Virginia McCaskey and I probably do not agree on many things. She is a woman of a different generation, for one thing, and her take on life is bound to be shaped by that. Some of the football decisions she has made or empowered are perplexing to me. For example, I have no confidence in my ability to see eye-to-eye with the owner of an organization that has said “let’s give Phil Emery a shot” followed by “why not hire Ryan Pace?” However, there is one decision by Bears ownership that I embrace completely, and that decision is attributed to Virginia McCaskey.
As per one website dedicated to the “Honey Bears”, the former cheerleading squad of the Chicago Bears:
An official reason has never been given by the Bears organization, but it has been said that Virginia McCaskey, the daughter of George Halas, was known to think that cheerleaders were sexist and degrading to women and that inevitably, she was the one who made the final decision.
This same tale is repeated countless times. The Bears don’t have cheerleaders because Virginia McCaskey doesn’t want the Bears to have cheerleaders.
I’m glad I have that much in common with the owner of the Bears.
I came to my Bears fandom relatively late in life. I grew up in a college football household, although I was aware of the Bears in the periphery (I grew up in the Midwest) and of Walter Payton and Dick Butkus specifically (my father was a fan). However, my wife grew up a Bears fan, and she basically told me that I was going to be a Bears fan when we married. I was fine with that, and I had no professional team loyalty to overcome. However, the fact that the Bears lacked cheerleaders made it far easier for me to embrace the team.
I’m grateful the Bears did away with cheerleaders. I am relieved to know that Virginia McCaskey recognizes the sexism and exploitation latent in the role. I know many, many fans disagree. However, every time I think about the Bears, I find it easier and easier to agree with the immortal Tom Landry, who disliked the presence of cheerleaders, “feeling that it sexually exploited the young women by pandering to the baser instincts of men.”
In order to explain my viewpoint, I am going to begin with a simple tale and the response that it received. The New York Times recently ran a piece detailing the experience of Washington cheerleaders, who attended a photo shoot where they say their passports were taken and they were required to be nude in the presence of specially invited guests (i.e. major sponsors); reportedly, they were then asked to play the part of evening companions to some of those guests. That’s exploitation. More than that, the responses some offered by some matched the exact same victim-blaming practices that are endemic to exploitation.
‘Didn’t the women agree to this?’ some ask. These women agreed to dance in costumes, some of which were revealing. They agreed to take photos for a calendar. They did not agree to more than that. When I took a manual labor job in a school maintenance department over my summers at college, I agreed mow football fields, to spend too many hours in the sun pulling weeds, and to lift heavy things. To assume that I also agreed to other grueling tasks is unfair. I didn’t agree to mow my boss’s yard (even though mowing was part of the job), I didn’t agree to give blood (even though I accepted the possibility that I might bleed a little weeding around thorn trees), and I didn’t agree to lift jugs of chemicals that were unsafe for human contact (even though lifting seed bags was fine).
However, their employer then reportedly pushed the boundaries of what they agreed to do after putting them in a vulnerable position, and then kept pushing. That is exploitation, and the sad truth is that the very nature of this job makes it more likely and makes it difficult to draw clear lines of distinction that might protect against exploitation.
‘There are other jobs,’ goes one justification for pushing boundaries. Sure there are. For example, jobs that explicitly involve nudity. These women took the job they wanted, and then more was asked of them, in a manner that was coercive. These women agreed to a specific job, not everything someone else might see as related (like being asked to put on a different kind of show for an organization’s sponsors). They were put in a situation where the stakes escalated, and so they were in a position of vulnerability. That stinks every time it happens, and when it happened this time, it reminded my of how glad I am the Bears won’t be part of a story like this.
It is possible, however, that nothing like that would happen should the Bears bring back cheerleaders. Perhaps New Orleans and Washington are exceptions and not the rule. Okay. If we want to, we can pretend that every infraction has been caught. So what? The words of Tom Landry still hold true. Virginia McCaskey is still right.
What, exactly, is the connection between a cheerleader and football? It’s not encouragement to the players. If Akiem Hicks and Mitchell Trubisky are not already motivated to play well on a Sunday, the presence of a modern-day Cheryl Burton will not make a difference. Tena Casassa will not somehow change the tide of a game if Matt Nagy has a poor game plan.
I would be anxious to learn what, exactly, the fans lose from their absence, if it is not access to the same kind of objectification that Landry and McCaskey have denounced.
Are Bears fans truly so lackadaisical in their support that they cheer with less enthusiasm because there are not uniformed women cheering on the sidelines? Is there someone out there who really believes that it is the mystical absence of cheerleaders that has caused the Bears to struggle recently, instead of bad decisions up and down the organization? Does Jay Cutler’s MCL not get sprained if Maribeth Duffy-Bolger is at that game? Does Kevin White not get injured in practice if at some other location Kathy McLeod is preparing a routine? Does any combination of sideline routines allow Mike Glennon to avoid his fumble and sack problems?
The reality is that most of the fans who want the Honey Bears back want them back for one of two reasons: they want a tradition back or they want exactly the sort of exploitation Landry and McCaskey have described. These are poor reasons for bringing back the Honey Bears.
First, by now the Bears have a tradition of not having cheerleaders. It is distinctive, and it was made for reasons that put the Bears ahead of their time.
Second, if people want to see others exploited, well, there are many places to go for that these days, both in reality and online. Most of those places can be visited for less money than the cost of a football ticket, anyway.
There has been precious little for Bears fans to be proud of recently, but they can at least be proud that the team lacks this sort of built-in exploitation that a majority of other NFL organizations engage in.
Some of the decisions made surrounding the Chicago Bears are pretty easy to criticize (I would love to have a chat someday with the people who designed the renovation of Soldier Field). This decision, though, is one that it should be easy for fans to support. It’s a progressive move that was made ahead of its time, and it is fitting that a team that pioneered both the T-formation and the middle linebacker position also managed to get out into the forefront on this issue, as well.
Way to go, Virginia. Thank you for making the Bears a slightly classier organization.