IN THE MIDST of this #MeToo moment — and two weeks from the Super Bowl — it’s time to rethink NFL cheerleaders and their barely covered breasts being ogled on the sidelines by drunken men with binoculars.
It’s embarrassing for us all. Or should be.
“Nothing against cheerleaders or dancers, “ says Trenni Kusnierek, a sports anchor and reporter for NBC Boston — and a veteran of her own high school’s dance team. “But they’re paid like crap, treated terribly, and just so objectified.
“I guess I would say, what is their purpose?”
Former New England Patriots cheerleader Wendy Murphy, now a victims’ rights lawyer, says she was paid nothing back in the ’80s. But cheerleaders wore “burkas” then, she said, compared to what little they wear now. Cheerleaders actually led cheers. “And nobody had implants.”
Drexel Bradshaw, a lawyer who has represented cheerleaders in fair-pay lawsuits against the NFL, calls both cheerleader pay and treatment sexist exploitation. Degrading monthly weigh-ins. Bizarre handbook instructions on dining etiquette, hygiene, tanning, and manicures.
“Most of the women who end up with the NFL have trained classically for more than a decade or two in ballet and dance,” he says. But many still earn subminimum wage pay with no benefits.
Forget comparing them to players with multimillion dollar deals. Bradshaw says even team mascots typically earn between $25,000 and $65,000 per season. Some get health and retirement benefits. But a San Francisco 49er cheerleader he represented in a 2017 lawsuit earned $125 per game, no matter how long game day lasted. She wasn’t paid for multiple practices per week or charity events. Her total pay per season: $1,250, or $2.75 an hour for 450 hours of work.
What about New England Patriots cheerleaders? The five-time Super Bowl champs appear to be paying slightly more than that pittance. Media director Stacey James says they’re paid hourly for games, plus practices, events, and corporate appearances — or what a teen cashier could earn at a retail counter. James said he could not be more specific because there’s a “wage scale,” with cheerleaders earning different amounts.
He did, however, call the cheerleaders “good-will ambassadors” who visit hospitals, children, do USO tours, and are easier to corral for such duty than the players themselves. Some have been Harvard graduates and hold MBAs, “defying cheerleader stereotypes.” On the Patriots cheerleader website, there is an impressive video of a cheerleader who’s a recent Air Force Academy graduate. Unfortunately, that’s outnumbered by cheesy “music videos” of cheerleaders in bikinis, neither dancing nor talking but just standing there, or sitting there, as a camera moves, slowly, up and down their bellies and thighs.
Somehow, at least five NFL teams — and all of hockey and baseball, including the Red Sox — manage to muddle along without such female helpers. “Philosophically we have always had issues with sending scantily clad women out on the field to entertain our fans,” John Mara, the New York Giants co-owner, once told The New York Times. “It’s just not part of our philosophy.”
Neither Kusnierek nor Murphy nor I want to ban NFL cheerleaders, tell dancers what or what not to do, or seem like completely joyless feminist prudes ruining their dreams.
But it’s long past time for a worthier dream. As it is, something creepy and demeaning is going on.
If NFL teams really respected cheerleaders, they’d pay them well. If fans notice them at all, they’re not noticing dance steps. Football’s a hyper violent game with a lousy history of violence against women. Juxtaposing all that with pom-pom shakers in tight white leather boots, well, it feels wrong, especially now.
Last year former Oakland Raider cheerleader Caitlin Yates told Time magazine that she’d trained her whole life as a dancer and considers herself an athlete. But that’s not what she felt like as an NFL cheerleader. “I think that the NFL kind of looks down on us because we are women. They don’t see us as athletes or anything more than a piece of [meat],” she said.
Margery Eagan is cohost of “Boston Public Radio” on WGBH. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.
Correction: A previous version of this column misstated the number of Super Bowls the Patriots have won.