Comment: Dr Michelle Smith

As competitive cheerleading moves closer to becoming an Olympic sport, the pom-pom and cleavage variant is gradually disappearing from the NRL.

The Canberra Raiders have announced that its cheer squad, The Emeralds, will be replaced by performances by local dance schools from this season. South Sydney dispensed with cheerleaders in 2007. Co-owner Russell Crowe commented that the Rabbitohs’ cheerleaders “made a lot of people uncomfortable” and replaced them with drummers.

The Emeralds are disappointed with the decision and have defended cheerleading as "both a sport and art" that "deserves respect".

Academic Catharine Lumby, who is an NRL consultant, has argued there is a place for cheerleaders in modern football. She suggests they are subject to criticism not applied to other minimally clothed female athletes such as ballerinas in "tight leotards".

The sport of cheerleading, which has strong youth participation and combines dance with gymnastic moves, has much to recommend it. Nevertheless, the cheerleading that is the norm at NRL matches is out of step with today’s gender politics.

Context is critical. While we might see more of the skin of a female swimmer or beach volleyballer, and view every curve of a dancer’s lycra-clad body, these outfits are largely suited to the physical activities required. When a cheerleader is dressed in a top that displays her cleavage and midriff, tiny shorts and knee-high boots to perform in winter, it is obvious that the clothing choices are not made for functional reasons.

NRL cheerleaders in their present guise are styled to be sexy. The women chosen for NRL cheer squads conform to a particular model of attractiveness with pin-up girl bodies and long hair. If football cheerleading was simply about performing to motivate and entertain the crowd, then cheerleaders would - within the realms of being dancers with fit and healthy bodies - look more diverse.

It is time the only women on the field are there for their abilities, without the emphasis on their appearance, in the same way as the male players.

The NRL should encourage its teams to switch to mixed-sex cheer squads that are entertaining for their skills or fan-led cheer squads, like those supporting AFL clubs.

  • Dr Michelle Smith (pictured) is a senior lecturer at Deakin University