As a relatively informed NFL fan and a passionate devotee of the female form, I've long known that most NFL teams pay their cheerleaders a scant $75 or less per home game. It's the sort of trivium that would come up in a conversation at a sports bar, and I'll say, "Wow, only seventy-five MY GOD LOOK AT THAT WOMAN" as FOX's NFL coverage cuts away to commercial.
But not this week. This week, the slate of NFL games is almost completely devoid of suspense, and I won't be distracted by the bruising hits or plunging cleavage. This week, I'm an activist for women's rights. NFL teams are exploiting their cheerleaders for additional publicity and profits, then returning their hard work by paying them like illegal immigrants. If NFL cheerleaders want to be taken seriously, they need to stop being so thankful for so little, and start organizing a labor movement.
Yes, I'm suggesting a cheerleaders' union.
Being an NFL cheerleader is supposedly a part-time job; most of the women are full-time students or have day jobs. Squads meet for practice two to three times a week in the evenings, plus well in advance before games on Sunday.
But that's just the tip of the iceberg. NFL cheerleaders are expected to make regular charity appearances on behalf of the team, they maintain strict diets and workout regimens to be physically perfect every Sunday, and their annual calendars (usually swimsuit-clad) generate additional money and publicity for the team. Most notably, squads often send representatives overseas to meet with and perform for our troops through the USO (the Buffalo Jills traveled all over Iraq last February, the Sea Gals just got back from Germany, and the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders are in Korea right now).
While I could find no evidence of it, I would guess that cheerleaders get some kind of per diem or modest pay when they travel for the USO or a swimsuit shoot; however, it's foolish to assume fiscal generosity from any multi-million-dollar organization that offers the women who serve as its public face $750 a year. I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that the Jills didn't get combat pay for their time in Iraq.
So why do they do it? The reasoning behind the cheerleaders' paltry pay is simple: making an NFL cheer squad is such an honor that any monetary compensation is merely icing on the cake. This recent (and excellent) GQ profile on the Ben-Gals provides an illuminating passage:
The grand cash total per season does not keep most of them flush in hair spray, let alone gas money to and from practice. "We have a rule book that's like this thick," [head coach] Charlotte will explain to any woman interested in becoming a Ben-Gal, holding her hands four inches apart. "If you can demonstrate commitment and dedication and following-the-rules, you're good to go." [...] Charlotte sees [being a Ben-Gal] as a gift. Charlotte sees herself as a fairy godmother with a magic wand under which only a few select gals earn the privilege of the wave. [...]That same GQ article brings up other great honors for an NFL cheerleader: getting named Cheerleader of the Week, making the team's annual calendar, and being the one girl per team who goes to Hawaii as a member of the Pro Bowl cheer squad. The rewards for those honors are, in order: pride, pride, and pride plus a trip to Hawaii. The system in which they operate, instead of rewarding them monetarily for their countless hours of hard work, is designed to make them feel grateful for the opportunity to participate.
That's what it takes to become a Ben-Gal. If a woman has any lesser sense of the glory, she will not make it.
The amount of pride that these women take in their side jobs is admirable but in some ways misguided. Taking pride in being part of an elite team and being fairly compensated are not mutually exclusive. It's an honor to write for FanHouse, but I wouldn't do it for less than I deserve. There's no reason why cheerleaders can't make a fair wage for their practices and performances, receive modest bonuses for honors like appearing on the calendar and going to the Pro Bowl, and get reimbursed for gym memberships, makeup, and other necessities of their trade. And the way to do it would be to unionize, followed by the threat of a strike.
But will it happen? Realistically, no. One problem with NFL cheerleaders being the best of the best is that the rest of the best constitute the best-looking, most able scabs in labor history. Besides, as evidenced by MSG's preparation to smear Courtney Prince's reputation in its most recent legal battle, sports owners are more than willing to take ugly steps when pretty people step out of line.
Even if the women did unionize and successfully strike, the NFL's product would go on. The big draw on Sundays remains the men in tight pants, not the women. The only way the strike could be successful is if the cheerleaders rallied public opinion behind them.
While this is all very unlikely, it's still a public relations nightmare the league might want to consider avoiding. Who do you like in a PR battle: the wealthy, jowly old white men who sit untouched in pristine luxury boxes every Sunday ... or the beautiful women who engage the fans in their support of the team?
With my attention firmly focused on the plights of so many underpaid cheerleaders, I'm only giving the most cursory look at the weekend. Only games that have the slightest amount of meaning will get previewed.
Patriots (15-0) at Giants (10-5) -- I don't really understand why an NFL Network game is getting simulcast on CBS and NBC but not FOX, but I don't really care, either. I'm sure the game will get great ratings, but there's no reason why it should be competitive or entertaining: the Giants are coasting into the playoffs as a 5-seed, while the Pats are hell-bent on perfection.
Saints (7-8) at Bears (6-9) -- Saints need a win and losses from the Vikes and 'Skins to get in. I was going to say that it seemed like a far-fetched longshot, but then I realized that Chicago, Washington, and Minnesota are all approximately as erratic as the Saints.
Steelers (10-5) at Ravens (4-11) -- Pittsburgh needs to win to have a shot at the AFC's 3-seed, AKA "avoid the Pats for one more week seed." They're 5-0 in the AFC North and Baltimore's lost nine in a row, which means, of course, that the Ravens will win.
Chargers (10-5) at Oakland (4-11) -- San Diego is the other team jockeying for the 3-seed. Not that it matters. With an inconsistent hothead for a quarterback and Norv Turner as their coach, do you really think they're getting out of the first round of the playoffs?
Cowboys (13-2) at Redskins (8-7) -- 'Skins win and they're in; 'Boys have home-field locked up. About the only thing you can be sure of in this game is the cheerleaders.
Vikings (8-7) at Broncos (6-9) -- The Vikings still have a chance to get into the playoffs if the Redskins lose, but they certainly don't deserve it after the way they played last week.
Titans (9-6) at Colts (13-2) -- Tennessee is in a similar position to the Redskins: win and they're in. If they lose, the Browns automatically get the 6-seed. For what it's worth, the Colts have the 2-seed locked up.
1. TV Distribution Maps. With almost every game completely devoid of meaning, the NFL has kindly allowed both CBS and FOX to broadcast the double-headers. Great timing. That means you'll want to tune into only the games played in warmer weather or domes in order to see cheerleaders not bundled up in sniffle gear. Of FOX's games, the early set has games at Tampa and Atlanta; while the little-shown game of the late set is at Arizona. CBS's early games include bouts at Houston and Miami (no HD though), while the late games offer the Raiderettes in Oakland.
2. NFL Style Watch. Ah, the white calf-high boot, a staple of so many cheerleading uniforms. The heel is pronounced enough to add height but no so much as to inhibit dancing, while the boot rises high enough on the leg to be sexy without crossing into "hooker boot" territory. I salute the white cheerleading boot, like a good martini or a German sports car, for its perfect moderation between function and sex appeal.
3. The following teams don't have cheerleading squads: Steelers, Packers, Bears, Browns, Giants, and Lions. Of these, the first three once had squads: the Steelerettes were disbanded in 1969, the Green Bay Sideliners were disbanded in '86, and Virginia McCaskey -- daughter of George Halas -- fired the Honey Bears before the 1985 season. (Wiki)
4. This is the inaugural year for the New York Flight Crew, who cheer for the Jets. Nice work, Jets. Now just get the Giants, Steelers, Packers, Browns, Lions, and Bears on board. Not that I'm saying women from Pittsburgh, Green Bay, Cleveland, and Detroit are unattractive, it's just that ... uh ... those teams are too steeped in history to be marred with cheerleaders! Yeah, that's it.
5. Addendum: One flawed argument edited out of the above essay is that cheerleaders should be thankful for their positions, because it puts them in a position to launch a modeling or acting career. Given that there are nearly 900 NFL cheerleaders any given year, this list of notable former cheerleaders isn't that long or impressive.
6. Fired and re-hired ESPN.com columnist Gregg Easterbrook famously has a "cheerleader of the week" sandwiched in between 7000 words of unfunny in-jokes and discussion of astronomy in his cleverly named Tuesday Morning Quarterback column. But you can tell he's being condescending to his cheerleader of the week. He doesn't care, not like I do.
7. Damn that T-Rac!
Just look at him: lazing around, not a care in the world, free as a hummingbird on the last day of school. Meanwhile, the Titans cheerleaders bust their butts to get the crowd riled up. I know that Southern culture is different from what I know, but raccoons shouldn't get to relax while the women are hard at work.
8. Much of this column would not have been possible without the existence of the esteemed Professional Cheerleading Blog. So if you hated it, blame them.
9. Still not sold on cheerleaders' popularity relative to their NFL franchise? Google any team, and see where the cheerleaders pop up.
10. And now for some post-holiday cheer: cheerleaders in Santa costumes. Happy holidays, everyone.