The Dark Side of Professional Cheerleading

By: Triana Gando

The Me Too movement has taken the world by storm. Countless individuals and their allies have come together to spread awareness against sexual abuse. It has affected people in different industries such as entertainment, politics, and sports. One in particular is the cheerleaders and dancers for various professional sports leagues like the NFL, NBA, and NHL.

The movement was founded by survivor and activist Tarana Burke in 2006. Their development built a community of advocates that brought different resources, forms of support, and pathways for healing. It was determined to interrupt sexual violence. 11 years later, the hashtag #MeToo became a global movement. The accountability on perpetrators is strategized to sustain long term, systemic change. Survivors from all walks of life have come out and share their stories. They want to find healing in the community that nobody has to say “me too” again.

Tarana Burke, founder and activist, of the Me Too movement. Photo Courtesy: Me Too Movement

One of the most well known professional NFL cheerleading teams is the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. The 2018 documentary titled Daughters of the Sexual Revolution: The Untold Story of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders takes a look at the rise in popularity the group achieved from the start. During a Cowboys game in 1967, an exotic dancer named Bubbles Cash was seen walking around with cotton candy and entertaining the crowd. The organization took this as an opportunity to transform the cheerleaders into what appeals to the crowd. Later on in the 1970s, the ladies became a part of the sexual revolution. Their uniforms were altered from a more modest look into hot pants, midriffs, and boots. On game days, camera people would shoot from the ground up their shorts during their kickline routine. If the crowd wasn’t paying attention to the game, they were definitely paying attention to the cheerleaders. 

Movie poster for Daughters of the Sexual Revolution: The Untold Story of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. Photo Courtesy: IMDB

At the same time, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders became a target of one feminist movement. The group performed at a Fresno State halftime to support the women’s athletic department. It wasn’t until the university’s female athletes chanted, “Hearts and minds, not bumps and grinds…Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, go home.” They protested that the DCC shouldn’t be turning into sex objects flaunting themselves.. Other outsiders even questioned if they were being exploited. The cheerleaders argued that when you’re exploited, you’re forced to do something that you don’t want to do and they all wanted to be out there. They all came from different backgrounds and had their outside lives on top of cheering. The group challenged the backlash. They wanted to prove they were more than what they’re perceived to be. 

This incident with the DCC was just the start. Recently, different harassment issues have come out revolving around these performers. In addition to their field presence, cheerleaders often interact with fans at tailgates or in the stands. What’s a sporting event with at least one intoxicated fan? In moments where cheerleaders come face to face with a rowdy fan, the outcome can be unpredictable and unwelcoming. Diana Zeineddine is a former NHL cheerleader for the Vegas Golden Knights. Each cheerleader is scattered throughout the arena performing close to fans. Luckily, the group never experienced any inappropriateness regarding that topic.

We have stage managers who follow us from aisle to aisle in order to make sure we’re staying safe and if a fan ever gets rowdy, the entire group goes back up, informs the stage manager and they get that rowdy fan escorted out. They’ve always made sure we felt super safe and comfortable when it came to that,” says Zeineddine. 

Unfortunately, this isn’t the case with other organizations. According to a New York Times article, former members of the DCC felt that the group did little to protect them when interacting with the public. They were taught not to confront or upset fans who would say offensive things or give inappropriate touches. Instead, they were told to always be courteous to them. 

The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders performing on game day. Photo Courtesy: @dccheerleaders on Instagram.

Multiple allegations revolving around the cheerleaders for the Washington Football Team also came to light. Aside from at the game, the ladies are expected to mingle with fans at community events. Oftentimes, events will request their appearance for promos. A group of cheerleaders were assigned to be sent to a fan’s house. There was no special occasion, just a group of middle aged men watching a football game. They performed a dance and had some small talk with the men. As uncomfortable as it was inside of there, the group was left with absolutely no security. 

In 2013, the team was sent to Costa Rica for a squad calendar shoot. What was thought to be a getaway to paradise turned into a nightmare. During their shoot,they were forced to pose topless in front of a crew. They were put in an uncomfortable situation yet again at a yacht party forced to socialize with fans. It even got to a point where they were pressured to consume alcohol. Some of the girls were even underage. 

In these situations, if the cheerleaders spoke out on how things were handled, they would be dismissed. According to Debra Katz, a lawyer specializing in sexual harassment cases, states that professional sports teams are legally accountable to protect their cheerleaders from unwanted contact with fans. It even comes to a point where some teams order their cheerleaders to sign nondisclosure agreements when situations where harassment is likely to take place. This call has raised some eyebrows.

“When employees with little power sign N.D.A.s, it creates an environment where sexual harassment or improper pay can proceed because people are fearful of speaking out,” says Katz. “Anytime you have a profession or an industry where sexual harassment can be anticipated, putting someone under an N.D.A. is designed to clearly protect the image and the team.”

As more of these allegations become known, the future of cheerleaders and dancers for professional sports is ever changing. Some NBA dance teams have implemented huge changes. Mady Spry was a former member of the all female Sacramento Kings dance team that later turned co-ed. 

I came into the pro dance world in 2018 so right when all of this stuff came to light. I did not personally experience anything like this in my pro dance career which I am very thankful for. We used to do fitness testing and body fat testing once a month but when all of these articles and lawsuits came about those were put to an end,” says Spry. 

Other changes implemented throughout the season included less revealing outfits, adding boys in their routines, to changing out dance styles which ultimately led to the organization laying the female group in the end. The Kings dance team are among other female NBA dance teams like the Dallas Mavericks, Cleveland Cavaliers, and many more that disbanded as a result of this movement

Milena McLaren, retired NFL cheerleader for the Seattle Seahawks and Houston Texans, reflects on her nothing but positive experience. She recognizes that although her personal experiences were fortunate, there are NFL cheerleaders and NBA dancers that have suffered from unfortunate circumstances.

“Strong programs are being dissolved because they are focusing on the wrong aspects of what we do as dancers and cheerleaders. It’s easy to look at the short skirts, or rhinestone tops and immediately think it’s oversexualized. As dancers and cheerleaders, the type of uniforms that we wear, or choreography that we perform doesn’t define who we are, or what we should put up with,” says McLaren. “We wear so many hats with the role we are given and the way we entertain on the field will be different from the way we represent ourselves in the community. Programs should not have to be eliminated as a ‘precaution’ and it’s really sad for those teams that have suffered from this decision from organizations.”

Throughout the glitz and glam of the industry can be something dark. These unfortunate happenings are just a glimpse into the world of cheerleaders and dancers for professional sports. There are many who feel silenced and fearful of losing their job due to speaking out. Some feel like their roles are very replaceable but that shouldn’t stop them from having a voice. The organization’s job is to protect their employees, regardless of their position. By spreading awareness, we can hope the industry changes for the better. At the end of the day, these cheerleaders and dancers are human beings first and should be treated as such.

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