Pompoms and Graduate Degrees

The secret lives of NFL cheerleaders

Hear the words “football cheerleader” and what comes to mind? Probably a combination of American fantasy and culturally idealized females — squads of beautiful, athletic women high-kicking, clapping and pyramid-building on the gridiron sidelines as your favorite team battles it out toward victory.

Though they are certainly pretty, peppy, and fit, professional NFL cheerleaders are much more than meets the eye.

They’re highly educated, professional women with careers in multiple fields who cheerlead part time as a way to fulfill their interests in dance, charity work, and public speaking.

Meet two NFL cheerleaders:

Headshot KAREN
Credit: Justin Hammond

Karen Link, 24, New England Patriots
Career: Corporate communications specialist for Nuance Communications, a multinational computer software technology corporation

Karen Link is proud of her colleagues on the New England Patriots cheering squad.

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“For many of us, cheerleading is not the only job we have,” she says. “The women I cheer with are so much more than ‘dancers on a field.’ Many of us have corporate jobs, and cheering is part time. Currently we have a neuroscientist, a bio-mechanical engineer — and one woman just moved out of state to become a dentist.”

Cheerleading hours are long, and happen after the “real” workday is over. For Link, it means eight-hour days at her corporate job, and then every Tuesday and Thursday a 90-minutes drive to Foxboro, Massachusetts, for several hours of practice. Then there’s the game on Sunday or Monday nights. Cheerleaders also practice many hours each week during the off-season.

So why do it?

“The chance to perform in front of 70,000 fans is one reason,” Link told LifeZette. “Another is the chance to practice dance, something I have always loved. Additionally, we do a lot of appearances and public speaking, and we work hard for charity. That is extremely rewarding to all of us — the chance to give back. We participate in toy drives; we serve food to the homeless. We make hundreds and hundreds of public appearances a year. Our larger community is extremely important to our whole organization.”

Another perk?

“The other women are amazing, truly,” Link said. “We are like sisters. The social aspect, for me, is worth all the hard work. I love the other girls, and we really support one another.”

And the pay? For many, surprisingly low. Many NFL cheerleaders earn about $125 per game. This July, Gov. Jerry Brown of California signed into law a bill that designates cheerleaders in the state as employees rather than independent contractors, which would entitle them to meal breaks, paid sick leave, and the minimum wage, according to the Los Angeles Times. Cheerleaders for the Los Angeles Raiders, as well as the Cincinnati Bengals, New York Jets, and Buffalo Bills, have sued their teams, alleging those teams withheld pay and did not reimburse mandatory expenses, among other claims.

Some cheerleaders, such as Link and her fellow cheerleaders for the Patriots, are part-time employees of their team and are compensated for their appearances on behalf of the team. 

Link’s best moment? Going to last year’s Super Bowl as a rookie cheerleader.

“I was over the moon,” she said. “It was a fantastic whirlwind of excitement and opportunity. If I could re-live that victory every day, you bet I would!”

Credit: Art Morrison
Credit: Art Morrison

Dana Luker, 29, Atlanta Falcons
Career: Audit manager and certified public accountant with Warren Averett LLC

What drives Luker to be a cheerleader? Her love of the game.

“I absolutely love football,” Luker told LifeZette. “It has been my favorite sport since I was a little girl. I grew up in Atlanta, and most of my family members attended the University of Georgia. So as you can imagine, there were no two football teams that I would’ve rather cheered for than the Atlanta Falcons and UGA.”

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She has accomplished both. But Luker has a full-time job as a CPA.

“I help clients with preparation of reviewed and audited financial statements,” she said. “I am focused on managing benefit plans, construction and technology audits, but I also work for a large insurance brokerage firm and on a number of smaller engagements.”

She explains how she manages her professional schedule and her cheer schedule.

“On practice days, I make sure that I get to work early enough to finish everything that needs to be done that day so that I can leave work around 4:30 p.m., run home to let my dog out and feed her, and then head to practice, which typically starts at 7:30 p.m.,” she said.

“Fortunately, my busy season as a CPA is during the off-season for the Falcons, and we do not have required practices during the off-season,” Luker said. “While we are not required to attend group fitness workouts as a team, we make sure that we are getting those in regularly on our own time. We typically workout on Monday and Wednesday evenings, and in the morning before we start work or school.”

Her favorite part of being an NFL cheerleader? The time with her “peers of cheer.”

“Every single Atlanta Falcons cheerleader has an awesome and inspirational story to share,” she said. “We all have full-time jobs or are full-time students, so at practice, I am surrounded by girls juggling as much or more than me. We celebrate successes together and support each other through tough times.”

She added, “I am definitely a better woman for having been a part of such a wonderful team.”

Despite their foothold as icons in the world of American sports, today’s cheerleaders are working hard not just on the football field during halftime, but in other aspects of their lives, modernizing their brand and busting old myths that depicted them merely as peppy gals with pompoms.

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