Pro Cheerleaders Say Groping and Sexual Harassment Are Part of the Job


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Cincinnati Bengals cheerleaders before a home game in September. N.F.L. cheerleaders say they do not speak up about sexual harassment because teams warn them that they will be dismissed if they complain.

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Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire, via Getty Images

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 N.F.L., but also representing the N.B.A. and the N.H.L. — 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 N.F.L. “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 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.

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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,” Ms. 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 N.F.L. declined to address cheerleaders’ specific claims. In a statement, a spokesman for the league said: “The N.F.L. and all N.F.L. member clubs support fair employment practices. Employees and associates of the N.F.L. 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.”

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