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Very Real

Cheerleaders Open Up About Sexual Harassment On The Job

Harassment and groping are an unfortunate part of the job, some cheerleaders say. 

By Sharon Lynn Pruitt

(Photo: Cheerleaders of the Tennessee Titans perform during a game against the Oakland Raiders at Nissan Stadium on September 10, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. By Wesley Hitt/Getty Images.)

Being a cheerleader isn’t easy.

In a new report from The New York Times, professional cheerleaders from the NFL, NBA, and NHL spoke about sexual harassment, revealing that they often have to work events where they are groped and harassed by fans. While team officials are aware of the situation, cheerleaders say, they do little to actually stop it.

“When you have on a push-up bra and a fringed skirt, it can sometimes, unfortunately, feel like it comes with the territory,” said former Tennessee Titans cheerleader Labriah Lee Holt about fan behavior. “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.”

The Buffalo Jills’ 2014 lawsuit revealed the sexism professional cheerleaders face, like having to sit on strangers’ laps while working events for free, Mother Jones reports. Despite this lawsuit, it doesn’t look like much has changed. Cheerleaders sometimes travel in small groups to feel safer at tailgating events, according to The New York Times.

One “longtime cheerleader for the Dallas Cowboys,” who requested anonymity because of a nondisclosure agreement, recalled, “We were walking by, waving and smiling, and one guy caught my eye. He looked at me and said, ‘I hope you get raped!’” The anonymous cheerleader said that harassment just comes with the territory. “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.”

An NFL spokesman said in a statement, “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.”

After a number of NBA cheerleaders have reported similar treatment, an NBA spokesperson told The Times that "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.”

Some teams have addressed the problem in training given to cheerleaders, but in some cases, cheerleaders claim to have been instructed to “never be mean,” even when dealing with disrespectful fans.

Bailey Davis, the former New Orleans Saints cheerleader who filed a discrimination complaint last month, also recalled dealing with drunk fans, commenting, “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.”

Routine sexual harassment is one of many hard pills professional cheerleaders have been forced to swallow. As a Saintsations dancer, Davis was reportedly paid $10.25 an hour — only $3 more than minimum wage in Louisiana.

In an email statement to The Times, the Saints addressed sexual harassment claims, and Davis’ comments in particular, writing, “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. Ms. 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 Ms. Davis worked for the Saints did she ever report that she had been harassed by anyone,” they added.