By Wendy Widom
CHICAGO (CBS) — This season, in every roaring football stadium around the United States, athletes will be thinking about Ray Rice and how he knocked his then-fiancé (now wife), Janay Palmer, unconscious in an Atlantic City hotel elevator. The difference is that the athletes in the center of the field, the football players, will be making millions (or close to millions) of dollars. The athletes who stay mostly on the sidelines, the NFL cheerleaders, will do so as they earn less than minimum wage.
Cheerleading is a job. As part of this job, NFL cheerleaders endure grueling workouts, time-consuming rehearsals, demanding game-time performances, expensive personal maintenance visits and extensive travel. Many starve themselves to fit into society's alarming standard of skinny and submit themselves to demeaning requirements such as how to manage their pubic hair. In 2013, Ray Rice's former team, the Baltimore Ravens, benched a woman who had a "rough year" because she gained 1.8 pounds. 1.8 pounds.
Our society seems to have a massive blind spot when it comes to appropriate compensation for NFL cheerleaders. In a world where we want clear distinctions between right and wrong, cheerleaders challenge our perceptions of what women, especially women who dress up in skimpy outfits, deserve. Popular arguments against giving these athletes a fair wage include: it's their hobby, it's their choice to cheer, they are getting exposure, if they don't like it someone else will happily take their place, and their role isn't that critical anyway.
The response to these arguments should be disgust and bewilderment. This weekend, the New York Times published a story about a 13-year-old girl slaving away in a tobacco field in order to feed her family and advance in life. Let's break it down. The girl is getting 'exposure' by building a work history showing how industrious and reliable she is. If she leaves, sadly, many others would be eager to take her place. You could even argue that it's her choice.
Does that comparison make you uncomfortable? It should. But I will give you another one. A person who loves the law becomes an attorney. He spends a decent portion of his week doing lawyerly work for Facebook, a company making billions, a company anyone would want to work for. Could Facebook hire someone who will do it for almost no charge? Yes. Should they? No. The bottom line is that when a person works, a person deserves to be fairly compensated.
To believe that cheerleaders should be paid a pittance while owners, coaches and players rake in billions of dollars is to support a culture where women are seen as nothing more than adornments or pretty props for men. This way of thinking is dangerous. When we dehumanize and devalue cheerleaders, we send a message to players that women are worthless and have no voice. It sends a message that women will follow a man around and cheer their hearts out for him and in response he can do whatever he wants with her.
If the NFL is serious about a cultural transformation, one that actually reduces the alarmingly high rate of domestic violence in professional football, it's time to pay its female athletes a fair wage. Anything else is inexcusable and unacceptable.
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