“Mum, why are those women half-naked?” my eight-year-old daughter asked.
It was halftime at a rugby league match on Sydney’s northern beaches. Our entertainment was a group of underpaid, under-clothed and undervalued women, known as the Seabirds.
Clearly, they love what they do.
But the performance has no place in the modern game, especially when the code is bleeding money because parents are taking their kids elsewhere.
The message it sends is this: If you’re a girl, the best you can hope for is to dance on the sidelines, away from the main game.
It’s this sense of exploitation that’s behind several lawsuits in the United States.
“NFL teams stepped easily into the creepy patriarch role,” Amanda Hess wrote earlier this year on Slate.
The cheerleaders there experience ritual humiliations, including:
- a jumping jiggle test, to make sure their thighs aren’t wobbling
- fines for minor infractions, such as “gaining five pounds”
- taunts about the size of their breasts and shade of their tans
- being auctioned off at golf tournaments, while sitting on players’ laps
- acting as targets in wet t-shirt dunking tanks
“I love cheering on a football team,” one plaintiff, Caitlin Y, said. “I just want us to be compensated legally, and treated with respect.”
A fortnight ago, the Oakland Raiders agreed to pay US$1.25 million to settle a class action brought by the Raiderettes, who alleged they were underpaid, in violation of California labour law.
Cheerleader Lacy T said the team had only paid them $1,250 for the season (between US$50 and US$150 a game) and withheld wages until the end.
Now, they’ll be paid the minimum wage of $9 per hour.
Nothing to wave pom poms about, is it?
The cheer squad for the Buffalo Bills has subsequently taken possession of the ball, suspending operations for the season amid court claims of “wage theft”.
It makes me wonder: How long before we see a similar suit in Australia?
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one rugby league cheerleader said she got $150 per game, despite training as a dancer, acrobat and gymnast.
“It really annoy me that we don’t get anything for doing the extras: charity events, sponsorship appearances, handing out flyers, and all that,” she said.
“And, you know, they could make a lot of money out of merchandising more stuff for women who come to the games, but they don’t care. It’s all about the blokes.”
There are signs the game’s administrators are trying to tackle the issue.
In May, more than 130 women took part in the NRL’s inaugural leadership workshop series, to invest in the “fastest growing area of influence in the game”.
“We know what a significant influence women are having on our game, so we have deliberately shifted our focus with the Women in League initiative to leadership workshops,” NRL Chief Operating Officer Jim Doyle said.
Female player registrations are up 66 per cent on the previous year, and 40 per cent of club positions are held by women.
The Canterbury Bulldogs – led by CEO Raelene Castle – has abandoned pre-game and halftime routines, so its Belles can focus on being ‘Ambassadors’ for the game.
Meanwhile, Canberra has replaced its Raiderettes with the Emeralds, handballing the skimpy skirts.
The South Sydney Rabbitohs ditched their cheerleaders back in 2007.
But the majority of clubs are stuck in the 1950s.
Not so the AFL.
When it was rumoured in March that Collingwood would bring back cheerleaders, its President, Eddie McGuire, baulked. (The Sydney Swanettes and Carlton Bluebirds had long gone the way of the Dodo.)
The AFL’s new CEO, Gillon McLachlan, and the sole woman executive at headquarters, Dorothy Hisgrove, are committed to a more, “diverse, female-friendly organisation”.
Because, too often, women are celebrated as wives and mothers of players, rather than for their own achievements.
Or their tireless work in the canteen; or dancing-without-jiggling on the sidelines.
One-time Big League Cheerleader of the Year, Kymberley Roebuck, rankles at the stereotype of a “busty, blonde beauty”.
“I have a full-time job and I run a business,” Roebuck told Fairfax. But she admits she’s underpaid.
“You’re definitely not doing it for the money. You have to have a love for the game.”
So do the players – but they’re not doing it for nix.
Back on that cold winter’s day, I turned to my daughter and said this: “The women who are dancing half naked are just doing their job. Some of them really enjoy it. But they’re not paid enough money and, sometimes, they’re treated badly. It’s not fair.”
“Should I bring down my jacket to give to one of them?” Grace asked.
“No darling,” I replied. “Just keep enjoying your Auskick. And maybe, when you’re an adult, women’s sport will be valued as highly as men’s.”