The NFL’s Treatment of Cheerleaders Epitomizes America’s Victim-Blaming Culture
America has a real problem with women. One might’ve believed things would be different by now — that is, right up until we chose a president whose behavior toward women alone should have disqualified him from office.
And so here we are. And since it’s another day in America, we’re beginning to hear from another demographic who’s had to put up with unnecessarily unfair, sexist and even authoritarian treatment for longer than anybody thought possible — NFL cheerleaders.
dreamed of being a “Saintsation” — a cheerleader for the New Orleans Saints — since she was a teenager. But the Saints fired her in January 2018 for posting a photo of herself in a bodysuit on a private social media account. The Saints alleged that Davis had violated a clause in their code of conduct, which forbids cheerleaders from appearing nude or in “revealing outfits.”
The reasons behind the rules in the code of conduct are where this story takes its worst turn.
How the NFL ‘Protects’ Its Players from Women
NPR asked what the firing meant to Davis. Her answer made it clear this has been a point of frustration for her for a while:
“The players have the freedom to post whatever they want. They can promote themselves, but we can’t post anything […] about being a Saintsation. We can’t use our last name for media. We can’t promote ourselves. […] If I post something, and I’m in a swimsuit or a body suit, it’s seen as something sexual, but the players can post shirtless in their underwear, and it’s just seen as ‘athletic.'”
The gender bias here couldn’t be more obvious. And, regrettably, this isn’t as far as the NFL’s creepy, patriarchal hold over these women’s public and private lives goes.
NFL cheerleaders must also leave the room if a player happens to arrive at a restaurant or a party where the cheerleader is already present. This is just a hop and a skip away from the instructions in the book of Leviticus, which instructs women to bring turtledoves and pigeons to their local priest to apologize for menstruating. In that story, too, women are forced to limit their exposure to the public due to factors beyond their control — mainly, being women.
NFL cheerleaders must leave the room if an NFL player happens to arrive at a restaurant or a party where the cheerleader is already present.
So who is the NFL protecting with this code of conduct? They’re explicit on that point. Saints management says it’s to prevent NFL players from taking advantage of these women. There are many questions here, but the first is this: Who are all these undisciplined, puerile little children the NFL keeps hiring to play catch with one another?
Where Do We Even Start?
There are so many problems with this logic it’s hard to know where to start. To begin with, just because a specific action an organization takes “makes sense” according to the internal logic of that organization does not mean it’s lawful or in good taste.
To that end, Bailey Davis has lodged a formal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She alleges both the Saints and the NFL actively practice workplace discrimination. One would expect — given the “climate” surrounding women’s right issues today, such as campus and workplace sexual harassment, rape, pay equity and the panoply of other battles women must still fight — that Davis would have received open arms and public support from her teammates. But that hasn’t been the case.
Quite unlike the Harvey Weinstein saga, which turned into a snowball rolling down a hill, Davis’ story has only earned her scorn from her teammates:
“[They] have not been supportive to me. I’ve been told that I’m putting the team in a negative light, and a lot of the girls have been posting stuff on social media, saying that, you know, the organization is great […] We’re told so many times, ‘There’s a hundred other girls that would do your job for free.’ You’re taught to keep your mouth shut, or they’d replace you.”
Doesn’t this chill you to your core? Here’s the National Football League — which already resembles a parasite in the way it descends upon towns and cities and steals from their coffers — “teaching” women to ignore casual discrimination in the name of job security.
All of this brings up uncomfortable parallels with victim blaming and rape culture in America, and our tendency to believe that the victim had it coming, or else should’ve kept from rocking the boat.
The most significant issue with America’s sexism and rape problem is that we can’t seem to agree there even is one. Conservative male politicians regularly come up with manifestly evil explanations for rape — including that it’s a “gift from Almighty God” because it may result in a new life.
And what chance do America’s young people have — some of whom get together in groups to laugh about rape as it happens — when our “role models” are busier querying their God about it than they are coming up with practical ways to stop some of this from happening in the first place?
We are not powerless to reverse America’s reputation as indifferent to hundreds of kinds of suffering. We have the means to begin teaching pro-social behavior in a structured way — but we have to want it. We can start with getting rid of sexist impulses like blaming rape victims for being ‘dressed too provocatively’, or telling women who complain about pay inequity to simply ‘work harder’.
Rape culture is not unique to America, but America might be unique when it comes to the massive gap between its rhetoric and its actual behavior. When we’re not pretending problems don’t exist, we’re blaming the victims for bringing their hardships on themselves. It’s little wonder the other nations of the world are beginning to look elsewhere for quality moral leadership.