5 Ways Professional Sports Reinforce Sexism

By: Cherise Threewitt

Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders NFL cheerleaders
The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders are among the most famous in the NFL. Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

A 25-year study conducted by researchers at Purdue University and the University of Southern California found that that media coverage of women's athletic events changes the way female athletes are perceived, often reinforcing gender stereotypes. The study, which was published in the September 2017 journal of Gender & Society, determined that women's sports received less entertaining and thorough coverage, and suggested those factors lead to lower ticket sales and lower salaries for the athletes.

According to the research, during the '90s, coverage of female athletes was "overtly sexist," then changed in the 2000s to become more trivial by dwelling on the athletes' traditional gender roles (motherhood, wives, etc.) rather than athletic accomplishments. By 2014, coverage "depicted women's sports in a lackluster manner, which they call 'gender bland sexism'."


During that same 25-year period of the study, there was also an increase in women's roles in professional sports — as cheerleaders, dancers and promotional models. Both trends stem from the sexist notion that women should stick to "traditional gender roles."

The 2017 study was co-authored by Dr. Cheryl Cooky, associate professor of American studies at Purdue University. Cooky is an expert in the sociology of sports and says those who defend sexist practices in sports cannot simply claim it is a tradition.

"There is no merit to that claim," Cooky says via email. "While something may be a practice from the past — or a tradition — that itself does not justify or excuse the sexism that those practices reinforce or uphold."

"If sports organizations are going to have cheerleaders or dancers as part of the 'entertainment' for fans, then we should be advocating for those women to receive fair wages and compensation," Cooky says. "I am much more concerned with institutionalized forms of sexism that disadvantage women in sports, than pointing the finger on individual athletes and questioning the choices they make." Cooky stressed that it is unproductive to judge the women who make a living in these roles.

Unfortunately, Cooky's study only proves that sexism continues to permeate sports. Read on for five of the most blatant examples.

5: NBA Dancers

Denver Nuggets Dancers
The Denver Nuggets Dancers perform during a break against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Pepsi Center on April 5, 2016 in Denver, Colorado. Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

The Laker Girls, starring a young Paula Abdul, became the first NBA dance team in 1979. Today, every NBA team has a dance squad, though few WNBA teams have them — one that does is the New York Liberty. Its Timeless Torches is a men and women's over 40 dance team.

According to a 2015 Jezebel article, all 30 of the NBA's dance teams keep official salaries under wraps, and some teams don't disclose salary information to potential dancers until they make it to the final rounds of auditions. Teams don't provide health care to the women, although the teams will cover costs for injuries incurred while they're working. Some teams state up front that the job is technically a part-time independent contractor position, although the actual time commitment is much more than that. In April 2017, the Milwaukee Bucks agreed to pay $250,000 to settle a class-action lawsuit filed by a former dancer claiming she and other dancers were often earning less than minimum wage.


4: NFL Cheerleaders

Oakland Raiders Cheerleaders
In 2014, members of the Oakland Raiders Raiderettes settled a class-action lawsuit against the team owners for $1.25 million for back pay. Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Today's NFL would hardly seem like, well the NFL, without its cheerleaders. Even as far back as 1977, the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders have been questioned as sexist. But in early 2014, cheerleaders from five NFL teams took their owners to task and sued because of sub-par working conditions. They claimed their pay was well below minimum wage, even as players were making millions.

Not only that, but women were subjected to demeaning "jiggle tests" as visual assessments of their fitness, and twice-weekly weigh-ins were grounds for dismissal. The Buffalo Bills' Jills described a charity event — for which they weren't paid — where they were required to wear bikinis, go into a dunking booth and then were auctioned off to sit on the laps of wealthy golfers for the remainder of the day. The first lawsuit, against the Oakland Raiders, was settled for $1.25 million, even though the Department of Labor sided with the team.


Minor improvements to working conditions were made after the 2014 round of lawsuits, but the Raiderettes initiated another lawsuit over pay in 2017. According to Mic, a Raiders cheerleader was paid about $1,250 for the season, though team mascots are paid between $25,000 and $60,000.

3: UFC Octagon Girls

UFC Octagon Girls
UFC Octagon Girl Arianny Celeste signals the beginning of round one between Tony Ferguson and Abel Trujillo in their UFC fight at the Mandalay Bay on Dec. 6, 2014 in Las Vegas. Alex Trautwig/Getty Images

Octagon Girls aren't an innovation of the Ultimate Fighting Championship; models have long been used to announce the rounds in boxing and wrestling events. However, the UFC takes those sports to the extreme. A 2013 article in Psychology Today pointed out that it's especially problematic to have women on display for sex appeal in the center of a ring that exists purely for aggression. In that sense, UFC Octagon Girls might be some of the most egregious examples of sexism in professional sports.

Sexism in the UFC isn't limited to the presence of ring girls, however. The organization does have female fighters, although they, too, allege inequality. In 2015, UFC star Ronda Rousey actually complained that the ring girls were overpaid, in terms of how much they earned compared to female fighters. Ring girls are paid about $20,000, and Rousey alleged some fighters were paid less than that (though she herself has earned millions for a single fight). Rousey did suggest that the real problem might be the pay of female fighters as compared to male fighters, but her decision to call out the Octagon Girls, specifically, could be seen as odd.


2: NASCAR Monster Energy Girls

NASCAR Monster Girls
Kyle Larson, driver of the No. 42 car, poses with the NASCAR Monster Energy Girls in Victory Lane after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway on June 18, 2017. Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Monster Energy Girls are best known for representing NASCAR at races and other promotional events. Many of the team members are experienced models and former beauty queens, along with a few former cheerleaders. The group has reported a lot of complaints and mild harassment on social media about their skimpy outfits, which consist of pants paired with crop tops. Apparently, some NASCAR fans prefer the racing suit worn by the previous sponsor model, Miss Sprint Cup, which covered her from wrists to ankles.

In January 2018, Huffington Post reported that five women were suing Monster Energy over a corporate culture they say is abusive toward women. The first lawsuit was initiated in 2016, and the other four were last year. A female former regional manager for Monster, who is behind one of the lawsuits, told Huffington Post that it's rare to be a female employee in the company, and that women should expect to put up with a misogynistic culture that can be outwardly hostile.


So, despite dealing with the occasional rude racing fan, the Monster Energy Girls may be better off than female employees at corporate headquarters. They are not allowed to disclose their salaries, but for what it's worth, one told USA Today that it paid more than her previous job in IT sales.

1: Formula One Grid Girls

Formula One grid girls
The grid girl for Romain Grosjean of France and Haas F1 on the grid before the U.S. Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on Oct. 23, 2016 in Austin, Texas. Lars Baron/Getty Images

In December of 2017, Formula One (F1) floated the idea of getting rid of grid girls, the promotional models who stand alongside the track, carry the drivers' name boards and, well, sexualize the sport. Grid girls, opponents say, are an outdated tradition and little more than a distraction. In addition, grid girls reinforce the notion that it's a man's job to drive the car, and a woman's job to admire him doing it. Just a month later, Formula One tabled the decision and said they wanted the grid girls to be more "fully integrated" into the racing experience.

Then, a few weeks later, it made another announcement, on Jan. 31, 2018, this one stating it had decided it was ending the practice of using grid girls, beginning with the start of the 2018 FIA Formula 1 World Championship season.


"Over the last year we have looked at a number of areas which we felt needed updating so as to be more in tune with our vision for this great sport," Sean Bratches, managing director commercial operations at Formula 1 said in a statement. "While the practice of employing grid girls has been a staple of Formula 1 Grands Prix for decades, we feel this custom does not resonate with our brand values and clearly is at odds with modern day societal norms. We don't believe the practice is appropriate or relevant to Formula 1 and its fans, old and new, across the world."

For what it's worth, past and present grid girls seem relatively happy with the experience. A former grid girl told the BBC in December 2017 that it's a tough job with long hours, but generally, they're treated well by everyone at the track and she never experienced any inappropriate behavior.

In place of grid girls, Formula One introduced a new program, Grid Kids, to make the pre-race ceremony more interesting for fans.