Ahead of Nicole*’s first practice as an NHL rookie pro cheerleader, she was posted a photo of Gabrielle Union from 2010 and told that would be her look for the season. Sleek waves that fell down her back, contoured cheeks and red lips were now mandatory for every game, practice and event she worked on.
Between the hair extensions she would need for length, the stage makeup suggested by team management, and the fortnightly French gel manicure required for events, Nicole estimates she spent around $4,000 to have the role of the season. Although she and her teammates only earned minimum wage for practices and a bit more for games, Nicole says she still earned some money when all was said and done. At least she’s pretty sure she did – she decided not to follow.
Nicole also pays for two gym memberships on top of the one provided by the team so she can wake up at 4:30 a.m. to sneak into a HIIT class near her home before heading to her day job at a company. of digital technology. She then goes to workout after work and does another cardio session when she gets home. “Then I go to bed and start over,” she says.
Like many of her peers, Nicole’s goal is to make it to the NFL, but she fears her athletic build isn’t balanced enough for the next rung in the world of professional joy. Most women in the industry have heard horror stories about having to stay slim, so Nicole wants to get a head start, literally. Yet she is committed to this career path and navigating all of its obstacles and indignities.
As the NFL as a whole grapples with an identity crisis amid heated debates over protests, domestic violence, traumatic brain injury and other issues, professional cheerleaders feel culturally archaic for a lot. Yet, women around the world still dream, train and sacrifice themselves to achieve their goal of becoming one. Refinery29 spoke to these women about how they are standing up to draconian demands and misogynistic double standards – because, for them, it’s an institution worth saving and transforming for the 100th season in 2019. We don’t know still not sure if their fight will make a difference. , but some have paid a heavy price just to try to change.
According to Bailey Davis, a three-year former professional cheerleader for the New Orleans Saintsations who is currently suing the league and her former team for gender discrimination, staying lean enough to please team management is a challenge. for many cheerleaders. But a culture of weight-watching and “jiggle-testing” has been part of the professional joy since the ’70s, when Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders were given a strict playbook to protect the team’s newly gendered. For the record, the Saints and the NFL are fighting Davis’ claims.
Kristan Ann Ware is suing the Miami Dolphins and the NFL for discrimination based on gender and religion, but continues to promote her favorite job.
Davis’ mother was a Saintsations cheer coach, so she grew up on the sidelines, often sitting with the girls who were on the bench while her mother worked. She remembers asking her mother why the girls couldn’t clap and her mother replied that “the coaches thought [their] thighs looked too big today”. But Davis says the dreaded “three-pound rule” for staying in a range close to your audition weight isn’t just pervasive — many women are actually told to lose weight after being hired, including her. .
While one might assume that this rhetoric was left behind in the era of flight attendant weigh-ins, or at least muted during body-positive movement, Davis says it’s still rampant and some women have decided to go very far on their own. “The pressure to stay on weight was intense, a lot of girls were sweating in their hot cars or abusing Adderall,” Davis says.
Such strict rules regarding appearance were found in the old individual handbooks of many teams, which set out rules, expectations, etc., and the cheerleaders of these teams must sign a copy before starting work. . Once protected within the industry as top secret, they have since been leaked and widely distributed.
Professional cheerleaders aren’t just judged on their weight or nails, but also on who they date, their social media presence and who they talk to about their religious beliefs — who have been in source of multiple harassment lawsuits filed against the NFL this past year.
Photo: Mike Coppola/Getty Images.
Former Houston Texans cheerleaders Hannah Turnbow and Angelina Rosa, along with three others, filed a lawsuit in June in Texas district court alleging mistreatment and abuse. The Texans denied that claim.
Control teams taking over for their cheerleaders seems to be limitless. For example, the manuals shared with R29 show general rules that dictate what cheerleaders can wear outside of work hours, tell women the proper way to wash their genitals before arriving at work, and include strict no-fraternization clauses with all NFL players. Some of the latter even say that a cheerleader must immediately leave a restaurant in the middle of a meal if a player enters and that she can be punished if she allows a player to follow her on social media. Players, on the other hand, generally have no rules or penalties for contacting professional cheerleaders.
“The no-fraternization rules are obviously discriminatory,” says Sara Blackwell, the attorney representing Davis and numerous former professional cheerleaders in ongoing NFL lawsuits. “They say it’s for the protection of the girls, which is sad because we’re not in the 1950s here. They either have to apply to the players as well or apply to none of them.
A culture of weight-watching and “jiggle-testing” has been part of the professional joy since the ’70s, when Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders were given a strict playbook to protect the newly gendered team’s appearance .
Not only are these rules incredibly ubiquitous, but they are routinely enforced with little recourse for women. On January 23, 2018, Davis, 22, claims she was fired from Saintsations for posting a photo on her personal Instagram page wearing a lace bodysuit. This follows an accusation that Davis denies: being at the same party as an NFL football player. She might have gotten away with one of those manual infractions — she says team members are routinely asked to delete Instagram images their coaches don’t find flattering — but together it has obviously pushed management over the edge and she was fired.
Davis says she has seen many women get fired for similar offenses during her three years as a Saintsation. She claims one woman was fired for posting a video taking a drinking body shot on her personal Snapchat, and another was fired for allegedly dating a player on the team. Davis says the player, whom she prefers not to identify by name, was not disciplined since the rule only applies to women. Players, on the other hand, can post, date, and generally behave as they wish. Davis remembers coming to practice and hearing about the dismissal, but says management simply explained the motivation. “They told us she was sleeping,” she said.
Like fired cheerleaders before her, Davis felt humiliated by her fellow cheerleaders after she was let go. “I felt ashamed,” she says, noting that she was ostracized by some of her team members as soon as the shooting happened. According to Davis, her mother quit in response.
But it was more than a termination for Davis; she felt like she was losing her identity and the one thing she wanted more than anything in her life: to be a professional cheerleader.
Photographed by Jacki Huntington.
Pro cheer prospects train at Sideline Prep, a professional cheerleading audition workshop in the DC area.
What happened next for Davis was unique: She called an attorney and sued the NFL and the New Orleans Saints for sex discrimination. The lawsuit is currently underway, in what is the first step towards his goal of changing the strict rules that apply to cheerleaders, but not football players, so that the next class can finally feel equal. . “I do this for the girls who follow me, so they don’t have to go through what I went through,” she says. She is going after the NFL, instead of just the Saints, because she wants rules made by the organization to cover the entire professional NFL joy industry.
Davis isn’t the first, or even the most recent, to file a lawsuit against the NFL: lawsuits have been filed for theft of wages, gender and religious discrimination, emotional harassment, and more. , some women have won their individual cases.
The legal action appears to have reached a fever pitch, and while it certainly looks and feels like the start of a smaller #MeToo movement, the professional joy world hasn’t rallied to women in the same way. In fact, most cheerleaders remained silent as the public shared their disapproval of the now leaked playbooks that women must follow. Davis and her lawyer tried to create a hashtag to mobilize women – #LevelThePlayingField – but it didn’t really take off and currently has just over 3,000 posts. Additionally, many professional hopefuls are so eager to form a team that they told R29 they would be happy to work for free while living under strict rules if it meant being on the team.
When you first join the team, you are told that you are only there to be seen and never heard. Your opinion doesn’t matter and your voice doesn’t matter. You are here to play, and that’s it
Kristan Ann Ware, former Miami Dolphins cheerleader
While a handful of these lawsuits have garnered national attention, many are wondering why more women haven’t spoken out. Kristan Ann Ware, a former professional Miami Dolphins cheerleader who has an ongoing case against the NFL and the Dolphins for discrimination based on gender and religion, says the silence is fueled by fear. “It’s gaslighting,” she said. “When you first step into the team you are told that you are only here to be seen and never heard. Your opinion doesn’t matter and your voice doesn’t matter. You’re here to perform, and that’s it… This led to: “If you have a problem with the way this team is run, you are completely replaceable. All we need is to ‘pretty girl in uniform.’ Both the Dolphins and the NFL have denied the allegations.
It’s a consistent theme with all the cheerleaders we spoke to from different teams and levels. Davis says even falling behind on the “look” assigned to you at the start of the season can result in being benched, suspended or fired. If your hair is too dull, you’re running around in your tights, or you’re five minutes late for practice, you’re publicly reminded that someone else might have to replace you.
It’s a world that leaves little room for individuality and is expensive. Davis estimates she spent $90 a month on her spray tan, $30 on her manicures, $150 on her hair each month, and at least $100 on game day makeup for the season. While that sounds like a lot, it’s nothing compared to a lifetime of dance lessons, cheer camps, and the expenses that go with it.
As a rookie, Davis earned minimum wage — that’s $7.25 in Louisiana — and by her third year, she’d received a raise to $9 an hour. “I could have earned more working at McDonalds,” she says.
Photographed by Jacki Huntington.
Women across the country attend Sideline Prep workshops in hopes of joining the NFL.
Davis is not alone. Alexa Westendorf (formerly Brenneman), a former NFL cheerleader for the Cincinnati Bengals, did the math on what she earned, the hours she worked, and the expenses she had to spend, like the tan and nails, and ended up with a shocking amount: after all was said and done, she only brought home $2.85 an hour. “Everyone from the mascot to the people selling beer and hot dogs at a Sunday game earns more than an NFL cheerleader,” she says. She sued and in 2015 she won: not only did the team have to reimburse the cheerleaders, but now the women are being paid hourly rates to ensure they don’t get underpaid minimum wage through flat rates that don’t divide for much more than a few dollars an hour.
But despite all the claims against her, women still want to work for the NFL — bad. There are still incentive camps teaching thousands of young girls how to get the job, and lines and lines outside of auditions. As for women suing the NFL? They still emotionally consider it their favorite job. Westendorf even returned to the Bengals after the trial and cheered for another season. Ware and Davis say it was the best time of their lives – before the allegations and the firings.
We spoke to dozens of pro cheer hopefuls at one of the nation’s most requested cheer workshops, Sideline Prep, and the message was unanimous: They don’t care about textbooks, salary, or lawsuits – they just want congratulations. They talk about brotherhood, how much they miss dancing in college or high school, and the opportunity to travel to foreign countries to support American troops. But above all, the rush to the biggest stage in the world is what motivates them.
Ware says she grew up idolizing the NFL cheerleader: perfect hair and body in the iconic uniforms, all eyes on their immaculate dance moves. “It’s the best opportunity and the best job I’ve ever had,” she says. That’s one of the reasons it’s been so hard for her; she didn’t want to stop and she still misses the whole experience.
During a warm-up for a Sideline Prep workshop in D.C. — a hot spot for pro-cheer hopefuls — the women share nostalgic stories of dancing growing up, tumbling before they could walk and participating in high school and college sports. ‘university. Most of the women are well-suited professionals: fitness and dance coaches, publicists and marketing professionals, and women who work in technology. “We would do it for free!” said a woman to me. The rest of the group nods. “There’s nothing like it in the world,” said one, describing the feeling of stepping onto the pitch before cheering on a football match in an arena. The NFL, she thinks, will be even better.
Photographed by Jacki Huntington.
The Washington DC area attracts hopes because the region has many teams.
It’s easy to see why some women want it so badly, and why so many women pursue the NFL despite any personal gain. “Other girls deserve that same opportunity to pursue their dreams,” Ware adds. “But when it does, I don’t want them to have to compromise on who they are and also work in a negative work environment.”
There’s no way of knowing if things will change, but it’s becoming clear that the direction will have to come from the top. In an official statement to Refinery29 from the NFL last September, the league said, “The NFL agrees that cheerleaders have the right to work in a safe, positive and respectful environment. The NFL has encouraged clubs that have cheerleaders to review all aspects of their cheerleading programs to ensure they are legal and appropriate. Additionally, the league has worked this offseason with its clubs to share best practices and employment-related processes regarding cheerleading so that each club maintains an appropriate and supportive workplace. The Miami Dolphins and New Orleans Saintsations declined to comment directly on accusations against their cheerleading squads of Kristan Ann Ware and Bailey Davis, respectively.
Either way, imagining and building that “appropriate and supportive workplace” — where women can safely achieve their pro-cheer dreams with fair wages and sexism-free — will require a drastic reframing of the NFL and its sports culture in general. It’s painfully late, but the women behind these lawsuits are leading the way.
*Some names have been changed to protect individual privacy.
This story was originally published on September 1, 2018.