A few weeks ago Rod Wood, President and CEO of the Lions, announced that the team would be adding a cheerleading squad for its 2016 season. Bummer. In an interview with Lions journalist Tori Petry he repeated in several instances that the decision was based on fan outreach, what they thought, and what they wanted. My understanding is that current ascendant/badass owner Martha Ford was not in favor of including cheerleaders in the Ford Field experience, but Wood explained that she consented once the overwhelming data suggested that this is what the public desired.
I’m very opposed to cheerleaders in the NFL, though I’m the first to admit that my opinions are more based on personal preference and capriciousness than anything else. It comes down to two factors: the concrete reality of commerce and the more immaterial realms of community and equality. I think by now every serious major-league sports fan has heard some awful story in which the women of a cheerleading team have complained of lousy pay at best, and revoltingly sexist working conditions at the worst.
I’m not totally opposed to cheerleading outright. I moved to Los Angeles because my wife got a job at one of those fancy private high schools where movie stars send their kids. An added benefit of her gig was that I got to attend a few of the school’s football games over the last two seasons. In addition to the boys on the field there were the cheerleaders doing their routines in front of us. Having had little experience with high school football or cheerleading in my youth (hockey and lacrosse were the sports of choice in my neck of the woods, and most of the players, including myself, were involved in leagues outside of school), I was delighted. The bulletproof wholesomeness of the whole thing was heart melting, and the girls on the sidelines really did a great job of pumping us all up. As a jaded, cigarette-smoking, wannabe-intellectual teen I would’ve been embarrassed to be caught anywhere near a varsity cheerleader, but as a sentimental adult I now have a hard time finding fault with it at the high school level. If I had a daughter who really wanted to do it, I’d support her.
College is another beast altogether. I went to see a USC Trojans game and the cheerleading experience was something completely different from watching the sweet “aw shucks” innocence of gawky teens. A total one-eighty from the family-friendly high school experience, this display was awash in hormones, and drenched in grodie-to-the-max sex. And it makes sense. Of course all the excitement and spectacle of college ball integrally involves a sweaty mob of horned-up coeds egged on by booze and newfound freedom. The provocative nature of the show fit the tone and milieu of the stadium perfectly, and these young women were clearly engaged in the event, and more importantly, they were fully integrated members within a community. Look, there’s no way I’m going to say I thought it was fully empowering to the ladies, or that it was a righteously feminist performance, but it certainly didn’t feel exploitative or misogynist either. Frankly, it was a lot of fun.
Which brings us to the NFL. With the notable exception of the Dallas Cowboys, who have successfully engineered their cheerleading program to an elevated level of cultural importance, I’ve always seen pro-football cheerleading as inconsequential to the game and experience. If you’re not the ‘Boys the entertainment factor of cheerleaders in the big show is on the same level as the premium concessions, T-shirt cannons, and in-stadium advertising. It’s depressing to see these grown women decked out in cheesy costumes and garish makeup doing routines during commercial breaks for a mostly uninterested audience. This is no knock on the women who do it. I’m sure it’s a fun gig, but the societal inequality of the whole shebang is so starkly visible when you know that in a league awash in big bucks that the cumulative contracts of all the cheerleaders are probably less than that of the designated long-snapper. There’s no money in high school or college cheerleading, but there always will be in professional sports. I don’t think I’ll ever be comfortable with such financial disparity based on sex, especially when I “as a fan” supposedly have some say in it.
When I took to Facebook to express my displeasure about the Lions adding this element to the franchise (“by the will of the fans!” as Rod Wood declares ad nauseam) I think a pal of mine said it best. To paraphrase: It’s fine and dandy for NFL teams to have cheerleaders (as long as they’re fairly compensated, of course), but ultimately what we should really be doing instead of putting women on the sidelines, is putting more emphasis on women’s sports in general.