Forty years ago this month, a visitor at the Dallas Cowboys’ cheerleading tryouts described a scene that was “as tense as that at an open casting call for a Broadway production,” with 150 women — “the most envied, celebrated and sought-after” in the country — shivering in an overly air-conditioned room.
The women spoke of starvation diets that had lasted for weeks. The visitor, a New York Times reporter, noted that the cheerleaders were paid next to nothing: $15 a game ($14.72 after taxes). They had stringent practice schedules — as much as five hours a night, five nights a week — and they could not appear where alcohol was served, attend parties of any sort or wear jewelry with their uniforms.
“A Cowboys cheerleader, above all else, is beautiful,” the article said at a time when the squad was perhaps the most iconic sideline show in the NFL. A “large measure of bubbly or charm” was a must.
Four decades later, the world may have changed, but the rules of professional cheerleading appear to be essentially the same. And yet as the NFL struggles with a crisis over domestic violence and sexual harassment charges — and legions of women proclaim #MeToo — a kind of feminist awakening may be emerging in the world of cheerleading, with some now questioning the rigid and seemingly sexist rules that accompany it at the professional level.
That questioning is happening even as hundreds of women head into cheerleading auditions this weekend for a number of NFL teams. Per team guidelines, they will show up in mandated crop tops, skin-colored nylons and hot pants with “hair and makeup complete,” as handbooks like the one for the Arizona Cardinals advise.
If those women are lucky, they will join teams. They will be issued a rule book that prohibits them from fraternizing with players, and, in some cases, being too opinionated, or chewing gum.
Many of them will still relish the experience: the camaraderie, the fandom and the technical skill that is required for the job.
“There’s pretty much nothing like it in terms of a rush,” said Flavia Berys, who cheered for the San Diego Chargers from 2000 to 2002. “You get to feel all the energy of every single fan that’s in that stadium.”
Still, there is evidence of misgivings, beginning with the case of a 22-year-old ex-New Orleans Saints cheerleader named Bailey Davis, who was fired in January for posting a photo on Instagram that showed her in a lace bodysuit, which was a violation of the team’s social media rules. In response, she filed a gender discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission accusing the NFL of having two sets of rules: one for cheerleaders, almost all of whom are female, and one for its players.
“I’m not making enough for them to control every aspect of my life outside of the Superdome,” Davis said. Many NFL cheerleaders are paid as little as $75 a game, with additional money for appearances; had she remained on the team, Davis would have made $10.25 an hour, or $3 above the minimum wage in Louisiana.
A 2012 Raiders etiquette handbook advises cheerleaders to “sit in a ladylike manner — cross your ankles or cross your legs but keep your legs together.” A rule book for the Bengals, submitted as part of a lawsuit in 2014, noted “you are given a 3 lb leniency weight” “no gum chewing” “no slouching breasts.”
Both teams said last week that the rule books had been revised but would not provide specifics.
“It’s such a double standard,” said Kate Mayfield, 37, a former cheerleader for the Baltimore Ravens who is now a hedge fund consultant. “They explain it to us like the rules are in place to keep us out of trouble, because the league is going to protect the player if something happens. Because the players are, if it comes down to it, more important, even though we’re also on the field. I don’t think I questioned it back then. I was 22.”
Davis, for her part, believes not that NFL cheerleading should be done away with altogether — but that the NFL needs to adjust to the times.
“This is not normal,” Davis said. “I just think nobody had any idea how bad we were treated.”