Editorial: The NFL’s Assault on Cheerleaders

  • Attorney Gloria Allred stands among former Houston Texans cheerleaders, from left, Ashley Rodriguez, Morgan Wiederhold, Kelly Neuner, Hannah Turnbow, and Ainsley Parish, right, while holding up a shirt printed with $7.25, the amount she says the former cheerleaders where paid per hour, as she speaks during a press conference Friday, June 1, 2018, in Humble, Texas, announcing a lawsuit on behalf of the five the former cheerleaders at the law offices of Kimberley Spurlock. The five former cheerleaders are suing the NFL franchise, alleging the team failed to fully compensate them as required by law and subjected them to hostile work environment in which they were harassed, intimidated and forced to live in fear. (Melissa Phillip/Houston Chronicle via AP)

Friday, June 08, 2018

It’s hard to know where to begin with the National Football League these days. From its ongoing struggle to define a “catch” to its decades of denial and dissembling on the issue of head injuries, the world’s most profitable sports league — it raked in $14 billion in revenue in 2017 — has proven inept, even gutless, when it comes to handling important issues.

Its commissioner, Roger Goodell, who for reasons that remain unclear makes $40 million a year, has for years grossly mishandled the allegations of domestic violence by players. Its new policy on player protests during the national anthem, for yet another example, was a cowardly — and unpatriotic — capitulation by the league and its 32 team owners (more than half of whom are billionaires) to the despicable, racist dog-whistling of President Donald Trump.

But enough of all that! Let’s get hammered and grope some cheerleaders!

Sadly, a number of NFL franchises have been only too happy to oblige.

As The New York Times reported last week, several teams had come to the realization that if their cheerleaders were on the sidelines rooting for the team, they couldn’t serve as “hostesses” to enhance the “game-day experience” for both regular fans and big-deal luxury suite owners, or prospective owners. The solution was to create a new team of “noncheering cheerleaders” whose job was to look pretty, wear what the team’s regular cheerleaders wore, which is to say not much, and smile while wading into what was basically a mosh pit full of entitled drunks.

“We wore low-cut tops with cutouts and your butt cheeks would be sticking out the back,” one woman who worked for the Washington Redskins told the Times. “That’s how they sell the suites.”

In addition to the Redskins, the Houston Texans, the New England Patriots, the Baltimore Ravens and the New Orleans Saints all employed squads of alternate cheerleaders for promotional and marketing purposes — in some cases earning the teams thousands of dollars for an appearance while being paid minimum wage. The Times conducted interviews with nearly 20 women who worked in these roles for NFL teams or had direct experience with the noncheering squads. While some of the teams, including the Patriots, appear to have treated the women appropriately, the conditions described by others are appalling: Being required to parade in bikinis before suite owners and sponsors, who then “rated” them. Getting grabbed and hugged by drunken fans at team-sponsored tailgate parties and while giving out prizes in the stands. Enduring verbal and emotional abuse from coaches.

The Redskins, as the Times reported, were particularly adept at using their alternate cheerleaders — the team calls them “ambassadors” — as “eye candy” to be dangled before male fans, sponsors and, most important, luxury suite owners, who pay hundreds of thousands of dollars a season for a suite and who account for a significant percentage of a team’s revenue. An online sales video for luxury suites at FedEx Field, the home of the Redskins, highlights the opportunity to get up close and personal with the team’s cheerleader ambassadors: “Membership has its privileges,” the voice-over says as the camera lingers over a photograph of a woman in a bikini.

The Redskins have also come under fire for a 2013 calendar photo shoot that took place at a resort in Costa Rica. Five cheerleaders told the Times that team officials took their passports after they arrived at the resort, that they were required to go topless or wear only body paint for some of the photographs (although none of the images used in the calendar showed nudity), and that the team had invited a group of male sponsors and suite owners to join the trip and gave them access to the photo sessions. Then, at the end of the day, some of the cheerleaders were told that they had been selected by male sponsors to be their escorts at a nightclub that evening — tantamount, they said, to the team “pimping us out,” even if there was no sex involved.

While Redskins officials have disputed the accounts of the Costa Rica trip and defended their cheerleader program, Dennis Greene, the head of business operations for the Redskins who oversaw the cheerleader ambassador program, resigned last month after the Times started asking questions.

In fairness to the NFL, it’s not the only sports organization that objectifies women as part of its “game-day experience.” And fans share a big part of the blame here. Since when does buying a ticket, or even a luxury suite, entitle you to assault someone?

The NFL says it has nothing to do with the way its teams use cheerleaders. That may be so. But a number of former cheerleaders have filed legal complaints that have the potential to reveal even more details about these seamy practices, and the NFL — which despite its dominance is facing a multiyear TV ratings decline — won’t be able to distance itself from whatever disgraceful behavior may come to light.

Is it time for the commissioner to earn his $40 million paycheck and put an end to this kind of grotesque exploitation? Roger that.