Cheerleaders for professional sports teams are often dancers with backgrounds in ballet, jazz, modern, hip-hop and tap. After beating out dozens of other dancers for the job, they have a chance to show off the athletic and dancing skills they have honed for years.
But they quickly learn that performing during sporting events is only a small part of their job description. They are also required to fulfill what often becomes the unsavory side of the job: interacting with fans at games and other promotional events, where groping and sexual harassment are common.
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In interviews with dozens of current and former cheerleaders — most of them from the N.F.L., but also representing the N.B.A. and the N.H.L. — they described systematic exploitation by teams that profit by sending them into pregame tailgating and other gatherings where they are subjected to offensive sexual comments and unwanted touches by fans.
“When you have on a push-up bra and a fringed skirt, it can sometimes, unfortunately, feel like it comes with the territory,” said Labriah Lee Holt, a former cheerleader for the Tennessee Titans in the N.F.L. “I never experienced anything where someone on the professional staff or the team said something or made me feel that way. But you definitely experience that when you encounter people who have been drinking beer.”
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