Nevo: Treat cheerleaders fairly.

Lily Nevo, Columnist

The Super Bowl may have marked the end of the NFL season, but we should not stop talking about football, and more specifically, cheerleading. In fact, a lawsuit against the University, and numerous unresolved lawsuits against the NFL, indicates that we, along with the professional league, have a major cheerleading problem. 

The most quantifiable metric of inequality in the cheerleading industry is pay. Cheerleaders make between $75 and $150 per game or appearance, which, once practice time is factored in, is roughly $4 an hour. Annually, this can come out to less than $2,000. In contrast, NFL mascots make a minimum of $23,000 annually.

The justification for this compensation–if you can even call it that–is that women should feel lucky to have been chosen as some of the most beautiful and talented women in the world. This assumes, however, that a woman’s ultimate goal is to be praised for her physical appearance. The quarterbacks should feel lucky to take their careers pro, shouldn’t they? Yet no one is telling them to be grateful for this opportunity. Instead, in 2020, the starting salary for a rookie is 610,000 dollars. 

These salaries follow a trend in sports of women getting paid less for performing better, as brought to light by the U.S.women’s national soccer team. It also reflects the belief that female-dominated sports–dance, cheer, gymnastics–are easier and less “athletic” than other sports. 

But the long tradition of underpaying cheerleaders reveals more than just the well-documented pay gap; it reinforces that men are entitled to women’s bodies for free. A woman’s job is to encourage the men on the field, entertain the men in the stands and obey the men in power. “Woman’s work” is not to be compensated, because it consists precisely of what she exists to do: support men. 

This sentiment pervades all aspects of the job. Outside of games, cheerleaders are often required to mingle with fans at tailgates, and it is not uncommon for women to experience groping, slut-shaming and other forms of harassment in these encounters. Some teams pretend that such dangers do not exist. Others have resorted to training women on how to deal with harassment politely, as if stopping the practice of sending them into the crowd is not an option. “She knew what she was getting into” is not a free pass for harassment. Women should be able to play their sport and dress the way they want without having to take a crash course on how not to be harassed. Similarly, many women have had very empowering experiences as cheerleaders, and to label the sport as degrading reduces it to mere sexualizaiton. 

Even beyond the actual sport, NFL cheerleading is full of sexist regulations. For example, women are not allowed to interact with the players, though the men have no such restrictions. If a woman sees a player somewhere in public, she is expected to leave. Additionally, cheerleaders have very strict social media guidelines, whereas players are free to post whatever they want. 

Cheerleaders are also required to maintain an “ideal weight” and subscribe to mainstream, White beauty standards. With their already meager salary, women have to spend hundreds of dollars on makeup. Though some of these rules may seem trivial, they reinforce the culture of control.

Some will wonder why the cheerleaders have not unionized to protest these rules, but many women fear losing their jobs for doing so. These questions, though they may be rooted in empowerment, blame women for not improving their situation, instead of acknowledging that, as it stands, cheerleading is a grotesque abuse of power for economic profit. 

So how do we move forward? Some teams have resorted to disbanding their squads all together, but this is the easy way out. Many people spend years training in their sport and taking away professional opportunities only harms aspiring cheerleaders. If men can’t learn to treat women cheerleaders with decency, women shouldn’t be the ones to suffer. 

We can start by treating cheerleaders as employees rather than independent contractors, giving them basic protections such as minimum wage and the right to protest their treatment. More importantly though, we need to evaluate the role of cheerleaders in football. Are they valued for their incredible athleticism, or for their satisfaction of the heterosexual male gaze? The latter may always be a factor, but at the very least, cheerleaders should feel as though their coaches and franchise do not promote their exploitation. 

Lily Nevo is a Weinberg Freshman. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.