There are two stories currently unfolding concerning women in sport and it’s difficult to believe that they’re happening in the same century, never mind the same year. One is in the world’s greatest democracy while the other concerns an event that many feel is anachronistic and irrelevent.
In America, the land of the free (with exceptions), Bailey Davis, pictured below, was a cheerleader for the New Orleans Saints for three years. But she was recently sacked for breaking two rules. One offence was posting a picture of herself in a revealing outfit on her Instagram account. The other was attending a party at which Saints players were present – something she denies, while also pointing out, in relation to the other charge, that, in accordance with another team rule, her Instagram account is private.
She has now filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on the grounds that her ex-employer is guilty of discrimination since they have different rules for players and cheerleaders, which by implication means for men and women, since all the players are men and all the cheerleaders are women.
The New York Times reported on the 22-year-old’s case at the end of March and to say that it has opened a can of worms really fails to do justice to either the can or the worms. In particular, the fallout has helped shine a light on the rules to which cheerleaders must adhere.
In the New Orleans Saints’ cheerleaders’ handbook – as has become clear, the Saints are not a unique case – there is a strict anti-fraternisation policy: there must be no contact at all between players and cheerleaders. The rule applies not only to real life, but also online. If players follow them on social media, cheerleaders must block them, even if the player uses a pseudonym. But the onus is entirely on the cheerleaders. There are no penalties for players who follow, or try to contact, cheerleaders.
Cheerleaders are not allowed to dine in the same restaurant as players, or speak to them. So if a cheerleader enters a restaurant and sees a player there she must immediately leave. Not only that, but if a cheerleader is in a restaurant and a player then enters, she must leave. They are also prohibited from posting any pictures of themselves in team clothing.
The New York Times got their hands on cheerleader handbooks issued by other NFL teams and reported some of the nuggets contained therein.
They include hygiene tips, with shaving techniques and rules about the proper use of tampons, as well as regulations on weight, restrictions on nail polish and jewellery, and guidelines on social media use and who cheerleaders are permitted to socialise with, and date.
And how about this from the San Francisco Gold Rush handbook: cheerleaders should “turn off your GPS applications on your cellphone that will indicate where you are at any given time” – presumably to make it harder for players to hunt them down.
Posing in bikinis for glossy calendars is part of the job description – and although they wouldn’t be allowed to post such pictures of themselves online, they are expected to sell the calendars. Saintsations, as the Saints’ cheerleaders are known, had to flog a minimum of 20, wandering the stands until they were all gone.
“You walk by a guy and you’re afraid you’re going to get touched,” Davis, who was paid $10.25 an hour as a cheerleader, told the New York Times.
“Every girl dreads going out there before the games. We didn’t feel very important because we were literally thrown into the mix with the fans. Who would throw professional cheerleaders, walking around with cash, out with drunk fans?”
Not all NFL teams have cheerleaders: the Chicago Bears, Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers do not. The way things are going, with lots more cheerleaders emerging to share their stories of discrimination, exploitation and worse, other teams might follow.
Perhaps cheerleaders will go the same way as Formula One’s grid girls and darts’ walk-on girls. “We feel this custom does not resonate with our brand values and clearly is at odds with modern-day societal norms,” said Sean Bratches of the F1 commercial department, confirming the end of grid girls. On the other hand, Barry Hearn, chairman of the Professional Darts Corporation, said: “The PC brigade, the liberal brigade are out in force. It’s causing changes everywhere we look and it’s probably going to get worse.”
Clearly there are pockets of resistance. Cycling is one. It has been reported that the Tour de France will not have podium girls, though the organisers have not confirmed this, and podium girls remain at most races. The Giro d’Italia, which starts in three weeks, has no intention of getting rid of theirs. The removal of podium girls is “a temporary trend,” said Mauro Vegni, the race director.
Meanwhile, the Commonwealth Games, an anachronism as far as many are concerned, involving countries that, as Tom Daley pointed out on Friday, are not exactly progressive, is setting a positive example in one respect. The Gold Coast games are the first international multi-sports games with gender parity: 133 women’s events and 133 men’s events (at the Rio Olympics there were 161 men’s events, 145 women’s). On the coaching side there is a serious imbalance but gender equality is something the Commonwealth Games seem serious about, launching internships for female coaches and boasting of more female technical officials across all sports.
They might appear to be separate issues, one concerning women who compete, the other concerning women whose function at sports occasions is completely different. But they seem to me to be tied together. It cannot help women who compete that in some sports the most visible women are there for decoration.
Last year, when podium girls were in the news after a Belgian rider joked that he took condoms to the Tour de France because “you never know where the podium girls are hanging out,” I asked Ashleigh Moolman Pasio, the South African rider, what she thought. “As long as men’s cycling events have podium girls it gives me the feeling that that’s what they think of us,” she said. “That we’re there to make men look good, and that they don’t take us seriously.”