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The Insidious Power of ‘A Hundred Girls Would Do This Job for Free’

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The recent NFL cheerleader controversy is just the latest in a long line of systems that keep women down.

Photo: Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

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In January, New Orleans Saints cheerleader Bailey Davis was fired. Her crime? Posting a private Instagram photo of herself wearing a lace bodysuit.

The ensuing controversy in the months since has raised questions about the strict and often arcane rules for NFL cheerleaders — rules that officials say are in place to prevent women from being preyed on by players, but that players themselves do not have to follow. However, in an interview with NPR yesterday, Davis revealed that despite a piece in the New York Times and a segment on Megyn Kelly Today highlighting her case, her teammates haven’t been so supportive.

“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 and offers so many opportunities — which is true, and I mean, I [felt] the same way when I was in the organization,” Davis explained.

“We’re told so many times, ‘There’s a hundred other girls that would do your job for free.’ You’re just taught to keep your mouth shut or they’d replace you. So I think when you’re in the organization, you don’t realize that there’s nothing okay about this.”

While it’s unfortunate that Davis’s fellow Saintsations aren’t sticking up for her, it’s not entirely surprising. The sentiment of “there’s a hundred other girls that would do this job for free” permeates not only professional cheerleading but so many women-dominated industries that systematically undervalue and mistreat their workers. The film industry, for example, has only recently had to contend with its decades of sexism and sexual assault due to the outpouring of allegations against a growing number of harassers, as has the restaurant industry.

For context, Davis was fired after three seasons as a Saintsation for said Instagram post (pictured), which officials say violated the rule prohibiting cheerleaders from appearing nude, seminude, or in lingerie. She then filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for workplace discrimination, accusing the Saints of having a vastly different set of rules for its male players and its female cheerleaders.

These rules include requiring cheerleaders to meticulously avoid online and IRL contact with players (for example, they must block all NFL players on social media, and if one shows up at a restaurant or party they are at, they have to leave), yet players are not barred from contacting a cheerleader. The cheerleaders are also extensively monitored on social media and have tight restrictions on what they can and cannot post, how they dress, and whom they socialize with.

In her NPR interview, Davis noted, “If I post something, and I’m in a swimsuit or in a bodysuit, it’s seen as something sexual, but the players can post shirtless in their underwear and it’s just seen as athletic.”

In addition to the double standards of the rulebook, another report by the Times revealed that cheerleaders across the NFL, NBA, and NHL are required to attend promotional events outside of games, where they’re often subjected to unwanted touches from fans and offensive sexual comments with little prevention from team officials.

One former Dallas Cowboy cheerleader recalled a moment in which an Eagles fan yelled, “I hope you get raped!” at her. “Even from our fans, once they get drunk, they yell things, and you’re like, ‘Really?’” she said. “It’s part of the job. It comes with it. You’re supposed to take it.”

To an outsider, it’s clear that professional sports have a widespread problem with the way they treat cheerleaders: The rules are glaringly discriminatory, and the view of women as the primary gatekeepers of preventing sexual harassment is archaic.

But when the women affected are told time and time again that there’s “a hundred girls that would do your job for free,” it’s a lot easier to accept that someone yelling “I hope you get raped” is just another day on the job. Several NFL players have been credibly accused of commiting domestic abuse and sexual assault, but cheerleaders, paid just above the hourly minimum wage, are fired for barely a whiff of sexual suggestion.

(Last week, a former Miami Dolphins cheerleader filed a lawsuit claiming discrimination after coming forward about being a virgin. The cheerleading director allegedly told her, “As far as we are concerned you have taken something that was once upon a time pure and beautiful and you’ve made it dirty.”)

All of Davis’s teammates likely have their own story to tell about why they aren’t publicly supporting her case. The problem, though, is that the glaring issues within the industry are being overlooked because cheerleaders are made to feel lucky to have landed the job. It’s still too much of a liability for them to speak out, and as long as these attitudes persist, the NFL is free to blame and punish its cheerleaders for anything it pleases.