Which NFL teams don’t have cheerleaders in 2023 and why not?
We take a brief look at cheerleading, its role in football, and why seven NFL teams have not fielded a cheerleading squad for the 2023 season.
When you think of American clichés, in your mind’s eye a scene appears featuring something like a white picket fence, a front porch swing, apple pie, the high school quarterback and the cheerleader. All of them are true, not all of them are uniquely American, and they are readily understood by most people in the Western world. Except the cheerleader. That is one aspect of our culture that continues to flummox nearly everyone outside North America. And yet it is so ingrained in our society that few of us think twice about it.
A central part of small-town middle America, we find it almost unnatural to not have cheerleaders at a football game. They are present at the Pop Warners games, usually as a way to keep the players’ sisters occupied while the game was going on. By middle school, cheer squads are developing into an ersatz dance and gymnastics session and by high school the focus is on training for a division one college tryout.
Cheerleading in the NCAA is big business, but not in the usual way that college sports make money. Annual cheer competitions are televised, the physical skill and training necessary are undeniable, and yet the NCAA still doesn’t recognize cheerleading as an official sport. This omission means that cheerleaders at big division one schools are free to earn money from endorsement deals and increasingly as social media influencers in a way that no other college athlete can.
By the time you get to the professional level, it is simply an expectation that the NFL teams will follow suit and have cheer squads, and most of them do. But in 2023 it is perhaps most surprising that there are seven teams that do not.
The Buffalo Bills, Chicago Bears, Cleveland Browns, Green Bay Packers, Los Angeles Chargers, New York Giants, and Pittsburgh Steelers have no cheerleaders. Green Bay, for example, had their squad disbanded in 1988 by former player and Head Coach Forrest Gregg, citing them as a distraction to the players and fans focus on the actual game of football. It is only an “on paper” exercise, however, since the Packers have, off the books, used the collegiate cheerleaders of the University of Wisconsin - Green Bay and St Norbert’s College to cheer for them ever since.
The New York Giants are the only NFL team that never had cheerleaders. The Cleveland Browns have unofficially tried them over the decades, the last time being in 1971. They were killed off by the same thing that ultimately killed off the other teams’ programs, the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders.
Originally an all-male field, female cheerleaders became the norm during World War II, in the same way as women had entered many other workforces. With no other athletic outlet for girls in college campuses, cheerleading came to be seen as a wholesome athletic outlet for the female student population. Just as in American society at large, long skirts got shorter and sweaters gave way to crop tops and by 1971, with the free love movement in full bloom, the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders hit the scene like a hurricane.
Everything changed overnight. All male cheerleaders were dropped from the squad and acrobatic routines were out. The new, all-female lineup would be primarily dance oriented. A choreographer was brought in from New York, a minimum age was set at 18, allowing the now all-adult squad to drop the traditional skirt and replace it with hotpants. Teams around the league began to copy the style and cheerleading became less about rousing hometown chants and more a stepping stone to a modelling or acting career.
Several teams felt that this was a competition that they wanted to engage in. Even Dallas Cowboys legendary coach Tom Landry was opposed. He referred to the squad as “porno queens” and claimed that the Cowboys “sexually exploited the young women by pandering to the baser instincts of men.” The Pittsburgh Steelers disbanded their cheer squad rather than tarnish the image of football as a family event. Bears owner George “Papa Bear” Hallas declared, “As long as I’m alive, we will have dancing girls on the sidelines.” After his death, his daughter Virginia declined to renew the Honey Bears’ contract, calling them “sex objects”, and Chicago’s cheerleading was history.
There are some of the more superstitious Bears fans who talk about the “Honey Bear Curse”, since their team has not won a Super Bowl since the cheer squad’s demise. There is little chance that they will be revived, however, despite fan polls supporting the squad 3–1. Virginia Hallas McCaskey has let it be known the Bears will not have cheerleaders as long as she owns the team, and her children Michael and George McCaskey, as well as her grandchildren, have reported plans to keep the anti-cheerleading stance when they inherit the team.
The more recent events involve the Buffalo Bills, who endorsed the officially independent Buffalo Jills cheer team from 1966 to 2013. Several formal cheerleaders brought a lawsuit against the Bills organization, and the ties were cut. The disbanding of the Buffalo Jills came about later that year. And just last year, the Los Angeles Chargers disbanded the Charger Girls on financial grounds. Indications are that this may only be a temporary state of affairs and that they may be brought back in the future.