"Brand Ambassadors": Cheerleaders, Gendered Labor, and Institutional Crisis in the NFL

Curator's Note

NFL cheerleaders occupy a paradoxical position within one of sport’s most powerful and profitable ecosystems. They are constantly reminded of their expendability, yet they are also constructed as crucial to the brand of their individual teams as well as to the league itself. Once deemed “atmosphere producers” by former Cowboys president and manager Tex Schramm, cheerleaders became a ubiquitous and gendered sideline staple under commissioner Pete Rozelle, who transformed professional football into a televised spectacle that would eventually command billions of dollars for broadcasting rights.

If the NFL cultivated its brand as the ultimate purveyor of violent masculinity, representations of cheerleaders made the role of women in this project abundantly clear. The counterpart to the aggressive physicality of men on the gridiron was the peppy support and enthusiasm of women symbolically severed from the field of play; depictions of masculine virility were thus aligned with images of docile and sexualized women. Obscured and disavowed by these purportedly natural stratifications are the cheerleaders’ diverse subjectivities and lived-in experiences as fans, athletes, and employees.

The slippages among these identities, and their relative value in a toxic organizational culture, have resulted in a slew of lawsuits, testimonies, and exposés revealing the harassment, exploitation, and abuse that cheerleaders often face as part of the job. Accounts such as those detailed in the video point to the complex body politics that shape the everyday realities of woefully underpaid women who are expected to fraternize with fans and sponsors with minimal security or recourse if they are mistreated. In true neoliberal fashion, the onus often falls on the cheerleaders to protect themselves from such predatory behaviors.

All of this comes at a time of crisis for the NFL and its relationship with female fans, family members, and labor. Embroiled in other gendered controversies involving domestic violence and concussions, the league’s charitable endeavors and social responsibility campaigns appear increasingly hollow. As an institution that deliberately leaves the management and operations of cheerleaders to individual teams, the NFL seems reluctant to heed the call for systemic, institutional changes when it comes to its most degraded and silenced workers.


Thanks for highlighting this critical example of objectification and exploitation. I was struck in the testimony of the clip (and your analysis) by the crucial way that the issue is framed as very much a labor question: the pressures of the reserve army place a structural demand on NFL cheerleaders to succumb to the hyperexploitation of what amounts to sexual violence. This theme resonates with my research into the experiences of athletic laborers -- players -- who are expected to sacrifice their bodies in different ways (i.e. through injury, concussions, etc.) for similar reasons. Of course, there is little question that the working conditions and compensation for NFL cheerleaders are in many ways more brutal than for their helmeted co-workers. Yet, it seems to me that there is tremendous value in suturing the "symbolically severed" divide between players and cheerleaders in order to build solidarity between the two groups as colleagues in the production of commodity spectacle. 

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