When Did ‘Cheerleader’ Become a Dirty Word?

The NFL and NBA have moved away from the word “cheerleader,” as it’s become synonymous with scandal and sexualization.

When Did ‘Cheerleader’ Become a Dirty Word?
Photo:Chris Graythen (Getty Images)

On Monday, the New Orleans Saints announced that they had officially renamed their cheerleading squad, formerly known as the Saintsations and later, as an intermediary, the Saints Entertainment Team. Now, the team will be known as the Saints Cheer Krewe. The name, which alludes to the area’s historic social organizations that throw parades or balls for Mardi Gras each year, was selected with the help of the team’s fans, according to the Saints. The new team will feature “the region’s best dancers, cheerleaders, and stunters.”

The name change comes four months into the regular season, long after the actual team was already chosen. In fact, the nameless team has been dancing on the sidelines nearly all season. So, what’s with this untimely reveal?

Having watched the evolution of the world of NFL cheerleading in real time since I joined its ranks in 2018, it’s clear that what’s playing out on the Superdome field is part of a much larger and concerning trend: Cheerleading teams across the NFL and NBA have moved away from the word “cheerleader,” as it’s become synonymous with scandal and sexualization. But that’s a problem, because it’s not the cheerleaders who’ve doing anything wrong, and calling them something different won’t magically erase what they’ve gone through.

In 2018, the Saints struggled to recover from a PR disaster in which former cheerleader Bailey Davis was fired from the Saintsations cheer team after posting a photo of herself in a lace bodysuit on Instagram. This news, along with overly restrictive contracts requiring cheerleaders to leave a restaurant if players entered the same dining establishment and not being allowed to wear sweatpants in public, was exposed by the New York Times. The next year, following in the footsteps of the Los Angeles Rams, the Saints added their first male Saintsation, who is also part of the LGBTQ+ community.

While the Saints were rightfully applauded for adding sorely-needed representation and diversity to the dance team, adding one male cheerleader did not solve any of the workplace abuses the cheerleaders endured.

Inclusivity is, of course, vital in a league that has historically and toxically promoted a white, heteronormative standard of beauty. But the inclusion of Black, Latinx, and Asian American women is still needed. The inclusion of more LGBTQ+, trans and nonbinary cheerleaders is still needed. And no teams have publicly promoted any lesbian or bisexual dancers, nor curvy dancers. When the appearance of inclusivity and dropping the word “cheerleader” are used as a band-aid to cover up the gaping wound that is rampant sexism, misogyny, and sexual harassment in the NFL (none of which the women are in control of), that’s when it becomes a problem.

There’s precedent for this move across the NFL and the NBA: Last year, the Redskins Cheerleaders became the Washington Football Entertainment Team, the SeaGals became the Seahawks Dancers, and the Sacramento Kings formed the 916 Crew, joining a slew of other dance teams-turned-crews in the NBA.

Despite cheerleading being an internationally renowned, multi-gender sport that has been recognized by the IOC and is now eligible for Olympic inclusion, the word’s historical connotation is linked to those women—the petite, big-breasted, smiling, flouncy women who supported male athletes at all costs. Literally, for any dollar amount, they would smile and be grateful for the opportunity and accept whatever they were given, which was never much at all.

Moving away from the word “cheerleader” implies that something is inherently wrong with the women who participated in the first place—who molded themselves into a role the NFL created for them because it offered notoriety and TV time and community and the opportunity to be a part of something great.

NFL cheerleading, in particular, is an industry that’s been ripe for evolution for years. But that evolution has come at the expense of the women of its past — the women who referred to their team as a sisterhood and dream of coming back on the field every five years are so to relive the glory, forever bonded. But with the continued drift away from that word, the same tits the NFL asked for, the flat tummies they demanded, the fluffed hair they mandated, and the double-padded bras they recommended, became dirty. And in its ugliest play of all, the bond the NFL promoted for NFL cheer teams has been unsnarled, if not completely severed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin