In a brilliant public relations move, the lawyer representing two former cheerleaders (one from the New Orleans Saints and the other from the Miami Dolphins) who have complained of discrimination said that her clients would settle their claims for $1 if NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell would just agree to meet with them.
What is he supposed to say?
“No” is not the right play.
I desperately wanted to be a cheerleader in high school. To stand in front of the stands in a skimpy dress jumping in the air was the height of cool, particularly for a girl like me, who was anything but. Cheerleaders got to hang around with football players; and football players got to hang around the water fountain; and hanging around the water fountain was the height of cool.
I didn’t really hang around anywhere.
As far as I could tell, making cheerleader was all about skills or talents or just plain God-given gifts that I didn’t have. So I found something almost as good, which suited my particular gifts and lack thereof, something that you could learn to do if you were just determined enough.
I learned to twirl a baton: a very heavy baton, not like those skinny things that you buy for your daughters; a baton that broke countless lights in our den, and at the neighbors’ house where I would practice while I babysat.
I practiced endlessly. And believe me, I still remember what I was wearing the day I tried out (yellow checked shorts with a matching yellow turtleneck jersey and a yellow bow in my hair, pulled to the side— not exactly a cool outfit in the days when Harvard Square was being occupied). My reward was getting to do splits in the mud at football games while tossing a baton in the air, in a uniform with a short skirt, in the cold New England autumns. Teenage bliss.
Actually, it was a lot of work. Fun, too, but work. And while it’s true that I haven’t used those skills very much in later life (although I used to twirl broom sticks on occasion at law school parties), I learned a fair amount about discipline and determination in those long months practicing with the baton in the basement. I even remember the routines. Hip-hiphooray for Mr. Touchdown, as we stood up from one knee, and got your foot tapping.
I’m sure there are women who vie to be NFL cheerleaders for some of the same reasons I vied to be a majorette in high school. Looking back, I could argue that I’d have done better if I’d stuck to the math team, even if people did call me a goon; and that cheering for the Saints is not an obvious stepping-stone. I couldn’t help but notice, as I read The New York Times story about the cheerleaders, that the newspaper’s “Glass Ceiling” project had concluded that there were almost as many men named John in top jobs in S&P 1500 companies as there were women, that is all women, named anything. You don’t even need to count the Toms, Dicks and Harrys to outnumber us.
I wish there were more women in the top jobs. I wish there were more women who desperately wanted those jobs, more women trying out, although that is hardly the only problem. I wish there were a woman running the NFL and more women owning teams. That is the world that 25 years ago I hoped we’d have today: a world in which there would be enough women on top that all women — and men — would be treated fairly, on the field and off. Not yet. Not close.
In the meantime, the cheerleaders are playing hardball. And they’re playing it well. More power to them. Everyone has the right to a safe and respectful work environment, whether it’s in the boardroom or on the football field. Or both.