How the NFL Risks the Health of Cheerleaders, Its Hardest Working, Lowest Paid Women

How the NFL Risks the Health of Cheerleaders, Its Hardest Working, Lowest Paid Women

Watching NFL cheerleaders perform for limited or nonexistent crowds with masks obscuring their white strip-sponsored smiles was one of the more off-putting spectacles of 2020. In spite of the coronavirus pandemic, they waved pom-poms and danced, all with unflinching loyalty to the godforsaken game of football.

But the uncanny presence of cheerleaders during a global health meltdown snowballed into something more ominous when two individuals with knowledge of the Los Angeles Rams said that the organization was not providing or requiring covid-19 tests for its cheerleaders throughout 2020.

Jezebel has obtained a copy of the covid-19 guidelines sent to the Rams cheerleaders following Labor Day weekend. The memo does not require the cheerleaders to remain isolated, nor does it mention testing or the possibility of asymptomatic exposure, placing a disproportionate amount of responsibility on the cheerleaders to keep themselves safe. The team, however, began issuing tests for select cheerleaders participating in one-off promotional events around the time the Rams’ season ended in January.

In a statement to Jezebel, a representative for the Rams said that the “health and safety of our staff are our top priorities.” The statement continued:

Adhering to the health guidelines provided by local and state officials, as well as the National Football League, we adjusted our operations and processes this year to keep our staff healthy and deter the spread of COVID-19.
As it relates to our cheerleaders, all gameday and community appearances were voluntary and that was communicated to the entire cheerleading team and reinforced throughout the season. Those who chose to participate in any in-person opportunities were required to follow local and state guidelines, including wearing a mask and proper social distancing. Rehearsals were limited to no more than eight cheerleaders in the studio at once, with everyone else participating virtually. We also offered virtual opportunities for our cheerleaders to engage with fans and the community throughout the season. In addition, in anticipation of the Thanksgiving holiday, we proactively eliminated gameday Cheerleader performances beginning with our November 29 home game (ahead of California’s stay-at-home order that was implemented on December 8).
While we followed the COVID-19 testing regulations provided by the NFL and NFLPA for players, coaches and tiered staff (as determined by the NFL), the majority of our staff, including many who worked gamedays and community events, did not fall into these testing protocols.

As the Rams’ statement noted, many of those employed by the organization were not tested. The lack of regular testing for cheerleaders is alarming considering that players, coaches, and other “Tier 1 and Tier 2” staff receive daily PCR tests, as mandated by the NFL’s COVID Protocols. Within the same 78-page document, cheerleaders are mentioned just once to declare that they will not have “field access at any time,” leaving cheer programs all but abandoned in an unregulated, wild west. With testing infrastructure already in place, the cheerleaders were forgotten—or worse, ignored.

Forgettable, but apparently still important: 25 of the 26 NFL cheer teams hired cheerleaders this season (the Chargers did not rehire their cheerleaders, and several teams halted game-day operations mid-season). Of them, not a single team has made a public statement regarding testing, except for the Dallas Cowboys, who tested their cheerleaders three times a week inside a bubble in order to continue production of their profitable reality show “Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team.”

Until November 29, just before LA County issued its Safer at Home Order, the team of 32 Rams cheerleaders had been conducting some practices, performances, and events in-person—mostly socially distant and masked, but not always—resulting in frequent exposure to each other and to members of the LA community. Given that Los Angeles was averaging 14,120 cases per day in early December, coupled with the climbing number of active outbreaks across the league, the cheerleaders ran a significant risk of contracting the virus.

Dr. Peter Katona, a Professor of Medicine at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine and Adjunct Professor of Public Health at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, said, “Masking, assuming you’re doing the masking appropriately, is a good thing, being outside is a good thing, but being close to each other and also breathing heavily—this is an athletic activity, so your breath rate is increased—[is] a mixed bag of risk that is not ideal, but not terrible.”

Katona said that, in an ideal world, the team would be safest performing in person if vaccinated because it’s hard to maintain perfect distance when dancing. “There is a risk. I can’t quantify it, but there’s certainly a heightened risk compared to not doing it.”

This revelation isn’t exactly shocking. Because in the business of NFL cheerleading, where many women are underpaid and often undervalued as second-class members of their organizations, the bare minimum is the maximum effort.

Over the last decade, the ethos of NFL cheerleading has been marred by documented body shaming, control, and exploitation. Amidst a slew of other wage lawsuits, a former Oakland Raiderette sued the Raiders in 2014 for paying her just $1,250 for an entire year of work. A 2018 New York Times investigation later revealed that most teams were governed by outdated and sexist handbooks: Ravens cheerleaders were forced to participate in regular weigh-ins, Bills cheerleaders were required to sell at least 50 of their own bikini calendars, and Saints cheerleaders were forbidden from fraternizing with players. Most maintain outside gigs and careers to support themselves; for some, additional jobs are contractually required.

The lack of testing for cheerleaders is another symptom of the league’s sustained culture of apathy towards its most visible women

Despite the growing number of lawsuits and whistleblowers, the woman-dominated sport remains largely unchanged. The lack of testing for cheerleaders is another symptom of the league’s sustained culture of apathy towards its most visible women, and this latest transgression crystallized what I had long known: in the hierarchy of the NFL’s boys club, the cheerleaders’ needs come last.

Why the hell would cheerleaders put up with this?

While incomprehensible to most, the cheerleaders’ mentality—which justifies forgoing health concerns in exchange for a chance to dance in a storied uniform—makes complete sense to me.

I was a Los Angeles Rams cheerleader from 2017-2020. And while I was part of one of the few progressive organizations in the NFL, the reality of NFL cheerleading was never as pretty as it looks.

As the Super Bowl nears, concluding a covid-ravaged NFL season, no one has stopped to ask whether the cheerleaders have been sufficiently protected, and if they catch the virus from work, what—if any—recourse they have. (The Chiefs declined to comment on their cheerleaders’ regular season and postseason covid protocols. The Buccaneers declined to speak on the record.) But this isn’t just about covid tests; in fact, this oversight hardly scratches the surface of the deeper issue at play. NFL cheerleaders have stomached both subtle and egregious mistreatment for decades. This isn’t the first time cheerleaders have risked their livelihood and it probably won’t be the last.

The mistreatment of cheerleaders is almost a staple of the NFL. After New Orleans Saints cheerleader Bailey Davis was fired in 2018 for posting a photo of herself in a lace bodysuit on her Instagram, she filed a gender discrimination lawsuit, alleging that the Saints held their cheerleaders and players to conflicting standards. In response, the New York Times reported in 2019 that the Saints threatened to sue Davis for defamation and the team has declined to discuss her allegations. The case is still in arbitration.

On the backdrop of the #MeToo movement, the pack of women demanding change echoed across the league. Miami Dolphins cheerleader Kristan Ann Ware sued the team after she was asked to keep her virginity a secret. She eventually dropped the lawsuit. Then, a group of former Redskins cheerleaders spoke out about an international trip in which they were served up to male sponsors as nightclub escorts. The team emphasized that the trip, taken for a calendar shoot, was entirely optional. “Each Redskin cheerleader is contractually protected to ensure a safe and constructive environment,” the team said in a 2018 statement.

At the time, I had just begun my second year as a Rams cheerleader. As a collective of women still engaged in the sport, we had lost control of the narrative completely; public opinion was spiraling, and we were reduced to mere sex symbols. Our talent, commitment, and intelligence were ignored. I had desperately wanted to join the symphony of enraged women, but I was a part-time employee of the Rams at the time. Paralyzed by the fear of retaliation, instead, I spouted off positive platitudes about how proud I was to represent my city, and hid my unsettling gut feeling behind a toothy smile.

Then, something miraculous happened, which temporarily put my qualms to rest. The Rams made history by inviting the first male cheerleaders in the NFL to join our program, who were two beacons of hope in an otherwise bleak landscape for diversity and inclusion. Although some teammates feared the new additions might disband our sacred sisterhood, I became fiercely protective of my male counterparts. I woke up at 3 a.m. the day after they made the team to sing their praises on Good Morning America, squealing, “They just fit the bill to be Los Angeles Rams cheerleaders.”

At that moment, sandwiched between two rising stars with Robin Roberts’s voice reverberating in my ear, #MeToo dissolved into #NotMe. As coworkers probed about the initial allegations, I parroted Rams talking points: Our team was a part of the solution, not the problem. I believed with immovable certainty that I had become a spokesperson for a transformative movement in which the gendered expectations behind the word “cheerleader” were finally melting away, teased hair, cleavage, and all.

But I was wrong. Although the move was authentic—especially for LGBTQ+ folks who had not formerly seen themselves represented on the field—working conditions remained unchanged. Adding male cheerleaders was a glittering distraction that felt all too familiar in our Trumpian dystopia: While one hand trumpeted progress and equality, the other swept women cheerleaders and their complaints under the rug. The same words echoed through my head on a traumatizing loop: “You should be grateful.”

The Los Angeles Rams organization is currently valued at $4 billion, according to Forbes. The publication also valued the net worth of Stan Kroenke, the owner of the Rams, at a mind-boggling $8 billion. And according to Bloomberg, SoFi Stadium, the Rams’ gleaming new home, cost around $5.5 billion—the highest price tag in the NFL.

Yet, in 2019, according to an investigation from Refinery29, most NFL cheerleaders were compensated between $75 to $150 per game—an abysmal offering in comparison to the NFL’s new $610,000 minimum salary for an active roster rookie, or $35,882 per game. In short, players are worth 239 times as much as cheerleaders.

During my time as a cheerleader, I earned $15 per hour for game days, and $30 per hour for appearances (for reference, the minimum wage in California is $13 per hour). In 2019, the organization increased our rate to $20 per hour for games, which still resulted in around $160 pre-tax for a day of grueling, physical work. This included taking pictures with inebriated fans, swatting grabby hands away from our lower regions, and dancing complex routines for four hours straight, punctuated only by a 20-minute break in which we sometimes sat on the floor of the Coliseum’s concrete tunnel.

From practicing hastily taught routines on my own time to hand-washing delicate uniforms, I devoted an average of 35 hours per week to my cheerleading obligations. In total, I made as little as $4,135.33 in one calendar year (this number doubled during my most profitable year in 2019, due to our involvement in the Super Bowl) for a role that required two decades of intensive dance training and the not-so-easily-acquired countenance of a beauty queen. In any other industry, we’d be considered talent. In the NFL, we were an afterthought.

In any other industry, we’d be considered talent. In the NFL, we were an afterthought.

Though half of our team worked full-time jobs, the other half were gig and arts workers—dancers, actors, and fitness instructors. While our wages hardly substituted a living, the money was indispensable for teammates who were often in between gigs. For them, being on the team wasn’t just a choice; it was a necessity.

While we were shit-out-of-luck financially, perhaps more frightening was our lack of health protection. Due to our part-time status, we had zero benefits, meaning no paid time off and no medical insurance. In the era of covid-19, this gaping discrepancy now feels life-threatening.

Such lack of assistance extended to adequate fitness resources, as our bodies were held to an impossible standard, hovering somewhere between a Victoria’s Secret model and an Olympian. We were given a year-long membership to 24 Hour Fitness and encouraged to use the gym in our dwindling free time. We did not have access to the team’s nutritionists or personal trainers, nor did we receive meal plans. While players were propped up to succeed with astounding assistance, all eyes were on us (read: our stomachs), waiting to see if we would fall short of expectations. We often did.

Rams cheerleaders during Super Bowl LIII Image:Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images (Getty Images)

We had guardrails for what we could and could not say in association with Rams-branded photos. Captions had to be uplifting, and we were discouraged from using sarcasm, curse words, or discussing politics. Cheerleaders have few work protections. Players, on the other hand, had relative freedom in what they did and said publicly. There was no need to govern them; as a century of the game had proven, fans would adore them no matter what.

The unionized players have an extensive collective bargaining agreement that carefully spells out players’ guaranteed rights including minimum salaries, meal allowances, days off, right to medical care and treatment, worker’s compensation, injury protection, and a disability and neurocognitive benefit plan, to name a few. Cheerleaders, meanwhile, have no such league-wide union. The Buffalo Jills were the first NFL cheerleaders to unionize in 1995, but the union was short-lived. In 2014, after five former team members filed a lawsuit alleging wage theft, groping, and inappropriate sexual comments, the Jills were disbanded altogether. That’s quite a message to send to the rest of the league: sit down, shut up, and comply, or there won’t be a job to whine about. An unsuccessful organizing history paired with a culture in which cheerleaders do not have a seat at the table didn’t exactly inspire hope for a brighter future. While I had sometimes fantasized about a union with one of my teammates, falling in line remained the path of least resistance.

But falling in line became increasingly difficult as I entered my late 20s. Even outside of Rams events, everything from our piercings and tattoos to our personal hygiene and fashion was scrutinized. We were once told in an etiquette training course that a proper lady could only expose one area of her body at a time: if the legs were showing, then the chest and arms should be covered. Yet on the field, the only parts of our bodies that weren’t exposed were our calves. We were urged to embrace our sexuality and athleticism, but only on Sundays, and only on the constricting terms set by the team.

By the end of 2019, I reluctantly came to terms with my growing identity crisis. I could no longer be who I was, while also being a cheerleader. I quietly hung up my poms.

Much of the ongoing investigative coverage around NFL cheerleaders treats the women as stereotypes, little more than the victims of a patriarchal society. What it usually glosses over, however, is the level of sacrifice and training, the unwavering dedication to a dream long-held, and, above all, the joy.

As cheerleaders, we were regarded as quasi-celebrities amongst the Rams fandom. We danced with rappers, worked with some of the industry’s most sought-after choreographers, were spoiled at the 2019 Super Bowl in Atlanta, spent time with veterans on Thanksgiving, and conducted cheer camps for children who saw their future in us. Our director constantly fought for us, and the feeling of family was overwhelming.

But this joy is also what breeds silence. This enduring, cyclical conundrum is about an imbalance of power in which those who have the decision-making and monetary influence hold it over the heads of the powerless—those who have the most to lose. The culture of compliance, fear, and forced gratitude coerces cheerleaders into accepting the situation handed to them without question. Standing up to the unwieldy influence of the NFL and risking the loss of income, reputation, and “Ramily” is hard.

With the exception of a handful of teams who held virtual seasons or provided their cheerleaders access to public testing, the lack of uniform testing protocols across the league has magnified this disconcerting power dynamic. Cheerleaders are an essential cog within the NFL’s profit-churning machine; as a Frankenstein combination of brand ambassadors, models, dancers, and publicity representatives, they relay crucial brand messaging and provide accessible touchpoints to the community in ways that players cannot. Yet, no one is advocating for their health and safety—their most basic fundamental rights—on a national scale.

Over the years, we had grown accustomed to the hordes of sports medicine experts, doctors, and trainers waiting patiently on the sidelines, ready to sprint to a player’s side at the first whimper of a cramped muscle. We understood the economics of the game; specialists weren’t there to dote on us, and that was fine. But in the midst of a pandemic, the dissonance between the cheerleaders’ stereotypically healthy appearance (bronzed abs, shimmering cheeks, and thick locks of hair) and the reality of their protections (or lack thereof) is infuriating.

The archaic rules, the swimsuit calendars, and some of the more revealing uniforms are gone, but the unspoken rules still lingered, sending chills down our spines with even the most inconsequential of infractions. It’s why there’s no evergreen activism amongst the league’s cheerleaders: I was able to locate my rage only after I had left the ranks.

As was repeated to us often, “There are 1,000 other girls who would kill to be in your shoes.” We were reminded in a handful of creative ways that we were entirely replaceable.

In a recent episode of Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team, the training camp’s production bubble shuts down after the discovery of a positive test. Naturally, the infection was treated as no more than a high-stakes plot point. The episode is titled “A Positive Covid Test & Media Training Day ,” and the description reads, “And then, they’re thrown a curveball: someone in the bubble has tested positive for Covid-19.” CMT, the show’s network, promoted the test as “a likely false-positive.” While the show has received little public backlash, one woman dared to speak out.

After being cut from the team on national television, veteran DCC cheerleader Hannah Anderson alleged in an Instagram post that “the decisions made prioritized reality TV over the health and well being [sic] of the organization’s individuals, capitalizing on the dreams of 50 women in order to create content and ratings in the midst of a pandemic.” Anderson, who declined to comment beyond her post, said that “the plan presented to us made it very clear that safety was not the priority.”

“But we all risked it,” she wrote. “Because, cameras or not, this is our dream.”

In response to Anderson’s allegations, a CMT spokesperson said, “The health and safety of everyone involved in the production of ‘Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making The Team’ remained the utmost importance throughout our filming process. Producers had strict safety procedures and rigorous protocols in place to ensure a safe environment for everyone involved with the show, including the creation of a ‘DCC Bubble’ where all cast and crew lived and trained together throughout the filming process.”

A representative for the Dallas Cowboys did not return our request for comment.

Outside of some Reddit sleuthing, Anderson’s allegations have largely been ignored. Her statement was posted on August 20, 2020, before the start of the NFL season, and was liked by over 6,000 people, with current and former NFL and NBA cheerleaders sounding off in the comments. It could have been the perfect jumping-off point to begin asking the urgent question: “What about the cheerleaders?” But with a glaring breadcrumb alluding to some cheerleaders’ unsafe working environments, no one took the bait. No one cared.

It’s hard not to be reviled by the whole circus of the Super Bowl. I’m reminded that with an opportunity to offer cheerleaders a fraction of the health protections offered to the players, the NFL and some of its teams botched it. With a chance to pay hard-working individuals to stay home and mandate virtual involvement, they took a laissez-faire approach. And with a highly publicized effort to promote its stringent safety guidelines, the NFL overlooked a group of unprotected and underpaid employees within its own community, leaving cheerleaders with table scraps. There are good people employed by these organizations, but there does not seem to be sufficient reason to break the status quo—to buck the prevailing, misogynistic culture and fight for cheerleaders, the NFL’s hardest-working women.

Emily Leibert is a freelance gender reporter, who contributes regularly to The Click and Uncover LA. She is currently enrolled in NYU’s online journalism graduate program. Prior to her work as a journalist, she worked at DreamWorks Animation and the nonprofit contemporary dance company BODYTRAFFIC where she authored two winning grants. She also spent 15 years training as a contemporary dancer and was an NFL cheerleader for three seasons.

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