FORT WORTH, Texas — It might be time to disband NFL cheerleadering squads.
Bear with me while I explain.
Last week, the New York Times reported how a 2013 Washington Redskins Cheerleaders calendar photo shoot in Costa Rica went horribly awry for some of the women.
According to accounts of those present, the shoot, though held at a secluded resort, became a kind of spectator sport. As the Times wrote, “a contingent of sponsors and FedExField suite holders — all men — were granted up-close access to the photo shoots,” causing many of the cheerleaders to feel anxious and uncomfortable. Several cheerleaders said they were required to pose topless, adding to their unease.
The Times catalogued other mandatory trip activities, including how nine of the team’s 36 members were selected by sponsors to be personal escorts to a night club later that evening. Several Redskins officials were also at the club, where the women were “encouraged (by a staff member) to drink and flirt,” creating a sense that the team’s management condoned the event. While none of the cheerleaders interviewed alleged inappropriate touching by any of the team sponsors, several said the entire incident made them feel unsafe, worthless and unprotected. It’s not difficult to imagine why.
The paper’s reporting, though upsetting, is far from shocking. This is the era of Harvey Weinstein-style revelations, after all, and these allegations are relatively tame. They’re also extremely common in professional cheerleading circles.
The Redskins cheerleaders may have been spared unwelcome touching in Costa Rica, but many NFL cheerleaders admit that groping, sexual harassment and uncomfortable situations are all hazards of the job.
In late April, the Times chronicled the experiences of current and former professional cheerleaders of multiple teams, the overwhelming majority of whom described their jobs, not as elite dancers, but as sex objects navigating a world of rowdy, drunk and “handsy” fans.
“When you have on a push-up bra and a fringed skirt, it can sometimes, unfortunately, feel like it comes with the territory,” a former cheerleader for the Tennessee Titans told the Times.
To be fair, how could it not?
That’s not a defense of the inappropriate behavior these women face, merely an acknowledgment that their profession by its very nature, is ripe for this kind of harassment. In fact, it’s the embodiment of everything the #MeToo movement is seeking to repudiate — that notion that women are first and foremost, sexual objects.
Thanks to Weinstein, we know how deeply this ethos is ingrained in our popular culture. Sports are no exception.
Indeed, scantily-clad cheerleaders performing titillating dance moves on the sidelines are as baked into America’s Sunday afternoon rituals as tailgating and beer. American families can barely watch a sporting event without seeing the hyper-sexualized image of a female shaking her backside during half-time.
And it doesn’t seem to faze us, either. A recent national poll found that most Americans — 56 percent to 31 percent — do not think cheerleading costumes are too provocative, although there was disagreement between the sexes. Women were more disapproving of cheerleader uniforms.
The cheerleaders themselves are divided. Many appear to understand that sex sells and don’t seem bothered that it’s their sexuality in particular that’s being peddled. Others suggest their complacency is from fear of losing their jobs.
Either way, there’s a competitive market for what they do. And with a long line of willing and eager women waiting to fill any vacancy, there isn’t much incentive for team managers to change the way things are done.
So back to my proposition. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, businesses everywhere have been trying to reduce opportunities for harassment in the workplace. Feminists and commentators have been trying to dismantle the cultural underpinnings that have made sexism and female sexualization — especially at work — so prevalent.
What do you do when selling female sexuality is the job?
If the #MeToo movement wants to make a marked difference, disbanding NFL cheerleading teams might be a good place to start.
Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Readers may send her email at [email protected].