A Double Standard for the NFL?

The League Promotes its Cheerleaders While Proclaiming to Change its Image

By Jackie Wattles

The New England Patriots Cheerleaders perform during a mid-season matchup.

The New England Patriots Cheerleaders perform during a game. (Photo: hdwallpapersmart.com)

The white sideline boundaries at the University of Phoenix Stadium have been carefully painted, ready for all the fanfare of Super Bowl XLIX. In addition to the action on the field, the game will have all of its usual trimmings: beer commercials, rowdy fans, voluble commentators, and an NFL staple: cheerleaders.

In two-piece uniforms performing racy dance routines, the Sea Gals and Patriots cheerleaders who will line the field are proving to be a paradox.

Lighthearted entertainment is exactly what the league will be looking for on football’s biggest night after Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice buried the NFL in scandal last year. When a video showing Rice knocking his then-fiancé (now wife) unconscious in an Atlantic City elevator went viral, fans were outraged that the running back had originally only received a two-game suspension in what the league admitted was a “mishandling” of the incident.

In response, the league’s commissioner, Roger Goodell, announced a stricter personal conduct policy, and the NFL signed on as a co-sponsor of an anti-domestic violence and sexual assault campaign entitled “No More”. As a part of the campaign, the NFL has donated air time during games throughout the season to show public service announcements meant to raise awareness for domestic violence issues. On Super Bowl Sunday, a spot during the first quarter will be set aside to show a 30-second PSA for the campaign.

The message the league wants to send is one of no tolerance. In a letter Goodell wrote to NFL team owners last August saying he took responsibility for what he called unacceptable leniency in sanctioning Rice and announced his plans to strengthen the league’s policies.

“These steps are based on a clear, simple principle: domestic violence and sexual assault are wrong,” Goodell’s letter reads. “They are illegal.  They have no place in the NFL and are unacceptable in any way, under any circumstances.”

In the months after the Rice scandal broke, however, news of domestic violence among players continued to break. According to a database managed by USA Today that tracks arrests of NFL players, six other players were arrested on domestic violence charges since the beginning of 2014, and on January 14, 2015 Indianapolis Colts linebacker Josh McNary was arrested on charges of domestic violence and sexual assault. He has since denied the charges.

While the NFL’s public relations team continues its efforts to clean up the league’s image regarding violence against women, its marketing department does not refrain from capitalizing on the sex appeal of NFL cheerleaders. Each Wednesday, NFL.com features a new photo gallery of cheerleaders on its homepage.

Tomi-Ann Roberts, a professor of psychology at Colorado College, said the photographs are meant to do more than just document part of what goes on at an NFL game.

“It’s the same as when [companies] use a woman’s body to sell shoes or cologne. It’s a display,” Roberts said. “If all the messaging around football is about brute force on the part of men, and what is a highly-sexual performance of a stereotype of femininity on the sidelines, how can we be surprised that these players commit acts of violence against women?”

N.F.L. cheerleaders pose for a Pro Bowl photo shoot in Tempe, Arizona.

NFL cheerleaders pose for a Pro Bowl photo shoot in Tempe, Arizona in January. (Photo: Michael Yanow/NFL).

Ben Liebenberg, a photo editor at NFL.com who said he has worked with the company for more than eight years, said a team of about five people work to put the galleries together each week. Though he said women are involved in the process, he would not say how many or what decision-making capacity they had. NFL.com did not respond to email or phone requests for comment regarding the photo galleries and why they are still being used despite the league’s claims to be attempting to redefine the way it treats and views women.

Some of the women who wear NFL cheerleading uniforms, however, disagree with the idea that they are objectified. LisaMarie Ianuzzi, 25, will finish her third season cheering for the Patriots at the Super Bowl. Ianuzzi said she is proud to wear her uniform — not despite its revealing nature, but because of it.

“I feel like the uniform is empowering. We all work very hard to wear that uniform,” Ianuzzi said in a phone interview. “We feel beautiful. Besides the sex appeal and connotations behind that uniform, we work very hard to represent the organization and wear the Patriots’ logo. I’ve never felt objectified by our fans”

Ianuzzi added that her time as an NFL cheerleader has been the best experience of her life, and her coaches and coordinators have treated her and her teammates well.

Not all cheerleaders, however, have been so quick to praise their experience with the NFL In recent months, five separate teams have been sued by their cheer squads for providing low wages. The Raiderettes, the squad associated with the Oakland Raiders, made headlines in September last year when the Raiders paid $1.25 million to current and former cheerleaders after a class action lawsuit alleged the dancers’ annual salary  — at $1,250 — factored out to less than $5 per hour.

Another lawsuit, filed against the Buffalo Bills last April, alleged the cheerleaders were paid below minimum wage and faced steep pay cuts for violating a dress code that regulated everything from hair length and style to fingernail polish. The Buffalo Jills, as the squad was called, was disbanded before the 2014-2015 season.

Phil Urban, an associate at a law firm that represents the five plaintiffs in the Buffalo Jills case, said the case was still in the discovery process, but the attorneys were not hopeful that a settlement would be reached. “So far it doesn’t look like the Bills want to engage in settlement talks at this time, but we hope they do,” Urban said.

Alexa Brenneman, a former cheerleader for the Cincinnati Bengals, filed a lawsuit in February last year alleging she worked 300 hours for the Bengals during the 2013 season and was paid only $855. Brenneman also took to Twitter to condemn Goodell’s handling of the Ray Rice incident last September.

“I have no respect for Roger [Goodell],” Brenneman wrote in a Sept. 8, 2014 post. “The NFL seriously needs to reconsider the way they view and treat women.”

Karen Link, 24, is a first-year Patriots cheerleader. She agreed with her teammate in saying the the team treats their cheerleaders well.

“The Patriots are a standup organization, and we always are compensated very well for the work that we do,” Link said.

Cheerleaders for the New England Patriots, like most other NFL cheerleading squads, attend six or more hours of practice per week, make public appearances for the team, and pose in skin-bearing uniforms for a swimsuit calendar that is sold to the public. Both the Sea Gals — the dance team for the Seattle Seahawks — and the Patriots cheerleaders, sell calendars for $20 each on their websites.

The Patriots also have a section on their website called “Cheer 365,” where visitors can vote on the “hottest” of the team’s former or current cheerleaders. Below the ballot, as of midweek, a cheerleader from 2009 wearing a leopard-print string bikini was the leading vote-getter with 2,370. On the afternoon before the Super Bowl, access to “Cheer 365” had suddenly ended.

A screen grab of the New England Patriots' website shows Cheer 365, where users are meant to vote on the "hottest" of two cheerleaders.

A screen grab of the New England Patriots’ website shows Cheer 365, where users are meant to vote on the “hottest” of two cheerleaders.

Natalie Adams, a professor of education leadership at the University of Alabama, wrote a book titled “Cheerleader! An American Icon” that discusses what she calls the sexualization of cheerleading. She said the racy photographs that most NFL cheerleading squads pose for are the epitome of a dangerous trend.

“The introduction of cheerleaders to the NFL sexualized cheerleading in a way that it had not been before,” Adams said in an email. “The cheerleader calendars and catalogs perpetuate the image that women and their bodies are for the pleasure of men. They are an object for men, and their interests and concerns are secondary to that of the male who gazes upon them.”

Adams added that she believes the NFL’s involvement in the “No More” campaign is a good first step to changing that culture. “At least the NFL is acknowledging the powerful role models athletes are and that sports is a celebration of masculine power and how that power can translate in very harmful ways off the field,” Adams said. “But it is just a first step in a long, complicated process of helping men and women understand the insidious nature and pervasiveness of domestic abuse and sexual assault.”

Roberts of Colorado College also applauded the NFL’s efforts to address sexual and domestic violence issues, but she said the league’s continued portrayal of cheerleaders in calendars and online photo galleries “is pure hypocrisy” — and it is up to the league to make a change.

She said that although she believes the vast majority of cheerleaders think of themselves as more than objects, the hyper-masculine nature of football combined with provocative marketing of its cheerleaders inherently objectifies them.

“Culturally,” she said, “It’s a setup for that.”

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