As a kid, I declared an intent to become a 49ers cheerleader. I grew up during the Steve Young era, and my dad patiently explained the basics of the game Sunday after Sunday. My grandmother had me in dance classes from the age of three, and watching the women dance along the sideline in scarlet and gold seemed like the ideal intersection of my interests. I never did pursue cheerleading at any level, but I've stood by my Niners Sunday after Sunday. The game has changed slowly but steadily since my childhood days rooting for Jerry Rice and practicing high kicks during commercial breaks. I couldn't help but grow curious: How will the next generation of parents explain NFL cheerleaders to their children?
I asked fathers to share their stories of how they've explained the purpose of NFL cheerleaders to their children.
1. Richie, Two sons.
"He's used to watching baseball, and when he saw the cheerleaders on the sideline he asked who they were and why they were dancing. I didn't have a good reply because the answer is dumb: I told him they cheer for the players and get the crowd into it, which is a lie."
2. Eric, Two daughters.
"My 10-year-old asked me about NFL cheerleaders last season. I try not to lie to her, but I don't want to inadvertently answer a question she wasn't even asking. I told her something along the lines of 'the players try harder when they know pretty girls are watching them."
3. Greg, One son and one daughter.
Some of the dads have yet to run into the question, but I asked how they plan to address it.
4. Erik, One son.
"Son, the whole idea of NFL cheerleaders is a tough sort of conundrum. The pros and cons of having cheerleaders on the sidelines are stark contrasts, but both sides have valid points to make. The side in favor will say this is a chosen profession that requires great athletic skill and many years of dedicated practice, serves to rally and excite NFL in-stadium crowds (which theoretically, in turn, rallies and excites the home town to perform better in the face of such explicit support), and gives women a visible and empowering role within a $10 billion industry. The side against cheerleaders will argue, rightly, that there are few other (for the most part) socially acceptable practices that objectify women so blatantly and that serve to encourage and enforce a mindset that "pretty and skinny" are important determinants of a person's self-worth.
I think the NFL would probably survive just fine without cheerleaders. Does that mean they'll ever be eliminated? Don't count on it."
5. Parm, One son and one daughter.
"The reality to me is that in both the NFL and the NBA women aren't a whole lot more than eye-candy for guys, but in an NBA game they are involved in a bit more in-arena stuff (promotions, prizes, contests, announcements, etc). Of course this isn't a whole lot different than the way women are typically portrayed in film/on TV/magazine covers/billboards/etc.
I don't think I could explain the context to my kids at this age, but would still have to be somewhat honest in an extremely gentle manner. I think the whole thing would be a discussion for much later.
Maybe something along the lines of "The dancers are there so that the fans watching the game don't get bored during breaks". If the team's losing: "Well people pay a lot of money for these tickets, and the game isn't enjoyable so there has to be some other entertainment". Like most difficult things, I would likely defer this to my wife after that."
6. Mike, One daughter and one son.
"I would try to explain that the cheerleaders are athletes themselves, and show her cheerleading competitions. She takes dance class, so she would appreciate that. I'd also point out that (in college anyway) there are boy cheerleaders, too. Basically, I'd try to my best to steer her away from the idea they are pretty girls there to support the men on the field, and re-enforce the idea they are talented women performing a difficult skill, too. AND, I'd tell her that if she wanted to be a football player instead she could!"
7. Clara and Javier have two sons and have spoken extensively about the issue in preparation.
Javier: "I worry about explaining their uniforms. It's an expected look but it's hard to tell kids they're not undergarments."
Clara: (Was a cheerleader growing up) "Well, what about my uniforms? The uniform stayed out of my way when I would tumble and jump. It was actually safe."
Javier: "I don't think it's fair to compare high school cheerleaders to NFL cheerleaders. What they do is athletic. It requires practice and discipline. It doesn't look easy, and that's easy to explain to kids. That uniform is going to be tough to explain."
Clara: "How will we explain their purpose?"
Javier: "In the same way we will explain why you did it. To cheer on your team and at the appropriate age, we will talk about not objectifying women and respecting whatever choices a woman makes. And you know, what a woman wears or does not wear means nothing in terms of objectification. It'll happen either way by some people. God, it's hard to raise kids."
8. And Aaron keeps it real with his two sons.
8. "If the kids ask, I usually say something like, 'I was the mascot for my high school for all games one season, and I had a great deal of fun 'cheering' for our team. It was a great way to build school spirit and pride, but when you get to the professional caliber, the sex-appeal is over-stated, and a patently obvious ploy by the NFL - less about spirit and pride generation and more about selling tickets to the games & beer in the stands, and advertising on the networks. Think of it as a capitalistic worm boring into the sexual tensions of those sedentary folk who would rather be wrapped in a snuggly, munching on chips & sucking down brewskies all day on Sunday, glued to the screen for that short snip/view of skin much like the retired slot machine player drops their social security check into the machines until the small hours of the morning in Vegas - on the hopes that one day, there will be a jackpot to be had, and one of these lovelies will actually march out of the big screen, into your living room, and wrap her pompons around you.'"