What it’s like to be an NFL cheerleader
Where one goes, the other follows. The Oakland Raiders on the field, the Raiderettes cheerleaders on the sidelines. It will be the same today at Wembley as the NFL juggernaut lands back in England.
The Seattle Seahawks are the “visitors” for the first of three fixtures on consecutive weekends in the capital.
It will be the same back in America for the rest of the season, and it will be the same when the franchise relocates to Las Vegas in 2020. Except when it comes to the 550-mile move, one party could be more affected than the other.
“It would be a life-changing move and I think all of us are taking it day by day and year by year,” confesses Kara, who is in her fourth year on the team.
The personnel of both the team and the cheerleading squad changes each season depending on successful draft picks and auditions. But, unlike the full-time contracts awarded to players, Raiderettes combine their roles with other jobs, making relocation tricky.
Today, Kara will perform in front of a worldwide audience of millions. Next week, she will be back at her office managing the day-to-day operations of a technology firm in her hometown of Sacramento, California. She completes a five-hour round commute three times a week to attend practice, often after a full day at work. “My day to day is filled with bearded nerds, a lot of dudes, a lot of reading code, inspecting code and fixing code,” explains Kara, who studied at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“I live this dual life of high-level tech executive with a lot of computer science and then I transition to a super-empowered feminine position filled with glamour and flashy sequins and sparkles. There are a lot of misconceptions. A lot of people tend to project what they think it takes to be a cheerleader.
“They don’t understand the mental aspect and how you have to be excellent in so many areas of your life to get to this level. I find being a cheerleader really empowering.”
She is not alone either in challenging the labels attached to both cheerleaders and the Raiderettes, described on their website as “football’s fabulous females”.
Sasha, 28, works for a cyber security technology company in San Francisco; Anabelle, 26, a financial technology outfit. They agree the biggest misconception they face is over their knowledge of the game.
“You have to understand the game to be on the sidelines,” says Anabelle. “You are thinking about your dances, choreography, the time on the clock, you have to know what’s going on in the field so you can react the right way and cheer in the right moments.”
In June 2017, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr signed a five-year contract worth $25million (£19million) a season, making him the highest-paid player in the NFL at the time. A month earlier, 90 former Oakland Raiders cheerleaders received a $1.25million settlement following a class-action lawsuit. The cheerleaders claimed they were paid less than the minimum wage – $125 a day – and were refused overtime pay, despite working nine-hour days with no lunch break.
The lawsuit is not unique to the Raiders franchise, nor are the whistleblowing stories about life as a cheerleader, particularly in the #MeToo era. There are six franchises that choose not to have cheerleaders at their games while others argue for them to be removed completely.
So why do so many still aspire to do it? “Because we love to dance, we love to perform. We do it for the love of the Raiders,” explains Sasha. She describes life as a Raiderette as being like part of a sisterhood.
As is tradition, surnames of cheerleaders were not disclosed during this interview and they were not allowed to reveal how much they were paid, nor any rules – such as appearance and behaviour – that they had to follow.
Sasha, however, does say: “We’re employees at the end of the day. As employees you have certain things you have to accomplish, such as practice three days a week.”
As employees holding down two jobs, there are going to be some difficult decisions when the Las Vegas move happens.
Oakland Raiders v Seattle Seahawks, 6pm. Live on BBC Two and Sky Sports Main Event
Full of cheer: Raiderettes (left to right) Anabelle, Kara (front), Julie and Sasha