NFL cheerleading & its sexualization should end

By Tom Krattenmaker

Oregon author
Featured often in USA Today, Religion News Service

Miss America has finally retired its antiquated practice of parading women onstage in swimsuits. The National Football League ought to go next.

Actually, a beauty-pageant swimsuit competition is mild compared to what passes for “cheerleading” in the NFL, which dives into its 2018 preseason this week. Besides putting the sexy young performers on the sidelines in bikini-sized costumes, professional football teams have them shake and twerk in ways more akin to pole-dancing than traditional cheerleading.

It’s time to call this out for what it is: demeaning to women and an anachronism that ought to be beneath the male fans to whom this titillating eye candy is served.

Over recent months, we’ve seen the crumbling of any last pretense that these women are out there to lead cheers and pump up fans’ enthusiasm for the action on the field. Reports have spilled out about the performers facing constant groping and verbal come-ons when forced to interact with fans, cheerleaders on Washington’s team being required to parade topless for an all-male group of suite-holders at a photo shoot, and several NFL teams fielding offshoots of their cheerleading squads that don’t even appear on the sidelines; their job is to mingle with the high-rollers in the stadium luxury suites.
Objectification of cheerleaders needs to end

These are worse by degree but utterly consistent with the spirit of “cheerleading” in the nation’s most popular pro sports league, which reduces the female performers to “skin and sexuality,” as writer Ed Uszynski aptly puts it.

Cheers for the home team? The real essence of NFL cheerleading is captured by reports like this gem from TMZ Sports: “Roughly 1,000 of the hottest chicks in Texas went down to Houston this weekend … to try out for a spot on the Texans cheerleading squad … and TMZ Sports has pics from the smokin’ hot audition.”

In a time marked by the #MeToo movement and growing rejection of society’s fixation on female looks and sexuality — and by pro football’s continued failure to fully address a pattern of violence against women by its players — the NFL needs to put an end to this insulting nonsense.

It can start by retiring the Viagra approach and have cheerleaders lead cheers.

Beginning with the Dallas Cowboys in the 1960s, pro football “cheerleading” has gravitated farther and farther away from real cheerleading, which is primarily about arousing team spirit, not male sexual fantasies. Real cheerleading features infectious, syncopated chants. It showcases impressive coordination and athleticism as squads form human pyramids and toss teammates in the air with daring and precision.

Often, the squads include men. So there’s another tip for NFL owners. You want to show that you value your sideline performers for more than their ability to satiate the heterosexual male gaze? Then follow the lead of the Los Angeles Rams, whose cheerleaders this season will include men. It’s an NFL first but should not be a last.

Those male cheerleaders won’t be sent be sent out in Speedos and no shirts. The women shouldn’t be either. If the NFL wants to demonstrate that it’s on board with the new era for gender relations and that it truly values women — big “ifs,” to be sure — it will have the women cheerleaders baring roughly the same amount of skin as the men.

It will pay them fairly, too — the subject of several lawsuits in recent years — and reconfigure super-strict cheerleader conduct codes that govern everything from the women’s weight and hair to their interactions with players and social media activity.
No gender equality in NFL

It’s telling that the cheerleader rule books forbid them from fraternizing with players, while no such rule is imposed on players. As The New York Times reported, the New Orleans Saints bar their cheerleaders from even eating in the same restaurant as a player. If one enters a restaurant and notices a player dining there, she must leave. If she is there first and a player enters, she must leave.

So much for her meal. But team management probably doesn’t mind. Better for keeping the cheerleaders rail-thin as the conduct code requires.

Deeper than that, practices like these perpetuate a deeply unfair double standard. It’s accepted that men are going to prowl for sex and take what they can get, especially young male athletes, while it’s left to women to regulate the giving or withholding of sex — and face harsh judgments either way.

Teams that don’t favor any of the above have another to option for reform. They can join the half-dozen teams — the Bills, Bears, Browns, Giants, Packers and Steelers — that currently don’t have cheerleaders.

Probably no coincidence that all six play in outdoor stadiums in cities where the football season weather is not conducive to swimsuits.

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