jobs, many have graduate degrees, and some are married and have children. Tryouts will typically include several rounds of dance/performance cuts, as well as personal interviews, background checks, and multiple reference requirements.

With so many women trying out each year, it is amazing to me that there have been so few positive anecdotes in the recent news surrounding cheer and dance teams. This again, makes me think the media focus is on trying to destroy something that so many women enjoy while claiming to protect women.  All have focused only on the alleged negative complaints. I’m in agreement that any allegation involving sexual harassment and aggression should be investigated, and people in any workplace should be able to speak out about these issues without fear of repercussion, but so much of the negative coverage of NFL cheerleading has been about trumped up issues that seem to be lacking in substantive basis.

One of these consistent story angles focuses on how cheerleaders are expected to maintain a certain weight or not allowed to change their hair. Really, this surprises you? This is professional performance. Maybe this does not seem crazy to me because I am familiar with the dance and performance world, but when someone tries out for a dance gig, and makes the cut, she or he is expected to look the same way throughout the performance season that they did when they tried out. No one forces extreme diets or eating disorders on the participants. This goes for hair, gaining or losing weight, piercings and tattoos, the entire make up of someone’s look goes in to a tryout selection – whether for dance, acting, modeling, singing, or any other type of performance role. This is not controversial, it is an integral part of the entertainment industry.

One of the consistent story angles also deals with the low pay. “But they are only paid $50 (or insert amount) a game!” these critiques typically argue. Yep, and all the women knew that when they tried out. In my own experience and those of everyone I’ve known or talked to, the actual pay is made very clear when you try out. When you read or hear how much money you will make for games and appearances, if you don’t like it, you don’t have to try out. It is also made very clear that this will be a side gig, and you are encouraged and supported to achieve your full time career goals with coaches and teammates even helping you find another job.  I had two teammates recommend me for positions when I was on the team with them, and ended up with one of my first salaried jobs as a result.

Again, this is an opportunity to be a part of an athletic team, yes dance is an athletic endeavor, a sport even, as an adult. It would be great if it paid a huge salary, but the truth is it is less than part time – often less than 10 hours a week of commitment, maybe more on home game weeks. Appearances outside of practice are often paid, and paid well considering the work consists of just showing up in full uniform and make up. That’s not very difficult compared to the part-time jobs that many other women and men choose to pursue. The ability to get a little extra money to do something you already love is always a good thing. The attempt to compare cheerleader pay to the football player pay is ridiculous. There certainly is not a “gender pay gap” here. The two jobs are completely different and not even in the same stratosphere. One is a full time career, insanely dangerous and demanding, and drives the economics for a multi billion dollar industry. The other is football (ha ha. I couldn’t resist.)

The inability to compare professional NFL cheerleading to being an NFL player is also the reason why I don’t agree with an alleged “double standard” argument being made about cheerleader behavior restrictions. Most cheerleader organizations prohibit fraternization with players and require women to leave restaurants and bars if a player shows up. Why is this so shocking? Without this rule the risk of vicious rumors and gossip runs rampant. Let’s not all hide behind our screens and act like people don’t love a juicy rumor. Have you heard about the cheerleader who is sleeping with two players on the team? See, you are already salivating for more info. Limiting cheerleader and player interaction makes total sense.

But why don’t the men have the same rule? Well, I have heard that many teams do, but honestly, when I was cheering I don’t think any player would have recognized me or any of the 30 other women from our team if we just happened to end up at the same bar.  Let’s not forget, many of the players are married, as are many cheerleaders, and I’m sure the spouses on both sides are fine with this no fraternization rule – right Clay?  And to be frank, who is the real investment for the organization and who has a collective bargaining agreement, the player eating up 10% of the salary cap? Or the cheerleader who still has a full time job when she is not in uniform?

When someone from USA Today says she thinks dance team, cheerleading, and especially NFL cheerleading should cease to exist because it is just fluff and eye candy for men, I know it’s an outdated and antiquated perspective rooted in dishonesty. First, because this seems to imply that the women who are part of these teams do not have the intelligence to think through their decision to be there. That they are being brainwashed by the wants and desires of men, and need to be saved from their own poor decision making to be cheerleaders, and the way to do this is to abolish the sport altogether. Furthermore that the revealing uniforms are demeaning to them, and there is no way a woman in her right mind would want to wear that. How insulting. And by the way, is there a problem with women looking good in skimpy clothes now? Is it 1950? If a woman feels good about how she looks can she not wear whatever she likes? Have you been to a beach lately? Women’s equality is about all women making the choices they deem the best, it isn’t about one woman telling another woman what she should be allowed to do.

Second, the cease and desist NFL cheerleading argument completely ignores the many other benefits and fulfillment that this sport brings to so many women who participate in it. Believe it or not, often on a team of women there is a great deal of support and friendship. I know it is much more fun for everyone to think about a group of women as being just one big cat fight, and it is upsetting to me that the writers of these recent articles seem to enjoy perpetuating that negativity.  The reality is these women encourage one another and go on to have life long friendships, and find that NFL cheerleading can help open doors for future opportunities.

The issues and complaints I have read about do not make me want to end NFL cheerleading or college dance teams. Of the issues being reported, the relatively few that are actually egregious seem to expose a couple of organizations that need to consider new management and practices. I challenge you, however, to find any industry in which women or men are employed where there has not been an employee complaint about how they were treated. Why do you think there are employment lawyers?

There are reasons thousands of women continue to tryout for NFL cheerleading every year. If there are some people who have a problem with their experiences, that is not condemnation for the entire sport and is certainly doesn’t support, in any way, the idea that cheerleaders should cease to exist. Hell, if I wasn’t constantly chasing three kids and dealing with Clay’s outrageous schedule, and could still do a perfect switch leap into a triple pirouette, I’d try out again.

Comments