Michelle Chernicoff was really ticked off. You could tell. It was a quote in a national op-ed that really got to her: “Cheerleaders just need to go away.” That was one feminist’s takeaway from #metoo. Michelle had worked for years – actually more than a decade – to become an NFL cheerleader. She tried out 14 times. FOURTEEN. Who was this person to say that her dream was over right when it came true?
I don’t know what wave of feminism we’re on. I’ve kind of lost count. But what Michelle would say to that op-ed writer really has less to do with politics than with just being a human being.
I knew Michelle when she was an overnight producer with the worst shift in TV news. Worse than early mornings. Worse than late nights. She worked ALL night long. A dancer as a little girl and a flag team member in high school in Texas (where the halftime show is every bit the spectacle of Friday Night Lights), Michelle always wanted to be a professional cheerleader.
When I knew her, she had just made the squad cheering for the Charlotte Checkers. I don’t know much about hockey. And I never really thought about hockey having cheerleaders. I just knew it had two things: beer and fights. I can’t even keep track of the puck half the time. The Charlotte Checkers is not the NFL. It’s not even the NHL. But Michelle worked SO hard. And it was work. The pay? $25 a game. No overtime. She had to want it.
It was because of Michelle that I developed a whole new appreciation for cheerleaders at every level of the game – their athleticism, their endurance, their stamina, but mostly how much respect they deserve. When she married our colleague Dave and they moved to Tampa, I followed her career on Instagram.
When she FINALLY MADE IT as an honest-to-God NFL cheerleader for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, I felt super-proud to know her. All the times she was cut were just soul crushing. She had rounded the old age of 30. She thought her dream might never happen.
Michelle cheered for two seasons for the Bucs. She had a blast. Friends who had known her since grade school came to games. She has memories she’ll never forget. She proved to herself and any doubters that she could do it.
Then she unzipped those boots, hung up her pom-poms and became a mom. It wasn’t as though she couldn’t have done both. She just decided she wanted to focus on one.
And that’s really my take-away from our three HOUR conversation (which we’re cutting down to less than 40 minutes – so relax): Michelle’s lesson to any little girl who wants to cheer or dance or do anything which calls on her to be “pretty” is that you can be both. You don’t have to choose. You can work hard to do the most you can with your physical appearance AND be smart AND professional AND compassionate AND high-achieving AND a mom. If that’s what you want. Your choice.
Of course part of NFL cheering is sexy. Isn’t part of ballet sexy? Isn’t part of being a Hollywood actor sexy? What’s up with the puritanical shaming? I think Michelle is saying that’s not all she is. And that’s just a part of cheerleading, too. She’s asking to be seen in full. I’ve learned a lot from knowing her.
I think the more you get to know the person you’re expressing an opinion about, the tougher it becomes to stereotype them or demonize them or just say they should go away. If that editorial writer ever wants to meet Michelle, I’d be happy to make the introduction.
My conversation with Michelle Chernicoff drops this Thursday, September 3, 2020 on the @ManListening Podcast.