The sexual harassment of cheerleaders — a dark side of college sports

A former Northwestern cheerleader alleges she was forced to parade around like a Victoria’s Secret model. Her story of harassment is not a bit surprising.

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A former Northwestern cheerleader alleges she was forced to parade around like a Victoria’s Secret model. Her story of harassment is not a bit surprising.

Matt Marton/AP Photos

A former Northwestern University cheerleader shined a bright light on a dark side of college athletics last week in a bombshell lawsuit.

Hayden Richardson alleges that Northwestern has paraded cheerleaders around like Victoria’s Secret models on a runway at events, including football tailgate parties, and forced them to “mingle” with drunk fans.

Why?

For money, of course.

One of the biggest conversations in college sports at the moment is about the exploitation of student-athletes, especially those who play big revenue sports such as football and men’s basketball.

But what about cheerleaders?

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Northwestern, Richardson alleges, hoped that by presenting its cheerleaders as “sex objects” fans and alumni would dig deep into their pockets and fork up some serious cash.

Richardson states that she was groped, assaulted and subjected to “incessant sexual comments.” In some instances, she says, fans placed their hands on her buttocks and breasts while taking pictures.

Richardson says she felt “trapped,” as many women do when they find themselves in these uncomfortable situations. She worried that if she did not comply she would be booted from the team, lose her scholarship and be forced to pay the expenses she incurred while on the team.

And when she did come forward, Richardson alleges, Northwestern’s athletics department mishandled her complaints.

In a statement, Northwestern says that it has reviewed Richardson’s complaint and denies it violated any law, including Title IX, the civil rights law that protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs.

As a former cheerleader, I found Richardson’s story disturbing but not surprising.

I cheered for four years in high school, which included two years of competitive cheerleading, and three years at Loyola University of Chicago. And let me tell you, even a trip to the bathroom during halftime at games was fraught with awkwardness or harassment from fans.

Sometimes, it was a not-so-subtle brush from behind. Other times, it was much more blatant, with men stopping us to make unsolicited creepy comments about our looks or flexibility.

It wasn’t all bad. At Loyola, we rarely ever were put in a position, like those Richardson describes, where we were separated from teammates. We were a tight-knit squad and had a buddy system of sorts whenever we had to represent Loyola at university-sanctioned events. Our coach also wouldn’t tolerate that type of treatment toward us.

But I know other women for whom Richardson’s story resonates completely. I’ve heard the stories about incidents at obligatory pre-game routines, which sometimes include walking into tailgate parties and big-donor suites and interacting with fans no matter how harassing or belligerent they might be.

Cheerleaders have been sexualized since the dawn of time. But what people need to understand is that these women aren’t just sideline eye candy for fans to hoot-n-holler at. They’re talented athletes who spend hundreds of hours in the gym working on powerful tumbling and gravity-defying stunts to earn their spot on the court and field.

Cheerleading is hard work. It takes as much dedication and determination to make it at the college level as in basketball, football or any other sport. It’s a wholly legitimate sport that deserves a respected place in college athletics, but that won’t happen until boys and men look in the mirror and learn how to properly respect women.

This issue goes beyond the treatment of cheerleaders. Gender-based harassment in the workplace is everywhere. There is a constant drumbeat of news reports.

Just this week, on Tuesday, the Los Angeles Angels suspended pitching coach Mickey Callaway after he was accused of sexual misconduct by five women who worked in sports media. Two weeks ago, the New York Mets fired their general manager, Jared Porter, after it was revealed that he’d sent inappropriate text messages to a female reporter in 2016 when he was working for the Chicago Cubs.

The details the women shared in their damning reports were troubling but not surprising. In fact, they’re relatable to most women — regardless of the industry they work in.

Because here’s the thing about gender-based harassment: It’s as widespread as the coronavirus was at the peak of the pandemic.

Your mothers, your daughters, your sisters and friends — and quite likely you, if you are a woman — all have had to deal with some form of sexual harassment over the years. It’s the sad but honest reality.

It happens in the office, at bars and parks, and in hallways at schools.

Even in a nice town like Evanston at a fancy big-time school like Northwestern.

Madeline Kenney is a staffreporterat the Chicago Sun-Times who covers news and sports. Her primary beat is the WNBA/Chicago Sky.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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