Football is truly the great American equalizer. The National Football League (NFL) has one of the most racially and economically diverse fan bases, and no other sport even comes close to it in terms of viewership. More than one in three Americans watches the Super Bowl every year. Most importantly, watching football on Thanksgiving  offers an escape from awkward conversations with extended relatives.

However, in other ways, the NFL has not had a particularly stellar reputation. This is particularly true when it comes to issues around gender-based violence. Whether it is ignoring acts of domestic violence, not thoroughly investigating domestic violence, an owner being forced to sell his team over sexual harassment allegations or rampant sexual harassment on the NFL Network, the NFL has continually dropped the ball (see what I did there?). And all of that is without mentioning the other numerous convictions and allegations against high-profile NFL players.

This mishandling of gender-related issues is particularly emblematic in the NFL’s treatment of cheerleaders. Within the last few years, a lot has come out about the low salaries of professional cheerleaders. According to a lawsuit against the Oakland (soon to be Las Vegas) Raiders, their cheerleaders were only paid “$1,250 a year, or less than $5 an hour, and they’re fined for minor lapses like bringing the wrong pom-poms to rehearsals or for “not turning in written biographies on time.” Also, they were often not paid for rehearsals. This is not a great look for the NFL which took in over 13 billion dollars in revenue in 2016.

Furthermore, a recent New York Times article exposed the rampant sexual harassment that NFL cheerleaders go through. Fans demean and even grope the cheerleaders on occasion. One NFL cheerleader in the article mentioned that a fan once shouted at her “I hope you get raped!” Another cheerleader brought up that it is policy “to take pictures with anyone who asks” even with fans who are drunk and just want to sexually harass them.

There are explicit NFL policies that make it difficult for cheerleaders to avoid sexual harassment. Some NFL teams require them to sign nondisclosure agreements (NDAs). These NDAs stop the cheerleaders from speaking out against harassment.

The culture perpetuated by the NFL is just as toxic. The cheerleaders are constantly told that they are replaceable and any insubordination will lead to immediate dismissal from the team. The article mentions that at one point, the Cincinnati Bengals official cheerleader handbook stated, “Insubordination to even the slightest degree IS ABSOLUTELY NOT TOLERATED!!! You will be benched or dismissed!!!” While this is not a surprise at all because the Bengals are absolute trash (Source: I am a Patriots fan), this is still an issue that affects the whole NFL.

The cheerleaders interviewed in the article mentioned that harassment is expected in NFL cheerleading, and it is seldom reported because of fear of reprisal from the teams.

Six NFL teams have gotten rid of their professional cheerleading squads. As more information comes out about the mistreatment of cheerleaders, the institution itself gets closer to becoming a cultural relic.

Adam KirschnerComment