“HOTTIE ALERT,” the Indianapolis Colts wrote on their official Instagram account for their cheerleading squad, below a photo of a string-bikini-clad cheerleader.
The post exemplified the peculiar nature of the jobs of N.F.L. cheerleaders: their social-media activities are severely restricted — they often cannot disclose their affiliations with the teams, and they cannot associate with players in any capacity online — but the teams themselves aggressively market the women as sex objects.
How N.F.L. teams treat their cheerleaders has received intense scrutiny in recent weeks, since The New York Times reported that the former Saints cheerleader Bailey Davis was fired for violating a team social-media policy. Dozens of current and former cheerleaders for teams in the top North American professional sports leagues have subsequently contacted The Times to share their complaints.
Here is a look at how teams promote images of cheerleaders on their official social-media accounts while exerting restrictions on how individual cheerleaders use their own personal social-media profiles.
The New York Times obtained a rule book for the Cincinnati Bengals’ cheerleading squad, known as the Ben-Gals, which advised the cheerleaders to “remain tasteful and representative of the organization.” What constitutes tasteful is not specified. The Ben-Gals did not respond to requests for comment on the social-media policy. A spokesman for the Bengals has said the rule book has been revised. Below is an image the Bengals posted on their cheerleading team’s official Instagram account.
The Indianapolis Colts cheerleaders are allowed to have public profiles in which they can identify themselves as N.F.L. cheerleaders. But if they post photos of themselves in uniform, they must stick to official team events, according to Steve Campbell, the vice president of communications for the Colts.
“We ask that the cheerleaders present themselves in a professional manner online and on social media,” he said. “We ask them not to post any content that might reflect poorly upon themselves and the team.”
The cheerleaders’ official account is overseen by the squad and the director of cheerleading.
A regular feature on the team’s official Instagram account is “cheerleader of the week,” in which the women are wearing bikinis in a photo shoot, as opposed to their uniforms, and generally features personal details, like where they are from and their education background.
They also feature the women’s birthdays, generally using photos of them in bikinis. In the post below, along with other birthday posts, the women are referenced to with hashtags, but not tagged using their personal account handles.
While the rules among teams vary, nearly all N.F.L. teams exert tight control over cheerleaders’ online activities. The teams say that their motive is to protect the cheerleaders from stalkers; many cheerleaders are skeptical of that claim.
When an institutional account — the N.F.L. team’s Instagram account or the team’s official cheerleading account, for example — posts a photo, the women are not tagged. That means the team is not pointing followers toward the women’s accounts as a way to boost their personal pages. When an institutional account posts a photo of the football players, they are regularly tagged, helping the N.F.L. athletes boost their own brands.
Cheerleaders are generally identified only by first names, and occasionally last initials. Some squads require their cheerleaders to send friend requests to their directors for approval. Such restrictions are rarely, if ever, placed on football players.
Bradley Shear, founder of Digital Armour and a social-media law expert who advises athletes, said that the disconnect between policies forced upon players and cheerleaders, both of whom are public-facing employees, can be problematic.
“If you’re creating a policy, it can’t be done in a vacuum,” he said. “It’s best to have a uniform policy across the board. If you have one set of rules for one set of forward-facing employees, and there’s such a difference, there’s a potential that it can be used in litigation as an example of unfair treatment.”
By not tagging the cheerleaders, teams might argue that they are protecting the cheerleaders’ privacy for safety reasons. But fans routinely tag the cheerleaders themselves.
“The threat of cyber stalking and other potential digital threats isn’t a strong argument to defend a disparate social-media policy, because anyone regardless of gender can be a target of online attacks,” Mr. Shear said.
The cheerleading squads for the New England Patriots and the Dallas Cowboys allow the women to have public social-media accounts and identify themselves as N.F.L. cheerleaders. But the teams’ popular Instagram pages do not tag the women’s individual accounts. So, frequently, fans find the cheerleaders’ private accounts and tag them in the comments.
And the comments are often vulgar. A review of N.F.L. teams’ social-media accounts in recent days uncovered sexually explicit and lewd comments directed toward the women.
Mr. Campbell of the Colts said the team’s cheerleaders account is monitored for offensive or inappropriate comments. There is no exact definition of what is crude and what is acceptable. If the team felt someone was being harassed online, deleting a comment is an option.
“The purpose of social media is for people to have their say, as long as they don’t get out of hand,” he said.