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Controlling the Cheer: Inside the Rules Governing 80’s-Era Cheer Squads

Digging into the complex and curious rules imposed on the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders—and how they, and the women around them, pushed back.

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Texas Monthly

No chewing gum. No fraternizing with players. No smoking on the field. The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders’ rules have been in place since the team professionalized their squad in 1972. But over the years, as scrutiny and scandal piled up, so did the rules. No appearing near alcohol while in uniform. No blue jeans. No wedding rings on game day.

In episode five of America’s Girls, we take a deep dive into the rules, largely the creation of former director Suzanne Mitchell. The cheerleaders’ balance of “sexy but wholesome” had tipped a bit too far into sexy by the early eighties, and Mitchell tried to balance the scales with help from her assistant Debbie Bond Hansen, whom we speak to in episode 5. Hansen (whose former surname gave rise to the nickname “007”) was such a loyal enforcer she once went incognito to a string of Dallas topless joints to make sure one candidate wasn’t a stripper. The cheerleaders were eager to push a message of kid-friendliness and patriotism, as they started their USO Tours and exploded into children’s merchandise, capitalizing on what might have been their most loyal fan base: little girls.

1982 brought the cheerleaders’ first high-profile clash with women’s groups, at a protest at Fresno State University. The feminist awakening of the seventies saw women breaking free from the rules laid down by society, but the cheerleaders were headed in the opposite direction. Their rules kept getting stricter: It wasn’t easy to live by them. But when a swaggering Arkansas oil man named Jerry Jones showed up in 1989 and tried to change those rules—that’s when the real mess began.

Here are some articles that helped us make sense of the culture, that famous takeover, and how the rules continue to play out in scandals and lawsuits. —Sarah Hepola

Alive and Kicking

Katy Vine
Texas Monthly

Sarah Hepola: “Beauty, high kicks, and strict codes of conduct—the proper young ladies of the Kilgore Rangerettes drill team in Kilgore, Texas, helped lay the blueprint for the modern Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, though the cheerleaders added the cleavage. Katy Vine captures a very Texas tradition.”

Cowboy Cheerleaders

eaglehorse.org

SH: “Newspaper clippings and photos from the cheerleaders’ 1980 USO tour to Germany. The tours came at a time when the cheerleaders were pushing back on the sizzling image they helped create. ‘We have careers and full lives,’ said cheerleader Jill Waggoner. ‘We’re not sex pots.’ Waggoner was a police cadet during her cheerleading years and went on to become a doctor.”

Turnover!

Joe Nick Patoski
Texas Monthly

SH: “The biggest story in Cowboys history is the day former college football player and oil millionaire Jerry Jones took over a struggling but once-great franchise. Here is the saga as only Joe Nick Patoski can tell it, in an excerpt from his definitive book ‘The Dallas Cowboys: The Outrageous History of the Loudest, Most Hated, Best Loved Football Team.’”

1989: The Year 14 Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders Quit

Marie Saavedra
wfaa.com

SH: “Most sports fans know that when Jerry Jones purchased the Dallas Cowboys, he fired legendary coach Tom Landry. But there was a whole other drama: Fourteen veteran cheerleaders quit after being told he would drop the no-fraternization rule and change the uniform.”

Silence at Baylor

Jessica Luther
Texas Monthly

SH: “We talk with journalist Jessica Luther in our podcast about the rules. Her 2015 Texas Monthly barnburner (with Dan Solomon) on the Baylor football team exposed the religious university’s history of sweeping sexual assault under the rug.”

Pro Cheerleaders Say Groping and Sexual Harassment Are Part of the Job

John BranchJuliet Macur
The New York Times

SH: “No other journalist covered the cheerleaders’ #metoo era with the rigor and insight of Juliet Macur at The New York Times. Her stories describe how the cheerleaders’ codes of conduct collided with an increasingly sexualized culture, sometimes leading to groping and unwanted harassment. But this one (co-written with John Branch) also helps illustrate why Suzanne Mitchell had those strict rules about being around alcohol in the first place.”

Sarah Hepola

Sarah Hepola is the author of the bestselling memoir Blackout. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Bloomberg Businessweek, Salon, Elle, Glamour, and Texas Monthly, where she is a writer-at-large. She lives in Dallas, Texas.