The XX Factor

The Year Cheerleaders Fought Back

A cheerleader auditions for the Baltimore Ravens, the only NFL team with a co-ed stunt squad.

Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

As 2014 comes to a close, DoubleX is looking back on the year that was—the stories we covered and missed that captivated, puzzled, enraged, and delighted us.

This was the year that NFL cheerleaders finally started rooting for themselves. Cheerleaders from five football teams filed suit against their employers in 2014, alleging that, among other labor violations, they were paid sub-minimum wages for their work. And at least some of these cheerleaders-turned-labor-warriors can claim victory: One team, the Oakland Raiders, has begrudgingly agreed to pay its squad members the bare minimum wage going forward. Rah, rah. Unfortunately, a thin paycheck is just one of many demeaning bullet points in the typical NFL cheerleader’s job description. Even if all NFL teams gave their cheerleaders a raise, they would still be free to weigh them, bleach them, spray tan them, “jiggle test” them, and auction them off at charity golf tournaments—where members of the Buffalo Jills say they have to sit in the lap of the highest bidder.

The job description of the NFL cheerleader is so dismal that Vice’s Smriti Sinha believes that instead of paying up, the NFL should just eliminate the position entirely. “These women are treated more like booth Barbies than the dancers and athletes they imagined they’d be,” Sinha wrote last month. “What purpose is NFL cheerleading serving other than dehumanizing women and entertaining the male gaze with ever-shrinking costumes? … If the league wants to send a message to women, it should end the practice of cheerleading altogether.”

How did the status of the American cheerleader fall so far that the most humane option would be to take them off the field? When college football first swept the nation in the early 1900s, cheerleading was seen as an admirable extracurricular for elite college men, as Mother Jones noted in a brief, fascinating history of American cheerleading last week. “The reputation of having been a valiant ‘cheer-leader’ is one of the most valuable things a boy can take away from college,” the Nation argued in 1911. “As a title to promotion in professional or public life, it ranks hardly second to that of being a quarterback.” By the 1920s, Stanford was offering courses in cheerleading, including one on “Bleacher Psychology.” When college men headed off to fight in World War II, women assumed their roles on the sidelines, and when the war was over, they didn’t cede their ground. It didn’t take long for “cheerleader” to flip into an insult.

But over the past several decades, female-dominated high school and college squads have worked hard to regain the respect that cheerleading enjoyed in its boys’ club era. These days, the routines are spectacular, the cheerleaders skilled, and the national tournaments fiercely competitive. This spring, cheerleading was officially recognized as a sport in New York state schools. Watch a few minutes of the annual UCA College Cheerleading Championships, and you’ll see just how impressive these athletes can be:

So it’s unfortunate that as high school and college cheerleading has grown ever more professional, “pro” cheerleading is still treated like an amateur sideshow: The uniforms keep shrinking, and the paychecks remain pocket change. NFL officials could resolve this contradiction by just taking cheerleaders out of the game, but I think a more enticing solution is jumping and flipping right in front of their faces. If the league really wanted to send a message that it respects women, it could draw on the talents of high school and college cheerleaders across the country, and remake NFL cheerleading in their image: Less booth Barbie, more human pyramid.

The change would require an investment, yes, but these teams have been stealing from their most visible female employees for years. Football owes cheerleaders. Besides, it could very well pay off. The NFL needs a female-friendly PR coup, and hundreds of highly skilled college cheerleaders need a playing field. The move would help galvanize legions of girls (and cheer-interested boys) to become personally invested in football, thus increasing viewership among women. If the leagues’ squads were freed to take cheerleading to new heights, competitions between the squads would attract their own audiences. Taking cheerleading seriously would help pro football reaffirm its status as a true national pastime, one that reflects back the changing values of the communities it represents. And the form already has a prototype: the Baltimore Ravens’ co-ed stunt team. The cheerleaders are ready. It’s time to put them in the game.