The Soapbox: Too Chunky To Cheer?

On April 22, Anna-Megan Raley, under the pseudonym of Claire Crawford, wrote a blog post for CBS Houston titled, “Is This Girl ‘Too Chunky’ To Be An OKC Thunder Cheerleader?” In the post, she spotlighted Kelsey Williams, a three-year veteran of the Thunder Girls, the dance team that performs during the home games of the NBA’s Oklahoma Thunder. Referring to a picture showing Williams in her uniform — a bra-like halter top and short shorts — Raley questioned whether Williams was “bad-looking,” noting she had “pudginess around her waistline.” Although she praised Williams for being “comfortable wearing that tiny little outfit,” she wished the dancer had “a little more on top, if you know what I mean,” and asked readers, “Is this chick ‘too chunky’ to be a cheerleader?” Then the half-assed statement, “We think she’s beautiful,” followed by a poll allowing readers to vote on the options: “She has no business wearing that outfit in front of people” or “She could use some tightening in her midsection.” 

The post was reported on sites from Us Weekly to the UK’s Daily Mail. The response from readers was overwhelmingly negative. The piece was at first edited with some content altered and some removed. Eventually, the entire post was taken down (but since this is the internet, a cached version still exists). And a week after the original post went up, news broke that CBS had fired a “Sports Radio digital content manager” in connection with the post. While CBS hasn’t confirmed the person fired is Raley, most assume so.

In trying to understand why Raley would write such a mean-spirited post about another woman’s body, many have posited that it is a case of what the Houston Chronicle called “basic ‘Mean Girl’-style taunting.” The blog Scallywag and Vagabond wondered if this was dialogue chosen to be provocative or if Raley was making an underhanded “attempt to have a go at the cheerleader that she may have personal bitter reservations toward.”

The evidence of these bitter feelings and the reason for Raley’s “Mean Girl”-style attack is always the same: Raley, while working for the Houston Chronicle in March 2010, had tried and failed to make a dance team for the MLS’ Houston Dynamos. But when you watch the video she made of her audition, it’s clear that she was doing it as part of her Chronicle job and she does not seem invested in actually becoming part of the dance team. Was this really only about her being a “mean girl” with a vendetta against those who succeeded where she failed?

While trying to suss out personal motives for Raley, sports media outlets have generally ignored another part of what Raley wrote in her post: “We’re not trying to be ugly. We are just discussing what men like in women, specifically NBA cheerleaders.” While the descriptions of Williams in the post are unfair and untrue (so say my pudgy stomach rolls eyeing Williams’ flat tummy), there is no denying that the very existence of the Oklahoma Thunder Girls is to please heterosexual men who both attend the game and watch it on TV. That’s why when you look at the current Thunder Girls lineup they have the exact same body type: skinny and toned. And the Thunder Girls look like the Chicago LuvaBulls and the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders and the Buffalo Jills. That’s why there are no men on the dance teams and only one NFL team has male cheerleaders (the Baltimore Ravens, though the official picture for the team’s cheerleaders only features the women).

NBA dance teams and NFL cheerleading squads wear outfits to accentuate their chests, their booties, and to show as much skin as possible. These women are often paid per game (only $75 to $100 in most cases) but are expected to maintain their hair, work out, be tanned, and have professional-quality makeup. This is all in an effort to please the men in the stands and those watching on TV. New York Times sports columnist William Rhoden described NFL cheerleaders’ role on the sidelines as “little more than props that reinforce objectified sex roles. The professional cheerleader,” he argued, “has become feminized and eroticized.”

There are men’s dances teams, most famously the Chicago Matadors and the Dallas Mavericks ManiAACs. The men wear clothing and do dance moves that mimic those of the women but they are seen as comedic relief: the men involved have body types that are completely opposite to those of the women on the official dance teams. The “joke” here is that these men would never be serious dancers like the women because they are not feminine enough and therefore not erotic enough (they are, in fact, the men who most likely ogle the women on the dance team). Implicit in this is the overriding belief that, as Raley stated when she wrote, “We are just discussing what men like in women,” NBA dance teams are there because they are what heterosexual men like to see.

And yet these dance teams and cheerleaders — these very obvious signs of our culture’s unending desire to cater to the sexual fantasies of heterosexual men using a particular type of female body — are being watched by ever-increasing numbers of women. The NFL reports that 45 percent of their audience is women and the NBA estimated in 2010 that 40 percent of all fans of their league are women. The NBA has tried to reach out to women by selling them high heels; the NFL has made a particular effort to appeal to more women by selling merchandise targeted at their female fans and actively supporting the fight against breast cancer (so. much. pink.). Yet besides a few female sideline reporters and some women offering colorful commentary after games, women watching the NBA playoffs that are happening right now won’t see themselves represented on screen except for the fleeting glimpses of the women on the NBA dance teams — women like Kelsey Williams.

The bad news for the owners of NBA and NFL teams is that a lot of women are just not that into watching overt sexism. As sports fan Sarah Tolcser wrote:

You know what I realize [the NBA has] never once asked me? What more they could be doing for me as a female fan.

And you know, NBA, I would really like to be asked that question. Because I have some things to say that might surprise you, things like, ‘The answer is not more pink jerseys.’ Things like, as a member of a growing class of unmarried women ages 25 – 44, ‘family friendly’ promotions and cute distractions on court during the game entice me no more than they entice male fans. Things like, some of the advertising spots from your own sponsors have sexist overtones that make me uncomfortable. Things like, when I go to your official website and see scantily-clad girls on the front page, I can’t help feeling that the NBA is not meant to be ‘for me.’

It’s hard not to feel pro sports is not meant for “us”: NBA and NFL teams sexualizing women on the court or the sidelines places women in a position that relegates them as less than when compared to men. Women are accessories to sport, not participants in sport, and this misogynistic undertone appears throughout sports culture. It causes there to be less coverage of women’s sports in the popular sports media. It is the reason a famous Canadian ice hockey commentator is currently in the news for saying that women reporters do not belong in the locker rooms with male athletes (yes, we are still having that debate). It’s why when Brittney Griner is valued for her athletic ability, it’s news. And it’s responsible for the fact that when you google “NBA female fans” the first page of responses includes sites like Fox Sports, Bleacher Report (owned by CNN), and Rant Sports with their lists of “the hottest NBA fans.”

It’s also part of the reason that Raley probably felt comfortable posting that trashing of Williams. It might also explain why Chris Broussard, who said homophobic remarks on air on ESPN following NBA player Jason Collins’ announcement that he was gay, did not lose his job. And finally, it is also why in this post at Busted Coverage that laments Raley’s firing, the male author concludes by suggesting that an alternative to her firing would have been to “put [Anna-Megan] Raley on the radio [and] tell listeners to go to Busted Coverage and study Anna-Megan [‘s body]. Listeners are given 30-seconds to blast her for being ugly. It would be great radio.” And so that you can study up on Anna-Megan Raley and whether she’s supposedly hot enough to criticize another woman’s hotness, they then provide a slideshow of images they’ve collected of her.

From the judge to the judged in one fell swoop.

Jessica Luther blogs about sports and culture at Power Forward.