As a glimpse into the dark side of NFL cheerleading, the recent Raiderettes lawsuit was revelatory, but it didn't quite capture the soup-to-nuts seediness of the enterprise. Thanks to a tipster—a former cheerleader—we've gotten our hands on a copy of the many rules and many regulations the 2009 Baltimore Ravens cheer squad was expected to follow. The rulebook, along with some extra information the tipster gave us, depicts cheerleading on this level as a scam exploiting the good looks and naiveté of young women—a Ponzi scheme in hot pants.
Let's start at the beginning. Every March, anywhere from 100 to 300 young women and men try out for one of the 30 or 40 available spots on the Ravens' stunt and dance teams. The girls range from dance specialists, experts at the physical aspects of cheer, to pretty faces more interested in the quasi-modeling parts of the job. Those who combine real talent with the right look—"big boobs, flat stomach, pretty face," per the former cheerleader—are ideal.
As part of the tryout process, prospective cheerleaders are weighed, with the figure serving as a baseline—at least for some. "If you deviate from the baseline, you can/will get benched, but only if you're a female," the tipster says in an email. "Males are hardly kept to any standard unless they personally care." It's all right there in the rulebook, which you can find at the bottom of this post.
Each cheerleader, male and female, is expected to maintain ideal body weight and physical look for the duration of your contract. Weigh-ins will be held at the discretion of the Ravens. a) Failure to comply with body weight and/or appearance guidelines could result in suspension from the team or gameday suspensions. b) 3 game misses due to physical appearance suspensions could result in dismissal from the team.
There is, our former cheerleader writes in an email, a blind focus on this baseline number, with almost no regard for health or even looks. One woman came into the season five pounds lighter than she was the previous year:
After coming in lighter, she put back some of the weight throughout the year. She was benched for multiple games even though she weighed less than she did the year before. Eventually she had the backbone to tell them she was fed up with it, and quit. Believe me when I tell you, she was no where near overweight.
Last year, a different Ravens cheerleader claimed she was benched during the regular season and left home for the Super Bowl because of "a little bit of a weight gain."
Weight isn't the only aspect of a cheerleader's appearance that's rigorously managed. As provided for in the rules, every year the women are given a hair and makeup assessment, in which their look for the season is determined. After that first session, the cheerleaders must continue to visit the same hair salon to maintain the prescribed style, paying for the service themselves. "We had a hair sponsorship with Robert Andrew Salon & Spa where you had to get your hair done," writes the cheerleader. "You get 50 percent, which I always thought was BS considering the Redskins cheerleaders use the same salon and get their hair done for free." Maintenance of hair and makeup can run upwards of $1,000 a season.
To help maintain the look they expect of their cheerleaders, the Ravens do provide a limited number of gym memberships, teeth whitenings, and tanning vouchers for the fairer-skinned squad members, who, the rules mandate, "must have a warm skin color tone for every gameday." (While the rulebook is from 2009, our tipster, who maintains contact with current cheerleaders, assures us that "not much has changed, if anything.")
These benefits are distributed primarily by seniority, though. If a new cheerleader doesn't get one, she will be expected to pay for the service herself.
Toned and fit, with unnaturally white teeth and orange skin, the women are flown in summer to an exotic locale for the annual swimsuit calendar shoot. There, they're gussied up and contorted into attractive poses, to be memorialized on the pages of the calendar and in the minds of the young boys who end up with them. (The men, who are welcome so long as they pay their own way, often attend, both for vacation time and to support teammates nervous about everything implied in a bikini shoot.)
Back in Baltimore, once the calendars are printed up and ready to go, all cheerleaders are required to purchase a certain number of issues. For women, that number is 100; for men, it's 20. After buying each issue for $12—installment plans are available for the women—the cheerleaders can then hustle them for $15 apiece, turning a $300 profit if they really work. It's the Mary Kay scheme, give or take a pink Cadillac.
This calendar, of course, isn't the only source of income. Similar to the Raiderette setup, the 2009 rules describe a system of payment for every home game performed: $100 for regular cheerleaders, $125 for the captains. With three-hour rehearsals held twice weekly and an eight-hour game-day shift, that works out to $7.14 per hour. (Possibly foreseeing a lawsuit like the one the Raiders are now facing, the Ravens have since switched over to a $7.75 minimum wage pay scale for all rehearsals and game-time action.)
For cheerleaders, the real money comes from appearances. It's still not all that great. If the appearance is for charity, the team will charge $175 per cheerleader per hour; otherwise, it's $300 per hour. Of that money, our tipster explains, each cheerleader takes home around $50 an hour. Sounds good, but in an average season, a cheerleader will make only 30 or so appearances, and many of those don't pay at all. For certain charity events, like those set up in the NFL's or the team's own name, cheerleaders are expected to attend without compensation, and rules require them to attend charity events at least twice monthly, depending on availability.
So you're stressing over keeping a somewhat arbitrary weight and, quite possibly, over expenses barely met, but that's just the start. "If you participate in any social networking sites, such as MySpace or Facebook," the rules and regs stipulate, "you are required to 'Friend Request' your director." Every cheerleader also has to turn over any email addresses associated with any social network profile. If a cheerleader finds another opportunity—modeling, say, or acting in a commercial—she must get permission for the appearance and sign an official release. Even securing approval to miss a practice is an elaborate exercise in bureaucracy: "Sufficient notice, permission and reason must be given in writing in triplicate copies to management prior to each excused miss."
Making all this more galling is the arbitrary enforcement of the rules. The tipster recalls some cheerleaders—often those who were closer friends with the director or coaches—missing practice in its entirety with no forewarning but never getting benched. Other women, even those trying to work around college exams or graduation, were meanwhile told that any absence would be unacceptable, while management skipped practices freely. The tipster recalls one cheerleader having to miss a modeling opportunity she had prepared for because the director wouldn't let her skip an offseason practice.
The cheerleader was extremely disappointed and crushed, but didn't [take the opportunity]. Then, when that practice came around, the director didn't even show up to practice herself. Then a couple weeks later, a big chunk of the team had to sell their tickets to the Jay-Z/Justin Timberlake concert at M&T Bank Stadium because they had practice that Thursday night. Two of the coaches and the trainer didn't make it to practice that night and posted pictures at the concert the next day.
For anyone fed up with constant pressure, scant pay for tons of work, and the requirement that you build your entire schedule around a seasonal part-time job, there's the omnipresent threat of being kicked off the team. "If you don't fall in line and suck it up," says the cheerleader, "there's someone else dumb enough that would replace you."
So why do people do it? Our tipster says that for all the stress, it's still basically a hobby, which in its odd way makes the conditions more tolerable. And there are undeniable benefits, like the status that goes with being one of the elite few associated with a brand as big as an NFL team, as well as the camaraderie. "This is how I made most of the friends I still have today," our tipster says.
Mostly, they do it for Sundays. "The gameday experience—that's what keeps people coming back," says the former cheerleader, who even now gets wistful thinking about those moments on the sideline before kickoff, watching players hype themselves up, looking down the tunnel and seeing Ray Lewis doing his trademark dance. There's nothing quite like it. It is a view of the nation's most popular game from right there on the field, and with a good team like the Ravens, there's even a chance of going to the Super Bowl, like last year. That must've been an exciting moment for the cheerleaders, especially after the 18-hour bus ride to New Orleans.
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Image by Jim Cooke. Ravens cheerleaders photo via Ultimate Cheerleader.