Joanne O’Riordan: Trying to grapple with the cheerleading conundrum
Is it time to call a halt on this sporting anachronism or is that dictating to women?
The Denver Broncos cheerleaders perform at Invesco Field at Mile High stadium in Denver, Colorado. Photograph: Brian Bahr/Getty Images
Sometimes in life, there is very little to cheer about. Your team may not be any good, life may get you down, but flick on some American sports, like the NBA playoffs, and there’s plenty to shout about.
Since the removal of ‘grid girls’ and questions being raised about sexual harassment, a group of women huddled on the sidelines with pompoms have been long overlooked.
Cheerleaders, some may argue, are like ‘walk-on’ girls in darts and ‘ring girls’ in boxing, just part of the sport and women are happy in the role. That can be true in some cases with women working hard on their bodies and who want to flaunt it as much as possible.
Others may also argue that these gender roles no longer have a place in our society and that girls should be encouraged to use their brains rather than their beauty. But, while that debate rumbles on, we forget about the women in this narrative.
For a lot of these girls, their job is fun, and the idea is to propel you onto greater things in life – modelling, movies, a TV career, you name it. But the dark side of this world is that sometimes you are so controlled both in your private and public life you do not have room to manoeuvre, let alone question authority when something awry occurs.
In the world of cheerleading, some football fans adore them and can’t envision the game without them. Who else will sing team songs and shake their booty to pump up tunes? Others think cheerleaders are bad dancers and belong in a more sexist era. But one thing is unquestionable: Cheerleaders bring in money.
For example, a Forbes magazine article stated that cheerleaders can bring in up to €1 million per team. This is done through thingse calendar sales, public appearances, sponsorships and so on. You’re reading this probably thinking ‘okay, pretty decent sales and earnings’? Well, no.
I’m not writing about all cheerleaders, but the reality is they face harassment of all sorts, threats of rape, low pay and lead lives that are so controlled that if it were done by a private individual rather than a public organisation, it would border on abuse.
Former cheerleaders are usually told on induction day that if a fan or anybody gets too touchy-feely, never react angrily, always stand with a smile on your face and practically grin and bear it.
If cheerleaders decide to take up extra work and appear at other fan events and have special appearances, chances are they will be subjected to worse harassment, as teams didn’t provide security and always allowed cheerleaders enter tailgate parties or anything else unsupervised.
From ogling to touching to shouts from fans about how they were going to rape them, I’m pretty sure these events were incredibly tedious. Sure, I’m only talking about a minority, but at the end of the day, it’s always the minority that stands out in contrast to the majority.
The rules for these women were also a source of conflict. Some teams would not let the women wear sweatpants in public, never allowed them to mix with the players and in some rulebooks stated “Authority – ABSOLUTELY NO ARGUING OR QUESTIONING THE PERSON IN AUTHORITY!!!”. I think that speaks for itself.
As a whole, it is an extremely polarising debate. These women entered into these jobs of their own free will and women are naturally entitled to choose whatever career they want. Ask race girls, ring girls, darts walk-on girls and anyone in those jobs, it can be fun and who are we to shake our moralist fist at their choice. There is a fine line between fighting for women’s rights and dictating what they can and can’t do.
But what we can do is strive to create better work environments, pay and conditions. While we may gawk at the shaking booties and shaking pompoms, it is a woman’s choice if she wants to enter into these jobs and we shouldn’t seek to control this. Even so, are such non-battles really the sharp end of modern feminism?
I mean, I do care about models wearing hot pants, cheerleaders screaming pride songs and throwing t-shirts into the crowd. I also care about what it says to young girls watching on the circuit, on the sideline . . . but, it’s curious that we choose to be outraged more by the sight of these girls rather than their poor conditions, low pay, lack of sweatpants wearing and sexual harassment.
Instead of fighting for the women without listening to them, maybe we should re-evaluate our stance on the moral high ground, delve deeper and make sure these employees are not being discriminated against solely based on their gender.