Cheerleaders for professional sports teams are often dancers with backgrounds in ballet, jazz, modern, hip-hop and tap. After beating out dozens of other dancers for the job, they have a chance to show off the athletic and dancing skills they have honed for years.
But they quickly learn that performing during sporting events is only a small part of their job description. They are also required to fulfill what often becomes the unsavory side of the job: interacting with fans at games and other promotional events, where groping and sexual harassment are common.
In interviews with dozens of current and former cheerleaders — most of them from the NFL, but also representing the NBA and the NHL — they described systematic exploitation by teams that profit by sending them into pregame tailgating and other gatherings where they are subjected to offensive sexual comments and unwanted touches by fans.
“When you have on a push-up bra and a fringed skirt, it can sometimes, unfortunately, feel like it comes with the territory,” said Labriah Lee Holt, a former cheerleader for the Tennessee Titans in the NFL. “I never experienced anything where someone on the professional staff or the team said something or made me feel that way. But you definitely experience that when you encounter people who have been drinking beer.”
Team officials are aware of the situation, the cheerleaders said, but do little to prevent harassment. Cheerleaders for most professional sports teams are required to mingle with fans at games and promotional events where encounters with intoxicated people can be harrowing. A former cheerleader for the Washington Redskins recalled a particularly uncomfortable assignment: She and five teammates were sent to a fan’s home, where several men were drinking and watching a football game.
When venturing into tailgate areas of parking lots, cheerleaders sometimes go in pairs or small groups to feel safer.
“There wasn’t any protection from it,” Holt said. “You have to run around the tailgates, go to the tents, mingle with fans and shake the pompoms. And you sometimes get the disgusting old men who have been drinking and will say something inappropriate. It is common, and the industry knows that.”
A longtime cheerleader for the Dallas Cowboys recalled a home game when her squad walked near a group of Philadelphia Eagles fans. “We were walking by, waving and smiling, and one guy caught my eye,” said the cheerleader, who requested anonymity because she, like many others, was forced to sign a nondisclosure agreement. “He looked at me and said, ‘I hope you get raped!’ That’s the kind of stuff we’d have yelled at us. Even from our fans, once they get drunk, they yell things, and you’re like, ‘Really?’ It’s part of the job. It comes with it. You’re supposed to take it.”
The Cowboys and the Titans did not respond to requests for comment. The NFL declined to address cheerleaders’ specific claims. In a statement, a spokesman for the league said: “The NFL and all NFL member clubs support fair employment practices. Employees and associates of the NFL have the right to work in a positive and respectful environment that is free from any and all forms of harassment.”
Some teams, recognizing the problem, address harassment in training and in handbooks given to cheerleaders and dance team members. It does not stop the teams from sending women into tailgate parties, suites of high rollers or the stands.
The Dallas Cowboys taught their cheerleaders and dancers what to say to people who said offensive things or touched them inappropriately. The women were told never to upset the fans.
“We were taught, if someone’s getting handsy on you, how to navigate that,” said the former longtime Cowboys cheerleader. “We were told what to say, like, ‘That’s not very nice,’ To be sweet, not rude. Say, ‘Can I ask you to step over here?’ Use body language to help deter the situation. Never be mean. Never. Always courteous. Because if it’s not for the fans, we wouldn’t be here — that’s how we were supposed to think of this.”
“Now I’m like, no, we shouldn’t be trained on how to handle that situation. We should be trained how to raise our hand and say, ‘Security, get this man away from me!’ I wish I could tell my 20-year-old self that.”
The cheerleaders and dancers in Dallas, as in most NFL stadiums, were required to visit tailgate parties outside and areas that are essentially standing-room-only bars. They visited high-priced luxury suites, and they came to dread certain ones.
“You knew the alcohol was flowing and that they would be handsy,” she said. “Arms around the waist, kisses on the cheek. You knew they would, and you couldn’t say anything.”
If they did object?
“You’d be dismissed from the team.”
Most fans were polite, recalled Lisa Kelly, who spent a season with the Carolina Panthers about a decade ago while working full time as a paralegal. But moving through rowdy crowds, she said, usually meant trouble.
“Some of the fans’ behavior was stunning, even for me,” she said, crediting the Panthers with keeping security nearby. “What shocked me was that people said things even with the presence of security.”
POSSIBLE LEGAL RAMIFICATIONS
Debra Katz, a Washington lawyer who for three decades has been bringing sexual harassment cases, including ones against politicians for both parties, said professional sports teams have a legal obligation to protect their cheerleaders from unwanted contact with fans.
“When they’re selling their looks and that’s part of what’s being promoted, it’s not unexpected that these employees could be subject to unwelcome touching, grabbing and the like,” Katz said. “The employers knew or reasonably should have known that the employee would be harassed, and so they have liability. They have an obligation to protect their employees.”
The fact that some teams require their cheerleaders to sign nondisclosure agreements, or NDAs, raises a red flag in these situations where harassment is likely to take place, Katz said.
“When employees with little power sign NDAs, it creates an environment where sexual harassment or improper pay can proceed because people are fearful of speaking out,” she said. “Anytime you have a profession or an industry where sexual harassment can be anticipated, putting someone under an NDA is designed to clearly protect the image and the team.”
Cheerleaders rarely report harassment cases, either because they feel it is an expected part of their job or out of fear of being removed from the team for complaining. For countless women who have worked for teams over the years, the statute of limitations, which varies by state, has most likely expired.
Handbooks and contracts provided to cheerleaders rarely have detailed information on how to handle or report harassment from fans beyond legal boilerplate. The San Francisco 49ers, who outsource oversight of their Gold Rush cheerleaders to a third party — another possible complication to claims made against some teams — included this line in the 2016 contract:
“If there is ever a case where you feel uncomfortable or sense a fan that is acting inappropriately, please get immediate assistance or contact your director immediately and she will notify the security authorities.”
But few women report the situations to supervisors out of fear of retribution.
“Every employee is afraid to report sexual harassment — this is the problem,” said Minna Kotkin, a professor in employment law at Brooklyn Law School. “The courts have not been sympathetic to that argument, unfortunately. You really do have to report it, unless you can prove that reporting it is futile.”
Women who say they have been harassed by fans said that there is inherent pressure to keep quiet.
“We beat out hundreds of other girls for this position,” the former cheerleader for the Cowboys said. “It was very apparent, always there — there is always somebody else who can do this job. We never talked about these things, never questioned them.”
The attitudes of some teams were laid out in the handbooks, which further squelched complaints. Those cheering for the Cincinnati Bengals, for example, were warned sternly about insubordination, with bold, capitalized letters and underlines.
“Insubordination to even the slightest degree IS ABSOLUTELY NOT TOLERATED!!! You will be benched or dismissed!!!” said the handbook, which was submitted as part of a 2014 lawsuit. (A spokesman for the Bengals said that language was no longer in the handbook.)
“That is really shocking language,” said Joanna L. Grossman, a law professor at Southern Methodist University. “For the handbook to say you can’t question anyone in authority is to say, ‘Shut up and do as you’re told.’ You’re telling them, in essence, don’t bother complaining, because you may get fired.”
‘LIKE CALLING FOR AN ESCORT’
Cheerleaders are sent to hospitals, birthday parties, bar mitzvahs, office parties and supermarkets to help promote their teams. Often, they are sent without security.
A former cheerleader for the Washington Redskins recalled one especially unusual assignment.
Several years ago, she said, she and five teammates were told to drive to an address the Redskins had given them. To their surprise, it was not a business — it was a house. Inside, there was no party, no charity event, or even a large gathering of people. There were seven men in their 40s who quickly sized up the cheerleaders.
“OK, who’s single and who’s married?” said the homeowner, according to the former cheerleader.
The men were drinking and asked the women to join in, but they declined. Then the women did a two-minute dance for the men in the basement and spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the house or having awkward conversations with the men while they were watching an NFL game on TV.
“It was sketchy because we were in some dude’s house, some random house, and it was physically uncomfortable to be there,” the cheerleader said.
The way this cheerleader saw it, it was unfair that the team was making money off of its cheerleaders who were paid so little. Someone just had to call the team and the managers would ask, “How many girls do you want for how many hours?” and “Do you want the girls to dance, or not?”
“It’s literally like you’re calling for an escort,” the cheerleader said, recalling that she was paid $100 for a promotional event, while the team would charge $1,200 per cheerleader.
“It’s not like somebody grabbed my boobs, and nobody told me, ‘Have sex with me right now.’ It’s a lot more nuanced,” the former Redskins cheerleader said. “It’s like every other abuse dynamic. You don’t feel like you have the liberty to say, I’d prefer not to do this. In turn, you’re treated poorly and are paid hardly anything and are ragged on in rehearsal for not wearing the right lipstick. The whole thing is so messed up.”
In an email statement, a spokesman for the Redskins said: “The safety and security of all of our employees, including our cheerleaders, is now and has always been a top priority for our organization.
“We are unaware of any reports of any promotional appearances that made Redskins cheerleaders uncomfortable. We take such reports very seriously and will continue to take all steps necessary to ensure the safety and security of our cheerleaders.”
UNCOMFORTABLE FAN INTERACTIONS
For many cheerleaders, intoxicated fans at games create the most objectionable situations.
Bailey Davis, a former cheerleader for the New Orleans Saints, sparked the recent reckoning in cheerleading when she filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that enforces civil rights laws, over her treatment by the Saints.
“They tell us that we’re celebrities and to present ourselves well, but then they throw us out there with these drunk fans,” she said.
She added: “You have to take pictures with anyone who asks. You can’t refuse a picture with anyone. If there’s a sloppy drunk who you know just wants to put his hands on you, you just have to deal with it and do it.”
Like others, she became accustomed to nasty comments and unsolicited touches.
Sara Blackwell, a lawyer representing Davis in her discrimination case against the Saints, agreed that teams and leagues might argue that women did not complain. “The response would be that you bullied them into not complaining,” Blackwell said.
In response to Davis’ claims, the Saints said in an email statement: “The Saints organization does not tolerate harassment of any kind. The Saints want all of its employees to be treated with dignity and respect by not only their co-workers, but also by the fans. Davis is correct that the Saints want their employees to be good ambassadors for the organization and the community.
“At no time during the 8 months that Ms. Davis worked for the Saints did she ever report that she believed she had been harassed by anyone.”
Many cheerleaders, including one who recently worked for the Cleveland Cavaliers, said that most fans were respectful and that uncomfortable situations just came with the territory.
The Cavs cheerleaders, known as the Cavalier Girls, had security guards with them when they were posted at entrances to the arena, where they posed for photos or signed autographs. The Cavs cheerleader said there were times when male fans would put their arms around her waist and, because she was wearing a two-piece, would touch her bare skin. She would cringe a bit, even more so when some fans would give her waist a squeeze, she said, but she never felt threatened.
“I remember getting my butt grabbed by a 12-year-old who should’ve been kicked out of the game,” she said. “For whatever reason, fans think they own you.
“I was 19 and was just a baby,” she added, saying she was most upset with what she considered management’s disrespectful and substandard treatment of the Cavs Girls. “If I had more world experience, there’s no way I would’ve put up with all that. Now that I’m working in a professional environment, I realize that the way we were treated there was absolutely illegal.”
In an email statement, the Cavaliers said: “All of our game entertainment team members should be able to perform and engage with our fans without enduring harassment of any kind or inappropriate interaction or contact. We take that very seriously, have training elements and procedures in place to support their well-being when interacting with fans and will always strive to maintain a positive and secure environment for them.”
A spokesman for the NBA said, “Team dancers are valued members of the NBA family and, as for all employees, we work with our teams to ensure they’re provided safe, respectful and welcoming workplaces.”
Lacy Thibodeaux, who cheered for the Oakland Raiders from 2013 to ‘14, said the cheerleaders were taught to hold their pompoms in a way that would block fans from touching their bare waists or if fans’ hands “got too close to our butts” during photos. The cheerleaders were empowered to walk away from a situation in which they felt that fans were going too far.
“If someone got too handsy, we could just turn around and leave,” she said. “But we still had to be gracious and say, ‘Thank you very much.’”