Behind the pom-poms: The life of a pro football cheerleader

There's more to cheerleading than pom-poms and skimpy outfits. The women who make up these teams have their eye on the prize, and it has little to do with football. CFL/THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Cheerleaders make for good stories. At once icons and relics, they’re adored by traditionalists and an easy target for feminists. One one hand, they’re seen as part and parcel of a larger culture that views football as a construct of conservatism and the good ol’ days. On the other, they’re viewed as little more than eye candy ready to serve (and submit to) the many powerful men who surround them.

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They’re excellent pop culture fodder, depicted as either beautiful and tragic victims of peer pressure or all-out mean girls. But one role they’ve never been cast in is self-possessed career woman.

“The biggest misconception is that cheerleaders just shake their pom-poms and have no talent,” says Alexandra Severyn, coordinator of the Felions, cheerleaders for the CFL’s BC Lions. “Half of the women on our team are students, but the other half is made up of professionals. Last season we had someone who was in broadcasting, another woman who has her own show on Shaw TV, a gymnastics coach and a lawyer.”

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A Toronto Argonauts cheerleader. CFL

It wouldn’t be wrong to draw parallels between cheerleaders and beauty queens. Both are held to a high aesthetic standard and judged primarily on that, but to make it in either world, they must also display the characteristics of a well-rounded role model.

“Part of the job of a cheerleader is to attend charity and corporate events,” says Patty Darrah, a former cheerleader for the New England Patriots and co-owner of Legacy Irish Dance Academy. “You have to walk in, shake hands with people and be able to have an educated conversation. With a major NFL team, they want the best of the best. Which means the best dancers but also the best representatives.”

The perks of the job include free clothes and subsidized beauty treatments, but for most of the women, it’s the performance aspect that clinches the deal.

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“The majority of us grew up dancing or doing sports, and this is an awesome way to have the best of both worlds,” Darrah says. “You get to perform in front of a huge audience of people and it’s amazing. Most of us will never be professional dancers on Broadway, so this is another option to continue performing.”

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Unfortunately, like a lot of other performers, many cheerleaders are underpaid — if they’re paid at all.

“This is not meant to replace a job,” says Jorie Brown, director of the Toronto Argonauts cheerleaders.

She wouldn’t answer directly when asked if the women on the squad were paid, but said: “There are opportunities for pay, but it’s something that women are doing along with a job or going to school.”

Severyn says that the Felions are paid “more than double minimum wage” and that it constitutes a legitimate second income for the women.

Members of the BC Felions. CFL

The issue of insufficient compensation has been big news south of the border since 2014. In separate class-action lawsuits, the Cincinnati Bengals, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New York Jets, Oakland Raiders and Buffalo Bills have been sued by their cheer squads for low wages.

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Because the NFL teams considered them independent contractors and not employees of their respective franchises, they were not obligated to uphold wage or workplace rights. In some cases, cheerleaders claimed they were making less than $5 an hour, were not compensated for attending events and were placed in uncomfortable situations by male employees at those events.

A Buffalo Bills cheerleader known only as Alyssa U., and who was on the squad from 2012-2013, spoke to the New York Post about the strict restrictions placed on them by the organization.

“They had a physique evaluation, which took place one week prior to the game. We had to stand in front of our coach in our uniform in rows of five as she stood before us with a clipboard and had us face forward as she reviewed our bodies,” she recounted. “We turned around, had her look at our backside, and then turn forward again and she had us do jumping jacks in front of her to see what parts of our bodies were jiggling.”

It’s easy to interpret this as an act of cruelty and imagine a dour-faced marm making demeaning comments about the girls’ thighs, but as Darrah points out, it’s all part of the gig.

Members of the Calgary Stampeders Outriders cheer in front of a packed stadium. CFL

“Just as players need to be strong and fast, you need to be in shape,” she says. “If you’re picked to be on a team and you’re a certain weight or shape, then suddenly you’re not, is that okay? You were hired to be physically fit and healthy. If you aren’t, then you haven’t done your job.”

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Despite the meagre pay and physical demands, however, hundreds of women still show up year after year to compete for 40 spots on a team that often gets more jeers from society than cheers. The question is: why?

“It’s a girls’ club,” Severyn says. “They’ve found their new best friends here, and they all have something in common like a love of dance. And they love the community appearances, charity events and just being out there cheering on the BC Lions.”

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They are also exposed to people and opportunities that they otherwise wouldn’t have access to, like the old boy’s club.

“There are always ways to network,” Brown says. “There are many doors girls can choose to go through after cheerleading other than dance.”

As far as extracurricular activities go, this one isn’t much different than an adult sports league. Women are expected to attend two-hour practices twice a week and be present all day on game day. The corporate appearances and charity events are always optional.

Add to that the free perks and opportunities for travel, and it’s no wonder the audition rooms are bursting with hopefuls year after year.

“The Patriots get more than 500 women who try out for the team every year, and they’re all good,” Darrah says. “A lot of people don’t realize that there’s a no fraternizing policy with the players, so it’s not about snagging a man. Their focus is on dancing, doing charity work and representing their best selves. It’s an honour to be part of an elite team.”


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