When you hear that a new play focuses on the world of NFL cheerleading, you immediately think of big hair, skimpy costumes and lots — and lots — of lip gloss.
What you don’t consider are discrimination and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
But that’s at the heart of “The Handbook,” a drama making its world premiere Friday night at Carthage College.
Laura Schellhardt, a Northwestern University theater professor, based her story on the true story of former New Orleans Saints cheerleader Bailey Davis, who was fired for breaking the team’s rules by posting a photo of herself on her private Instagram account wearing a one-piece swimsuit. Shen then filed a discrimination complaint against the NFL team, contending the team has two sets of rules: one for the cheerleaders, who are all women; another, for the players. (The photo in question showed her in an outfit the Saints said violated team rules against its cheerleaders appearing nude, semi-nude or in lingerie. This, despite the barely-there cheerleading outfits supplied by the team.)
“The Handbook” brings to light the rampant discrimination in the world of professional cheerleading and the effects it has on the cheerleaders by following members of the fictitious Flames NFL cheerleading team.
“I know way more now about NFL cheerleading than I ever thought I would,” said Professor Neil Kristian Scharnick, who is directing the play. “That’s what theater does: It exposes us to other people’s stories.”
For this premiere production, Carthage is working to give audience members a “you are there” feel through the use of a giant video screen at the back of the set.
“We’re trying to create the sense of being on the field during an NFL game,” Scharnick said. “We’re capturing the spirit, if not the scale, of performing in front of all those screaming fans.”
While developing this production, Scharnick learned about “all these outrageous demands put on the cheerleaders, from weight standards to social media restrictions. They are told to feel grateful they have this job.”
Scharnick added that there is definitely some glamour involved in being an NFL cheerleader “but that doesn’t make it OK to violate labor laws.”
The issue, he said, is the teams’ handbooks, which dictate how the cheerleaders must behave even off the field. Team rules go so far as to demand that a cheerleader leave a restaurant where she’s dining if one of the team’s players happens to walk inside.
“These lawsuits argue that the women have to follow all these rules that the players don’t,” Scharnick said.
The cheerleaders who have filed the lawsuits, he added, “aren’t out to make money off of the NFL or to eliminate cheerleading; they just want fair treatment.”
Real-life cheerleaders visiting Carthage
The show features 12 cast members — nine women, two men — including an 11-year-old girl.
The show, written by one of Scharnick’s former professors, “has great opportunities for our strong female actors here at Carthage,” he said.
This project also allowed Scharnick to reach out to other Carthage departments. “There’s a lot of dancing in the play, and we have have a strong dance department,” he said. “We’ve also reached out to the gender studies people and athletic programs, about the treatment of women athletes.”
Carthage is also celebrating 150 years of having female students, and this play, Scharnick added, “is on that group’s calendar of events.”
Outside the Carthage community, three former NFL cheerleaders will join the cast for talkbacks after performances.
The Saints’ cheerleader Davis will be at the theater, along with former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader Erica Wilkins, for a talkback after the opening night performance Friday night (Nov. 1.) Next week, former Miami Dolphins cheerleader Kristan Ann Ware will join the cast for talkbacks after the performances on Nov. 7-9.
‘A lack of respect’
Scharnick hopes the drama sheds light on the issues in this story.
“The deeper I got into this, the more outraged I got,” he said. “These are women who are talented artists and athletes, and they are treated so poorly and so poorly compensated by a multi-billion dollar corporation.”
As an example, he said the mascot for the Dallas Cowboys earns $65,000, plus benefits, while the women are paid less than minimum age, with no benefits.
“The NFL mascots are all male,” he added, “while the cheerleaders are women. That clarifies the case for gender discrimination.”
What it all “boils down to,” he said, “is a lack of respect.”
During performances, actual rules from different team handbooks will be shown on the video screen.
“These are all true,” Scharnick said, “and when people see them, they won’t believe it’s actually true. There are rules dictating everything from hygiene to ‘slouching breasts.’ When you’re bombarded with these rules, it becomes clear that no one could — or should — be expected to follow them, especially a part-time employee not even making minimum wage.”