Team Spirit

Ed Guthero September/October 2018

Cheerleaders’ silver-and-teal pom-poms sparkle in the panoramic waves of movement and color that accompany a typical National Football League game for the Miami Dolphins. Coaches, like restless generals, clipboards in hand, pace the sidelines while dwarfed by a revolving door of massive players. It’s a game of X’s and O’s, strategy, offense and defense, teammates depending on each other, complex pass patterns, strength, athleticism, grit, and heart.

Also patrolling the sidelines, and engaging in complex choreographed performances that span the field at halftime shows in almost every NFL city, are squads of talented, energetic, idealized, high-stepping, ever-smiling cheerleaders.

They are a team within a team, every bit as committed as any member of the football franchise. Cheerleaders are very much a part of the contemporary NFL brand, yet it has been reported that they often are barely paid minimum wage and receive only $75 to $150 a game. Some spend more than 30 hours a week in rehearsals, learning new choreography, game days, and promotional appearances on behalf of the team . . . and cheerleading is technically a part-time job.

They all share a common love of dance, but they pay audition fees and then have to beat out scores of other talented, attractive, athletic women in tight competition to earn a place on the squad. More than 800 hopefuls attempted to secure a spot on the 2016 Miami Dolphins Cheerleaders—only 38 made the cut. Throughout the months of rehearsal, discipline, intricate choreography, synchronized high-energy motion, camaraderie, public relations appearances, and travel, a professional NFL cheerleading squad bonds into a unique team in itself.

The travel adds to the excitement and appeal of the job. Squads often fly overseas to visit troops, or perform at special NFL games held in Europe as the league attempts to expand its market.

On one such October trip to London in 2015, the Dolphins and the New York Jets faced each other at Wembley Stadium. During a bus trip in Britain several cheerleaders, engaging in “girl talk,” asked one another what were their favorite songs that they listened to during sex.

Answers and song titles were exchanged. Soon someone turned to Kristan Ware, a fan favorite, who has a degree in marine science, then in her second year on the squad, and asked what her choice was.

An uncomfortable question, but when pressed, Ware “eventually explained she didn’t have one, because she intended to remain a virgin until marriage because of her religious beliefs.”

Months later in April 2016 during her season review, Kristan, now a veteran, was looking forward to her third season on the squad. She sat down for the annual interview and was stunned as one of her coaches tapped on a stack of papers and said, “Let’s talk about your virginity.”

It turned out to be an unnerving review and a trying season for the popular cheerleader and cocaptain.

“I had just given my life publicly to Christ, and I got baptized on April 10, 2016,” Kristan recalls in her compelling recent video interview with The Players’ Tribune. Two days after her baptism she was on her way to the annual squad review.

“I’m sitting in this interview with my director and all my coaches, and they want to talk about my vow to wait for marriage, . . . about my ‘True Love Waits’ ring, and it was shocking to me. Just the fact that something like that was being brought up in an interview, and then to be accused that everyone knows this about me and I was talking about it to everyone . . . it just wasn’t true.”

Kristan responded by saying, “I don’t think everyone does know this about me; this is just my personal conviction to God, this is just something I believe in.”

Ware was told that she “had taken something that was once pure and beautiful and . . . made it dirty,” and that she “needed to develop into a woman.” That someone was calling her virginity “dirty” troubled Kristan. “It just didn’t make sense to me,” she says. “I couldn’t mention God, I couldn’t mention Jesus Christ on my social media page.

“I got to thinking . . . as a woman, a cheerleader, when did I lose my rights? Why can’t I share my faith publicly?”

The irony of this was not lost on Ware, as she was fully aware that male Christian football players themselves often knelt on the sidelines in prayer before games—visible to all. They were not disciplined when they spoke out about their faith in public. The players even had team chaplains.

As the season progressed, Kristan kept smiling. Yet inside her the negative comments from superiors regarding her faith, a hostile work environment, feelings of unworth, and the air of intimidation were eroding Ware’s spirit. She felt the strain and suffered from headaches. “You’re completely replaceable” was the message that seemed to be inferred to cheerleaders. “You are special only in the uniform, and there are thousands of women who want to take your place.”

The intimidation once resulted in a superior grabbing the straps on Ware’s costume during a fashion show promotion, shaking her, and causing red marks on her shoulders. She complained to the team’s human resources department, and the superior apologized; yet Kristan continued to feel ridiculed, harassed, embarrassed, and singled out.

With inferences that she needed to be tougher, that she was weak, and with the negativity in comments about her faith turning in her head, it felt like “they were making me choose—do you want to be a Christian, or do you want to be a cheerleader?” Kristan was both. Concerned cheerleader teammates noticed the pressure directed toward Kristan and told her: “This isn’t right; they aren’t treating you fairly. You should quit.” Ware had worked hard on and off the field, even juggling three jobs at one point during her career.

“I didn’t want to give up. I thought that by leaving, it meant that I had lost, that they had won, and that I had been proven as everything they had called me,” Kristan says. She pressed on, completing her third season. During game performances her high-voltage smiles and energy continued, but so did the pressure. Inside the hurt was real, and the popular cheerleader decided to walk away from her dream job.

Deciding to leave and not audition for what would have been her fourth season took a toll on Ware. She loved being an NFL Miami Dolphins cheerleader. It had been the culmination of a dream for the Texas native since 2014, when she decided to “challenge herself” and venture to Miami in an attempt to land a spot on the heralded squad. Kristan also played basketball and softball. She had received a scholarship to play basketball at Columbia University, but turned it down. She graduated from the University of South Carolina with a degree in marine science, traveling to South Africa and tracking great white sharks while completing her more-than-600-hour internship at a marine lab.

Not only did she earn a coveted spot on the select squad, but Kristan became a fan favorite, a cocaptain, and an enthusiastic representative for the Dolphins.

During her three full seasons with Miami she made five overseas trips, visiting troops, among the hundreds of annual public appearances. For Ware, who grew up in a military family, this was a particularly treasured part of being

a member of the internationally known Miami Dolphins Cheerleaders. “I got to travel to so many countries saying thank you to the men and women overseas in the military,” she says.

The Dolphins were a huge part of Kristan’s life, but her personal relationship with God is her bottom line. Her decision to choose abstinence before marriage reflects her faith, as does the small silver ring inscribed “True Love Waits” that circles her finger. Being told to keep her religious beliefs to herself, and badgered to the point of feeling she had to leave the squad, Ware struggled with the conflicts. “God is everything to me, and now I’m being told that I can’t talk about it. I took it quite hard, and the treatment after that was mocking in a way,” she said.

Kristan Ware’s experience, though unique in the religious discrimination aspect, is taking place against a backdrop of rising concerns regarding the NFL’s treatment of cheerleaders, including recent features in the New York Times and Washington Post. Citing low pay in contrast to their high-profile role, the millions of dollars they generate in promotions, the many hours of public appearances, and the uncomfortable situations some teams send their cheerleaders into, such as pregame tailgate parties involving alcohol or high-priced luxury game boxes, where cheerleaders are often subject to unwanted sexual comments and harassment from fans.

The Times interviewed dozens of cheerleaders and reported: “They enjoyed performing at games, developing friendships with other cheerleaders, and participating in charity work, but they were disturbed by some of the extracurricular requirements that put them in what they considered unsafe situations.”

In early April, Kristan Ware filed a complaint with the Florida Commission of Human Relations, alleging discrimination because of her religion and gender. She felt that she needed to speak out. Her words in an April 17, 2018, Grok Nation article reflected the personal stress and dilemma of her experience: “I love every single person in the Dolphins organization wholeheartedly. I am not attacking them. I just want to bring awareness that there is a change that needs to be made,”

The religious conviction aspect of Kristan’s journey particularly deserves respect. In an age of compromise when many Christians are virtually willing to sell their souls for political influence and politicians who are more than willing to take advantage of them, it is refreshing to see Kristan Ann Ware take a stand on a direct matter of personal faith.

By speaking out for her faith commitment, Ware not only has voiced her personal concerns, but has also become an articulate spokeswoman for her sister cheerleaders throughout the league—addressing the undercurrents of control, intimidation, low compensation, health/injury concerns, and unequal treatment that have been overlooked in the excitement and glamor of big-time pro football.

She’s praying that her story will encourage others, “that it hopefully provides strength and courage [so] that other women will take a stand against what is happening behind the uniform.”

Article Author: Ed Guthero

Ed Guthero has had a critically applauded career as a book and periodical designer, artist, and photographer, and a legacy ensured by years as a university lecturer. Here he shows another skill as an author. He writes from Boise, Idaho.