Mon. May 5

Culture, Sports

NFL vs. Cheerleaders: Blame the Girls, Not the Patriarchy

Erin Vargo Erin Vargo


I was disturbed to read recently that NFL cheerleaders receive a paltry pittance for their work on the sidelines of America’s favorite sport, according to four separate lawsuits filed this year by professional cheerleading squads against the teams they represent. Let’s be clear: Professional cheerleading is not akin to nineteenth century textile factories or today’s sweatshops in the developing world. And yet, there’s a nagging problem with cheerleaders earning less than minimum wage (after mandatory, unpaid practices—not to mention other demeaning acts of required servitude—are taken into account), and it’s not only a labor issue; in my opinion, the NFL is plagued with a gender problem. But patriarchal oppression is not the issue.

No. The sad, but honest truth: It’s the cheerleaders’ fault alone.

What we are witnessing in the world of NFL cheerleading is a crisis of confidence. Women are notorious for passing up chances to earn promotions or higher pay in boardrooms, courtrooms, and homerooms across America. The Atlantic recently published a fascinating article by two accomplished television journalists who co-authored a book, The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance—What Women Should Know. The article posits:

[T]here is a particular crisis for women—a vast confidence gap that separates the sexes. Compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities. This disparity stems from factors ranging from upbringing to biology.

A growing body of evidence shows just how devastating this lack of confidence can be. Success, it turns out, correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence. No wonder that women, despite all our progress, are still woefully underrepresented at the highest levels. All of that is the bad news. The good news is that with work, confidence can be acquired. Which means that the confidence gap, in turn, can be closed.

Professional cheerleaders are no different than professional women in any field. Their ability and performance are not lacking; their confidence is. Their plight is not new. But their visibility on the sidelines of a national pastime is far harder to ignore than, say, the state of the accounting industry. With this undervaluation exposed, women’s pay is suddenly the elephant in the room. In case gender wage disparity seemed like it was lurking on the sidelines before, it is now front and center.

Sure, the NFL’s team owners have an opportunity to rectify the situation. Paying minimum wage to the cheerleaders for all hours in uniform seems like a natural next step and a sensible solution, but it doesn’t address the root of the matter, and it’s obvious the teams’ owners won’t spend one penny more than what’s necessary to quell the unrest. The owners of the Baltimore Ravens have tested this theory by preempting a lawsuit, only recently deciding to pay their cheerleaders $7.75—just over minimum wage in Maryland—for all hours on the clock (which now includes practices in addition to game time). Sadly, appealing to the team owners is part of the problem. The situation is complicated by the fact that cheerleading is considered (by the federal government) a part-time pursuit, or “seasonal amusement.” Simply put, the decision makers don’t care. Hundreds of other women, they will argue, would gladly take your place.

This is merely a copout. Intentional or not, this is a bogus argument designed to maximize profit by exploiting vulnerable, young women. It’s got to stop.

In spite of the trend toward ever-shrinking costumes, professional cheerleading is not a sex industry. Nor should it be. Girls don’t cheer in middle school and high school and college games in order to one day become calendar girls. I strongly suspect that the hyper-sexualized image of professional cheerleaders reflects male pressure from the top of the echelon and not the women themselves. (Read this to better understand the difference in attitudes between high school, college, and professional cheerleaders.) And yet, I personally don’t care whether NFL cheerleaders look like showgirls (as they do for the Cowboys) or stuntmen and women (as they do for the Ravens, the League’s only co-ed team). Professional cheerleaders are worthy of respect and generous compensation for their incredible skill and excellent performance in front of tens of thousands of stadium fans in addition to millions of television viewers.

So, what to do?

A petition on is a start, and the threat of more lawsuits may bring the matter into better focus for the decision makers. But the only true game changer will be the cheerleaders’ threat of hanging up their pompoms for good. The art of negotiation is key here, and the key to negotiating is having options. It may mean disruptions for cheerleaders in the short term, but in the long run, negotiating with the team owners means knowing that you (cheerleaders) don’t need them (the teams). You are valuable on your own. If they won’t negotiate now, you would be better off organizing your efforts and privatizing your services, for instance, and contracting yourselves out to the teams, rather than acting as employees of an ungrateful empire.

I, for one, urge every professional cheerleader and their fans to stand their ground on their value to the team, to the game, and to the culture of athleticism that they represent. Training up to six hours a day in grueling rehearsals is hardly a seasonal hobby. It is a sport. It is an art. And true, it is non-essential to the success of a team. But, it can be negotiated for the right price if the team owners are willing to pay for it.

With cheerleaders on the cusp of revolt in an unquestionably male-dominated field, the opportunity to level the playing field is real. It’s literal. And—if it’s handled well—it could change everything for female professional athletes across the board.

Maybe it’s pie-in-the-sky for now. Maybe it’s like fighting Goliath to think that professional cheerleaders might earn the professional respect they deserve in the context of a sport that’s earned a reputation for endangerment to even its prized athletes. But it’s not outside the realm of possibility. And it would certainly be something to cheer about.