Why are cheerleaders still being harassed and fat-shamed by the NFL?

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Megan Murray
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The NFL has come under fire yet again for its treatment of female employees, after five former Houston Texans cheerleaders announced they’re suing the American football league. 

Five women have shed light on the dark reality of life as a professional cheerleader, after announcing that they are suing the Houston Texans for alleged harassment and substandard payment.

The women, who are all former cheerleaders for the Houston Texans football team, are being represented by lawyer Gloria Allred. At a recent press conference, they spoke out about the degrading and damaging practices of their former coaches, which included fat-shaming and derogatory comments about their ethnicity.

According to BBC News, the women described particularly disturbing interactions with their coaches, including an incident which involved a cheerleader’s skin being duct-taped down to show the rest of her squad how the coach would have preferred her body to look. Another cheerleader, of Hispanic heritage, said she was told to straighten her hair, and threatened with replacement if she didn’t.

Cheerleaders are often seen as an iconic part of American culture. The very high beauty standards associated with the sport can make it seem like an exclusive and aspirational club, an image depicted frequently in films and TV series.

However, being a professional cheerleader requires much more than the ability to live up to a certain aesthetic standard. Not only are cheerleaders responsible for maintaining the spirits of a sports team and their fans, they are also skilled, powerful athletes in their own right.

Allred highlighted the gulf between the cheerleading ideal and the reality of the women’s lives, saying: “These women all had the same dream: they all aspired to be an integral part of the Houston Texans. And they looked forward to promoting the team.

“But their dreams were shattered by the reality of their lives as Houston Texans cheerleaders.”

The five former Houston Texans cheerleaders with women’s rights lawyer Gloria Allred

The lawsuit filed by the women reflects the unfair and sexist treatment they were allegedly subjected to, stating: “While their beauty and cheers provided ample entertainment for fans, the Houston Texans cheerleaders were never treated like the integral part of the team that they are.”

Money CNN reports that Allred added that the women were “harassed, intimidated and forced to live in fear,” explaining that the squad was threatened not to speak out about their treatment as well as exploited financially by being asked to promote the team through social media and make public appearances for no payment. This is also highlighted in the lawsuit, which references the extremely low wage the women were paid, which Allred believes was because of their gender.

“Our clients have one thing in common in addition to their evident talent and ability,” said Allred. “They are all women, and I believe that they are being targeted and discriminated against because of their gender.”

Former cheerleader Ainsle Parish described her time on the squad, saying: “We were harassed, we were bullied and we were body-shamed for $7.25 [£5.40] an hour.”

The cheerleaders were also allegedly instructed not to talk to any Houston Texans players and banned from interacting with them on social media – and, in what sounds like a storyline from The Handmaid’s Tale, were forced to leave any bar or restaurant if a player walked in.

Allred called on the male football players to provide more support for cheerleaders, urging them to “stand up for your co-workers”.

“Do not stand silently by while these women who dance and work so hard to build enthusiasm and help you win are paid almost nothing while you earn millions of dollars for your efforts,” she said. 

Houston Texans cheerleaders performing at a game in December 2017

Making it crystal clear that they mean business, Parish compared herself and her former squad members to warriors, saying: “The Houston Texans should not have given us a uniform if they did not want us to become an army.”

This isn’t the first time the Houston Texans have been accused of mistreating their employees. Earlier this year, The New York Times reported that a former cheerleader known only as “PGG” had accused the team’s cheerleading director of not paying cheerleaders properly, verbally harassing them and failing to safeguard them from abusive fans. 

“They’d expect us to work no more than 30 hours a week, but then they’d expect us to respond to Twitter messages at 12:30 in the morning,” said the plaintiff, who was a Houston Texan cheerleader in 2017. “I’ll repeat what Coach Alto said to us: ‘Ladies, this is a part-time job with full-time hours.’”

In response to the most recent allegations against them, the Houston Texans issued a similar statement to the one used in response to PGG’s claims.

“We are proud of the cheerleader program and have had hundreds of women participate and enjoy their experience while making a positive impact in the local community,” the team said. “We are constantly evaluating our procedures and will continue to make adjustments as needed to make the program enjoyable for everyone.”

Images: Getty