Sexual Harassment Alleged by Professional Sports Cheerleaders in New York and Around the Country

In every type of workplace in New York City, sexual harassment is an unlawful employment practice. Employers have a duty to protect employees from harassment not only by supervisors and co-workers but also by customers. The type of work performed has no bearing on this, which one might hope is something that would not need to be said. Members of cheerleading squads for professional sports teams around the country have spoken out recently about sexual harassment experienced as part of their jobs. The job of a professional sports cheerleader is to entertain, with the entertainment coming from a combination of athletic prowess and physical attractiveness. To use football as an example, certain aspects of the game still cater to certain stereotypical male preferences, even though women now make up nearly half of the NFL’s fan base. While professional cheerleaders must have extensive dance training and experience, policies and practices at both the team and league levels sometimes place them in a more decorative role—one that can leave them exposed to the risk of sexual harassment and assault by fans and others. A recent discrimination complaint further outlines the workplace challenges cheerleaders face.

Cheerleading as a profession falls into an unusual legal category, in which sex and—for lack of a better term—sex appeal may be viewed as key qualifications for a job. Employment statutes prohibit discrimination based on sex, but not necessarily based on attractiveness. Court decisions and other laws directly addressing this are relatively rare, and they can vary widely from one industry or workplace to another. Over 30 years ago, a federal court ruled that an airline could not use “sex appeal” as a “bona fide occupational qualification” for its flight attendants. Wilson v. Southwest Airlines Co., 517 F.Supp. 292, 293 (N.D. Tex. 1981). The court noted an exception, however, for jobs involving “vicarious sexual recreation.” Id. at 301. It cited two 1971 decisions by the New York Human Rights Appeals Board, allowing Playboy Clubs to discriminate based on sex and physical appearance.

The job of professional sports cheerleaders includes much more than performing during games. Cheerleaders are also expected to act as ambassadors for their team by attending team-sponsored events and other promotional events. According to a report in the New York Times, this often includes events at which alcohol consumption occurs, such as tailgate parties, sometimes leading to “offensive sexual comments and unwanted touches by fans.” Many women reported “go[ing] in pairs or small groups to feel safer.”

The Times report mentions harassment training for the cheerleaders, which essentially trains women on how to respond to hostile and harassing remarks and advances. This still leaves cheerleaders in a position in which they must fend off unwanted attention. A complaint filed by a former cheerleader with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in early 2018 addresses allegedly discriminatory policies, which the team reportedly claims are intended “to protect cheerleaders from players preying on them.” The complainant was fired by the New Orleans Saints, allegedly because a post to her Instagram account violated the cheerleaders’ social media policy. Her complaint alleges that team policies place substantial restrictions on female cheerleaders but not on male players.

The experienced and knowledgeable sexual harassment lawyers at Phillips & Associates advocate for the rights of job seekers and employees in New York City, representing them in claims of sexual harassment and other unlawful workplace practices in the sports and media industries, as well as other settings. Contact us online or at (212) 248-7431 today to schedule a free and confidential consultation to see how we can help you.

More Blog Posts:

New York City Lawsuit Makes Bold Allegations About Sexual Harassment Case, New York Employment Attorney Blog, April 25, 2018

Television Production Companies Bear Responsibility for Investigating Alleged Sexual Misconduct Among Actors and Others, New York Employment Attorney Blog, March 29, 2018

Sexual Harassment Allegations Affect Entertainment Business in New York City and Hollywood, New York Employment Attorney Blog, March 15, 2018

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