In the last month, hair-raising stories about working as an NFL cheerleader have become familiar, like the Washington Redskins performers whose passports were confiscated before a destination photo shoot where they were asked to pose topless and later served as escorts. Or the lack of protection from sexual harassment and violent verbal abuse during promotional parties and events. Or the barely minimum wage pay and lack of benefits cheerleaders receive, despite extensive contracts that limit their ability to earn money elsewhere.
You might think this situation is a fairly new one, with interest drummed up by the ongoing Me Too movement and reporting on cheerleaders' recent lawsuits, but as a new short documentary shows, this saga is decades old.
Sidelined, directed by filmmaker Galen Summer and shot by Hillary Spera, examines the emergence of NFL cheerleaders in American culture as sexual icons who were alternately celebrated and exploited depending on the whims of the League. Spurred on by the rapid popularity of the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders — "the first to sprinkle show business glamour along pro-football's sidelines," one newscaster at the time said — other teams sought ways to get their female performers to wear less, jump around more, and do whatever was asked of them with a smile.
"I know it's difficult to believe but at 21 years old, I was trying to duplicate all the good feelings I had in junior high and high school as a cheerleader in the NFL," says Lynita Shilling a former San Diego Chargette. "I did not go out on the field thinking, I’m going to go out there and turn people on. For a lot of us, our goal was to continue our dance careers and that sisterhood."
The initial prospect of being an NFL cheerleader was thrilling to the hundreds of women who auditioned when open tryouts were held. As the documentary shows, it was after the League turned up the heat — higher heels, bigger cleavage, more sex appeal — that the women began to get burned.
In the late 1970s, every member of the San Diego Chargettes squad was abruptly fired after some members of the team posed with other NFL cheerleaders in a spread for Playboy. To be clear, the cheerleaders did not seek out the magazine's attention. As former Playboy editor Jeff Cohen explains in the film, he spoke directly with NFL team directors asking for permission to cover the women. He hoped to capture the women at the forefront of the sexual zeitgeist, and far from being rebuffed, was "received with open arms."
Enticed by the prospect of making money (since being a Chargette was essentially a full-time volunteer effort — none of the women on that squad were paid), and with a sense that they were supported by team officials, a group of cheerleaders participated.
"In my little 20-year-old mind, I figured ... I'll get my check in the mail, I could pay my rent, I could pay for my wedding," says Shilling, who ultimately posed topless for the magazine. "I thought that was the end of it all."
It was not. Shortly before the magazine issue came out, the Chargettes' assistant director Rhonda Bosworth was fired — and ordered to fired every Chargette on her way out.
"We were a little aghast," Jill Fleming now tells Refinery29. "We were told this was okay; we were told to go along with it; we were told, told, told. Then we were chastised for it, got fired for it, and were thrown under the bus."
"There was a general undertone and overtone of, We’re the men and you’re just the women. We like the sexuality you bring to the field but you’re not allowed to be that way anywhere else," Shilling adds.
The boundary of "acceptable" behavior for cheerleaders in the NFL continues to be wildly contradictory. The Times reviewed several current handbooks that "include personal hygiene tips, like shaving techniques and the proper use of tampons," not to mention forbid wearing sweatpants. The women must pay "hundreds of dollars for their uniforms" out of pocket, "sell raffle tickets and calendars and appear at charity events and golf tournaments" (but receive very little pay and none of the merchandise proceeds) — but archaic restrictions are placed on their lives away from work, in person and on social media.
It did surprise me that the issues with the NFL cheerleaders recently are almost identical to what we experienced.
Lynita Shilling, former Chargette
These directives have a long history. Various people in Sidelined, both men and women, described the myriad rules of conduct expected from the 1970s' performers: dancing a certain way, maintaining a certain physique, not dating players, not being seen in public (off duty) in hair rollers, tying their tops to show off the most cleavage. Cheerleaders were expected to epitomize a very traditional ideal of femininity and sexuality — but only with the approval of the League. So, perhaps inevitably, once the NFL apparently regretted its Playboy bid for attention, the women were also expected to take responsibility.
"They basically were hypocrites and they encouraged what was happening," Shilling tells R29. "We didn’t seek this out; then they abandoned us when it didn’t serve their purpose any longer."
Of the continued furor over the League's treatment of women working as NFL cheerleaders, Shilling says: "It did surprise me that the issues with the NFL cheerleaders recently are almost identical to what we experienced. It has to do with the public's perception of women as a sexual being, and almost their ownership of the women in their employ. It’s almost like as long as it’s kept on the field or kept within our organization, we’re good with that. But women can’t exercise their independence and freedom outside of that umbrella."
Summer, who began to shoot and direct the film three years ago, says he obviously didn't plan for the documentary to mirror currents events so closely, but he hopes that Sidelined highlights what happens when stories about exploitive authority go unexplored and unchallenged.
Today, many of the Chargettes are in a different place. After reuniting with some of her fellow cheerleaders, Shilling has finally begun to forgive herself for what she feels was her part in disbanding a the sorority that meant so much to her and her former Chargettes. Fleming is a former police officer and a current lead investigator, CEO, and CFO in San Diego. Although her place in society is "drastically different," she feels the documentary gives the women who experienced these events a voice they didn't have before.
"In the '60s and '70s, most of these girls on the team had dads that were in the military and you came from a family where you understood there was an order of command," she says. "When the Chargers told us no, the answer was no — but the fact is, there’s always room for discussion. There’s always room for change; that’s how we evolve."
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