Before Nicole’s* first practice as a rookie NHL pro cheerleader, she was issued a photo of Gabrielle Union from 2010 and told that it would be her look for the season. Smooth waves that tumbled down her back, contoured cheeks, and red lips were now mandatory for every game, practice, and event she worked.
Between the hair extensions she’d need for length, the stage makeup that team management suggested, and the bi-monthly French gel manicure required for events, Nicole estimates she spent about $4,000 to look the part for the season. Although she and her teammates only made minimum wage for practices, and slightly more for games, Nicole says she still made a little money when it was all said and done. At least, she’s pretty sure she did — she decided not to keep track.
Nicole also pays for two gym memberships on top of the one that’s provided by the team so she can wake up at 4:30 a.m. to squeeze in a HIIT class near her house before going to her day job at a digital technology company. She then goes to cheer practice after work, and does another round of cardio once she gets home. “Then I go to bed and do it all again,” she says.
Like many of her peers, Nicole’s goal is to transition to the NFL, but she’s worried her athletic figure isn’t trim enough for the next echelon in the world of pro cheer. Most women in the industry have heard the horror stories about having to stay thin, so Nicole wants to get ahead of the curve, literally. Still, she is committed to this career path and to navigating all of its hurdles and indignities.
As the NFL at large grapples with an identity crisis amidst heated debates over protests, domestic violence, traumatic brain injury, and other issues, pro cheerleaders feel culturally archaic to many. Yet women all over the world still dream, train, and sacrifice to realize their goal of becoming one. Refinery29 spoke to these women about how they’re bucking against the draconian demands and misogynistic double standards – because, to them, this is an institution worth saving and transforming for the 100th season in 2019. Whether their fight will make a difference is still unknown, but some have paid a high price just for a shot at change.
Body Of Work
According to Bailey Davis, a former three season pro cheerleader for the New Orleans’ Saintsations who is currently suing the league and her former team for gender discrimination, staying skinny enough to please team management is a challenge for a lot of cheerleaders. But a culture of weight watching and “jiggle tests" has been part of pro cheer since the ‘70s, when the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders got a strict handbook to safeguard the look of the newly sexed-up squad. For the record, the Saints and the NFL are fighting Davis’ claims.
Davis’ mom was a Saintsations cheer coach, so she grew up on the sidelines, often sitting with the girls that were benched while her mom worked. She recalls asking her mom why the girls couldn’t cheer and her mother replying that “the coaches thought [their] thighs looked too big today.” But Davis says that the dreaded “three pound rule” to stay within close range of your audition weight is not only pervasive – many women are actually asked to lose weight after being hired, including her.
While one might assume this rhetoric was left behind in the era of flight attendant weigh-ins, or at least snuffed out during the body positive movement, Davis says it’s still rampant and some women have decided to go to extreme lengths on their own accord. “The pressure to stay on weight was intense, a lot of girls would do sweat-outs in their hot cars or abuse Adderall,” Davis says.
Such strict rules about appearance have been found in many teams’ former individual handbooks, which lay out the rules, expectations, and so forth, and cheerleaders on those teams must sign a copy before they begin work. Once safeguarded within the industry as top secret, they’ve since been leaked and widely publicized.
From The Field To The Court
Pro cheerleaders aren’t just judged on their weight or nails, but also on who they date, their social media presence, and who they tell about their religious beliefs — which have been issues at the root of multiple harassment suits brought against the NFL this past year.
The control teams take over their cheerleaders seems to be limitless. For example, handbooks shared with R29 show sweeping rules that dictate what cheerleaders can wear outside of work hours, direct women on the correct way to wash their genitals before they arrive at work, and include strict non-fraternization clauses with all NFL players. Some of the latter even say that a cheerleader must immediately leave a restaurant mid-meal if a player walks in and that she can be punished if she allows a player to follow her on social media. Players, on the other hand, typically have no rules or punishments for contacting pro cheerleaders.
“The non-fraternization rules are obviously discriminatory,” explains Sara Blackwell, the attorney representing Davis and numerous former pro cheerleaders in pending suits against the NFL. “They say it's for the girls’ protection, which is sad because we're not in the 1950s here. They need to either apply to players as well or apply to neither one.”
Not only are these rules incredibly pervasive, they’re regularly enforced with little recourse for the women. On January 23, 2018, 22-year-old Davis claims she was fired from the Saintsations for posting a photo to her personal Instagram page wearing a lace bodysuit. It came on the heels of an accusation that Davis denies: Being at the same party as an NFL football player. She might have been able to get away with one of these handbook infractions — she says that squad members are regularly told to remove Instagram images their coaches don’t find flattering — but together, it evidently pushed management over the edge and she was terminated.
Davis says she has seen numerous women get fired for similar infractions over the course of her three years as a Saintsation. She claims one woman was dismissed for posting a video taking a body shot of alcohol on her personal Snapchat, and another was terminated for allegedly dating a player on the team. Davis says the player, who she prefers not to identify by name, wasn’t disciplined since the rule only applies to women. Players, on the other hand, can post, date, and generally behave how they please. Davis remembers coming to practice and hearing about the firing, but says that management explained the motivation simply. “They told us that she was sleeping around,” she says.
Like fired cheerleaders before her, Davis felt humiliated by her fellow cheerleaders after being let go. “I felt slut shamed,” she says, noting that she was ostracized by some members of her team as soon as the firing happened. According to Davis, her mother quit in response.
But it was more than a termination to Davis; she felt like she was losing her identity, and the one thing she wanted more than anything her whole life: to be a pro cheerleader.
What happened next for Davis was unique: She called a lawyer and filed a lawsuit against both the NFL and the New Orleans Saints for gender discrimination. The lawsuit is currently pending, in what is the first step toward her goal of having the stringent rules that apply to cheerleaders, but not football players, changed so the next class can finally feel like equals. “I’m doing this for the girls that come after me, so they don’t have to be subjected to what I went through,” she says. She’s taking on the NFL, instead of just the Saints, because she wants rules handed down from the organization to blanket the entire NFL pro cheer industry.
Davis isn’t the first, or even the most recent, to take legal action against the NFL: There have been suits filed on the grounds of wage theft, gender and religious discrimination, emotional harassment, and more — and while many are still pending, some women have won their individual cases.
Legal action seems to have hit a fever pitch, and while it certainly looks and feels like the beginning of a smaller #MeToo movement, the world of pro cheer hasn’t rallied behind women in the same way. In fact, most cheerleaders have stayed silent while the public has shared disapproval over now-leaked handbooks that the women must follow. Davis and her lawyer tried to start a hashtag to mobilize women — #LevelThePlayingField — but it didn’t really take off, and currently has just over 3,000 posts. What’s more, many pro cheer hopefuls are so eager to make a team, they told R29 that they’d happily work for free while living under strict rules if it meant making the team.
Stand Up and Shut Up
While a handful of these lawsuits have gained national attention, many wonder why more women haven’t spoken up. Kristan Ann Ware, a former pro cheerleader for the Miami Dolphins who has a pending case against the NFL and the Dolphins for gender and religious discrimination, says the silence is fueled by fear. “It’s gaslighting,” she says. “When you first get on 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... It led into, ‘If you have a problem with how this team is run, you're completely replaceable. All we need is a pretty girl in a uniform’.” The Dolphins and NFL have denied these claims.
This is a theme consistent with all the cheerleaders we spoke to from various teams and levels. Davis says that even falling behind on the “look” you’re assigned at the beginning of the season can result in being benched, suspended, or fired. If your hair is too drab, you get a run in your pantyhose, or you’re five minutes late to practice, you’re publicly reminded someone else could be brought in to replace you.
It’s a world that leaves little room for individuality, and comes at a high cost. Davis estimates that she spent $90 a month on her spray tans, $30 on manicures, $150 on her hair every month, and at least $100 on game day makeup for the season. While that seems like a lot, it’s nothing compared to a lifetime of dance lessons, cheer camps, and the expenses associated with them.
As a rookie, Davis made minimum wage — that’s $7.25 in Louisiana — and by her third year had been given a raise to $9 per hour. “I could have made more working at McDonalds,” she says.
Davis isn’t alone. Alexa Westendorf (formerly Brenneman), a former NFL cheerleader for the Cincinnati Bengals, did the math on what she was making, the hours she was working, and the expenses that she was required to spend, like tanning and nails, and ended up with a shocking amount: After it was all said and done, she was taking home just $2.85 per hour. “Everyone, from the mascot to the people selling beer and hotdogs on a Sunday game, makes more than an NFL cheerleader,” she says. She sued and in 2015 she won: not only did the team have to backpay the cheerleaders, but now the women are given hourly rates to ensure they’re not paid under minimum wage through flat rates that don’t divide out to much more than a few dollars per hour.
Can Pro Cheer Change?
But despite all the claims stacked against it, women still want to work for the NFL — bad. There are still cheer camps that teach thousands of young girls how to land the job, and lines and lines outside auditions. As for the women who are suing the NFL? They still look back on it fondly as their favorite job. Westendorf even went back to the Bengals after the lawsuit and cheered for another season. Ware and Davis say it was the best times of their lives — before the allegations and firings.
We spoke to dozens of pro cheer hopefuls at one of the most in-demand cheer workshops in the country, Sideline Prep, and the message was unanimous: They don’t care about the handbooks or the pay or the lawsuits — they just want to cheer. They talk about the sisterhood, how much they miss dancing in college or high school, and the ability to travel to foreign countries to support American troops. But most of all, the rush of performing on the biggest stage in the world is what drives them.
Ware says that she grew up idolizing the NFL cheerleader: the perfect hair and body in the iconic uniforms, all eyes glued to their pristine dance moves. “It's the best opportunity and job I've ever had,” she says. That’s one of the reasons why this has been so hard for her; she didn’t want to quit and she still misses the whole experience.
During a warm-up for a Sideline Prep workshop in D.C. — a hotspot for pro-cheer hopefuls — the women share nostalgic stories of dancing growing up, tumbling before they could walk, and participating in the sport in high school and college. Most of the women are well-adjusted professionals: fitness and dance coaches, publicists and marketing professionals, and women who work in tech. “We’d do it for free!” one woman tells me. The rest of the group nods their heads. “There’s nothing like it in the world,” one says, describing the feeling of walking out onto the field before cheering at an arena football game. The NFL, she thinks, will be even better.
It’s easy to understand why some women want it so badly, and why so many are suing the NFL despite any personal benefit. “Other girls deserve that same opportunity to have their dreams come true,” Ware adds. “But when it does come true, I don't want them to have to compromise who they are and to also work in a negative work environment.”
There’s no way to know if things will change, but it’s becoming clear that direction will have to come down from the top. In an official statement to Refinery29 from the NFL this past September, the league says, “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 cheerleader programs to ensure they are lawful and appropriate. In addition, the league has been working this offseason with its clubs to share best practices and employment-related processes regarding cheerleaders in order for each club to maintain an appropriate and supportive workplace.” Both the Miami Dolphins and New Orleans Saintsations declined to comment directly on accusations against its cheerleading teams from Kristan Ann Ware and Bailey Davis, respectively.
No matter what, envisioning and building that “appropriate and supportive workplace” – where women can safely fulfill their pro-cheer dreams with fair wages and without sexism – will require a drastic reframing of the NFL and sports culture at large. It’s painfully overdue, but the women behind these lawsuits are leading the way.
*Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
This story was originally published on September 1, 2018.