It’s Getting More and More Difficult to Stomach the Super Bowl

As a former NFL cheerleader, I've hit a breaking point.

In Depth
It’s Getting More and More Difficult to Stomach the Super Bowl
Photo:David Crane (Getty Images)

Three years later, I can still envision walking into the Super Bowl in a convention center in Atlanta of which I can’t remember the name. It didn’t really matter where it was; my fellow cheerleaders and I had been shuffled around in security-escorted buses and golf carts and caravans, and each stop was more of a cue to “hop to it” — a momentary pause in the blur of photographed activities — than a sight-seeing tour. Blue and white pom-poms swinging by my sides, I reported dutifully for service, prepared to smile, give interviews, and do a little dance for anyone who needed to know just how big of a Los Angeles Rams fan I was. “We can’t wait to support our guys out there,” I think I repeated for the cameras three dozen times.

On that particular day, I was 26 years old, and my team had made it all the way to the end — that final showdown for which our players had clawed and tackled and sprinted. The entire cheerleading team had been flown out for the big event, and all of it felt like some behind-the-scenes montage you’d see on Extra that didn’t belong to me — just some girl who grew up rehearsing in a suburban dance studio in Moorpark, California. Still, here I was attending events with Christian McCaffrey, Odell Beckham Jr., and Liza Koshy, and filming segments of CNN and Nickelodeon shows, plucked from a much humbler life to be part of this not-so-humble moment.

After we had wrapped up our work at the SB Experience for the day, our chaperone invited us to check out a collaboration between the NFL and Levi’s, a station at which you could customize any Levi’s jacket with patches and iron-on designs. I ran to an oversized Sherpa jacket. This, I thought, will be the future vintage item I pass down to my grandkids. The one where I say, “You know sweeties, Grammy Em used to be a certified hottie with big tits, shakin’ her ass at the Super Bowl!” as I drape it around their shoulders and explain the sentiment behind each patch and pin. The Rams patch went right above the breast, the official Super Bowl LIII patch on the left arm, and on the back, a foot-long NFL shield.

Attaching myself to the NFL had always felt like a safe decision; NFL cheerleading was something I was and still am immensely proud of. Now, however, as I thumb through Rams-branded gear in my closet, my hand hovers over that jacket, before moving onto the next. After all this time, I’m only now seeing the sad irony in that shield, the same shield said to represent the league’s commitment to the highest standard of sport, integrity, and success: It never shielded us, did it?

Emily Leibert, author of this piece, was once a cheerleader for the Rams. Photo:Jamie Squire (Getty Images)

Since leaving the ranks of NFL cheerleading in a rather dramatic and public fashion (by way of reporting the unacceptable lack of covid testing for cheerleaders, as opposed to coaches and players), I fear that I’ve made myself out to be a contrarian, equal parts man-hating and league-roasting. I’ve screamed into the ether that cheerleaders — a group of women that even feminists tend to forget about or otherwise conveniently misplace their compassion for — have rights and deserve fair wages. I’ve done everything in my personal power to explain to the NFL and the public that screwing NFL cheerleaders into the ground simply for daring to display their bodies is not an appropriate way to give women our rights back. I often rant about billionaires and closed-door conference rooms and executives with their heads in their asses and how the decisions they make will have implications not just for the employees of one team, but for multiple generations of NFL fans. I do this not because I hate men or football (though both have some major emotional lifting to do), but because I want so desperately to get back to the innocent joy that football, and cheerleading, once brought me.

I love football, I do. For all the shit that I’ve talked, daggers I’ve thrown, and dangers I’ve warned of, the sport gave me something to believe in when my skinny-ass, 18-year-old self lost sight of who she was while slurping horribly made, bright blue AMFs. Football gave me a common thread with my dad—something that was just ours to bond over in a flurry of people who needed his attention. And, despite my wariness around corporations who call employees “family,” I gained a pretty remarkable sisterhood when I became an NFL cheerleader, many of whose weddings I will fly back to the West Coast for, many weekends in a row.

Look, I’m a big proponent of “both/and” statements because I think, as human beings, we’re inherently full of bullshit and hypocrisy. One can give up meat for the environment and still find themselves face first in a sushi platter wallowing in the guilt of contributing to the overfishing of our seas. In the same vein, I used to tell myself I could both love football and speak out against the league’s truly stupid response to its players’ continued domestic violence charges and its laughable mistreatment of women. But gearing up for the Super Bowl this year feels different… heavier, like I can’t wade out of my own sandtrap of excuses this time.

This year, there are simply too many people who have to be muffled for us to enjoy the big game thoughtlessly, as we assuage our guilt one Bud Light at a time.

At this point in time, two days out from the Super Bowl, women are coming forward with new horrific allegations against the NFL and its teams in droves. Women formerly employed by the NFL told The New York Times that one woman had been pushed by a senior executive during a Super Bowl halftime rehearsal in 2020, and that this incident was indicative of a “demoralizing” corporate culture for women in the league. In an HBO podcast, new anonymous allegations from women formerly employed by the Washington Football Team arose, claiming players whipped their dicks out in the middle of the workplace and asked them to engage in sex, while another player told a woman she had “DSL” (dick-sucking lips, in case you’re fortunate enough not to recognize the acronym.) A third woman, Tiffani Johnston, told a congressional committee last week that the owner of the Washington Football Team (now Commanders) had grabbed her leg and asked her to get into his private limo, and the Commanders were now allegedly blocking the NFL from sharing information with Congress.

At this point in time, Brian Flores, the former head coach of the Miami Dolphins who was recently ousted and one of the only Black head coaches in the league, filed a class action racial discrimination lawsuit against the league, saying that the NFL is a billion dollar “plantation” and that he had been instructed to intentionally tank games to secure a better draft position. Defector Media counted that 11 out of the NFL’s 32 head coaches are related to a current or former NFL coach, citing nepotism as one of the league’s major failings. Last month, despite claiming that the league empowers all women, the NFL seemed to have forgotten to include its own cheerleaders in a new Peacock series about the women in every corner of the league breaking glass ceilings (seriously, how many more episodes before these women are even acknowledged by the organization that exploits them for profit??). And as of this writing, most of the performers you’ll see during the Super Bowl halftime show will be making just $15 an hour for over 70 hours of work, while the men who occupy the same space will make $75,000 just for losing the big game.

The NFL promised us unity and inclusion. They promised superheroes and role models. But as I run my hands over this stupid fucking shield that I once, in all seriousness, thought I’d wear on my back as a badge of something grand, I’m reminded that the NFL was never built to uphold those promises. They were never built to protect women like me who were asked to perform and sing praises and bare all in the name of football and promised that within this league, we’d be safe. They were never built to protect Black men: only to profit off of them. They were built, above all, to keep making money.

Women and people of color should not have to suffer for our silly patriotic entertainment. But to recognize their pain — our pain — meant we’d have to give up the game we love. And none of us were prepared to do that. I’m just not sure that it’s acceptable for us to make excuses for them any longer.

But who cares, right? It’s football. Nothing could be more American than that.

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