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Should we cheer for NRL women in league?

The obstruction rule, the shoulder charge, scrums and how Greg Inglis is eligible to play for Queensland are topics which will be debated for as long as rugby league is played.
Should we cheer for NRL women in league?
by AAP

By Ben Horne

SYDNEY, May 16 AAP - The obstruction rule, the shoulder charge, scrums and how Greg Inglis is eligible to play for Queensland are topics which will be debated for as long as rugby league is played.

There's no black and white in this game, only grey. And this week's Women in League Round is no exception.

If you take a step back from the on-field action for a moment, a vexing issue which just won't go away is whether cheerleaders are a viable part of the modern-day NRL.

Women in League round is promoted as a chance to say thank you and to celebrate women for the important roles they play in the game.

It's also about aiming higher for the future - with chief executive Dave Smith launching an initiative to ensure more females are employed in positions of authority and leadership in the game.

But the fact is cheerleaders are the real face of Women in League.

Dressed in lycra, short skirts and bikinis, they're representing the game at the coalface.

When you go to the footy, these are the women in league you see first hand.

Cheerleaders enjoy what they do. They're hard-working, dedicated, athletic dancing professionals, who are embracing an avenue for them to perform.

But good or bad, they set the NRL brand apart from every other football code in the country.

The AFL haven't featured cheer squads since the Swanettes disbanded in Sydney in the late 1980s.

The A-League don't have them and Australian Super Rugby franchises in some cases feature dance troupes, but not cheergirls.

Rugby league's position at head office is they're more than happy to leave cheerleading decisions up to the clubs.

Russell Crowe's South Sydney Rabbitohs got rid of theirs in 2007, concerned about the uncomfortable atmosphere they created for many spectators.

When Raelene Castle - the NRL's first female chief executive in 15 years - took over as Canterbury Bulldogs boss last year, one of the first items on her agenda was to review the club's cheerleader program.

A decision was made to employ a squad of women (The Sapphires) which focused first and foremost on charity, fan and corporate engagement, with cheering secondary and revealing outfits a thing of the past.

The Canberra Raiders have also restructured their cheerleading approach for 2014, to make it more professional.

Castle doesn't believe there's anything wrong with the more sexy approach utilised by most other clubs, but it wasn't the image she wanted for the Bulldogs.

"I thought it was a good time to review the cheerleading squad and give them more opportunity to be more engaged across all elements of the club and also make sure they weren't just a game-day marketing ploy," Castle told AAP.

"The feedback we're getting from the girls is they said it's a big step forward for them and they feel more integrated in the club.

"I don't think one approach is right or wrong. I just think it's about what your brand is and what your fans want."

Professor Catharine Lumby from Macquarie University has been the gender advisor for the NRL and says the game's attitudes towards women have improved markedly over the past decade.

"I'm pro bono because I would walk away if I thought they were doing a PR job on this stuff," she says.

"What I see now is a more zero tolerance attitude when something happens that involves violence towards a woman or demeaning behaviour."

In regards to cheerleaders and their place in this more gender-minded NRL, Lumby says it would be disrespectful to simply abolish cheerleading.

However, she encourages other clubs to take a leaf out of Castle's book and rethink how cheerleaders are used and promoted.

"Some of these women are very proud of their athleticism and involvement in sport. They're stereotyped as the dumb blonde cheerleader which is a bit offensive. But if they're going to be part of the sport I think they need to be given a broader purpose," said Lumby.

"They shouldn't be put in a position where they're just decorative. That really needs to be rethought."

The National Council of Women of Australia are also unopposed to cheerleading, but are concerned at the sexualisation of it and hope the women involved are educated enough to understand the purpose of what they're doing.

Australian Women's Sport and Recreation encouraged the NRL to also look at using women in other roles as well as cheerleading - something which the game promises it's doing.

Dr Emma Jane is a senior lecturer at the University of NSW and completed a thesis for her media and communications PHD on cheerleading in the media.

As a former journalist, Jane was once given an assignment where she trained and performed as a Bulldogs cheerleader back in the mid 1990s.

It gave her a completely different appreciation for cheerleading.

"The idea was because I was a total feminist, it would be really funny to send me out to become a cheerleader. I was expecting to make fun of them," Jane said.

"But it was actually a real eye opener for me because I realised it was pretty damn hard and I also realised it was very different to what I thought it was from a feminist perspective.

"The young women I was hanging out with weren't feeling oppressed or objectified, they were just having a really good time on their terms.

"I think there's a tendency to shift the blame for (poor attitudes) onto the cheerleaders."


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