Richard Sherman has shown us two all-time great examples of the opposite ends of the athlete media experience in the last couple of weeks. His post-game interview after the NFC championship game was spontaneous, passionate and exuberant. Then he came to Super Bowl Media Day, the football equivalent of a Comic-Con signing. Sherman was this year's Joss Whedon; the man everyone showed up to hear. He was asked one question in particular about setting examples for young women:
As far as money is concerned, all of you football guys are going into the strip clubs and throwing, raining down on the strippers. I think that’s a bad example for our young ladies. How can we stop that? I think it’s a bad example that we’re setting for our young girls that they need to be strippers. How do we deal with that issue?
Well, I’ve never gone into a strip club and thrown money, so I couldn’t tell you. I guess trying to understand that there are other avenues, there’s other ways, that you can make money, that women can do anything they want in this world. You can go out there and be a CEO of a company, you can go out there and — like I said before, the same can be said for kids in the inner city — that the ceiling is limitless and don’t limit yourself to those possibilities and those circumstances.
Not a bad off-the-cuff answer to a ridiculous question. I would have loved it if Sherman had said that stripping's an honest living and that the way you deal with it if you don't like it is to work to increase economic opportunities for the women who don't want to strip, but he did the best he could with a preachy question grounded on basic assumptions. It's hardly the fault of football players that women strip. They strip because it's a job, and because plenty of customers who are not professional athletes choose to spend their disposable income in the strip club. There is a demand, there is a supply, we're all consenting adults here. I look forward to future questions about the bad examples of players fathering children outside of marriage, leaving college before finishing their degrees and promoting the consumption of fast food.
Dancers who travel and work the Super Bowl (or any other event) are usually really good at their jobs and have developed the skills it takes to run a small business. They must be confident that they can be hired in the target city, since most Super Bowls are in cities with their own plentiful and attractive local stripper populations. Traveling to work at a big event means being able to secure transportation and lodging during peak travel times, at a price that won't cut into profit margins too deeply. Does the city require a license or a background check? Paperwork better be in order, and passing those means having a record clean of charges that would stop a dancer from being licensed. And, again, they're going to be good at what they do because during big events, clubs sometimes raise the house fee dancers must pay to work. This can be upwards of $100, and it’s what strippers pay just for walking in the door; it’s the fee charged for the opportunity to make money, with no guarantees.
I've worked a few sporting events and enjoyed them, for the most part. The Final Four in Atlanta was some of the best money I ever made, thanks to a convergence of happy, loose alumni and a great strip club. Formula One's first year in Austin brought a great mix of international race fans (the English and the Mexican fans were especially great) and drivers (same for the Germans and Brazilians) to the club, curious to check out the local custom. Salmon fishing season in Alaska is fairly close to a sporting event, in that it brings out groups of buddies and corporate retreats. In all these cases, the customers were essentially on vacation and happy to be where they were, which makes for a nice change from the less celebratory, and maybe more stressed, usual.
Work is work, and even when the big event takes place in your hometown, it requires preparation and conditioning. Working a double shift in spike heels, successfully selling customers that range from country singers to contractors from Minnesota to consultants from Mexico City? That'll teach you that you can do anything you put your mind to.
The reality of stripping means that anyone working at a club where professional athletes make it rain is at the top of her game. Leaning in, even. The dancers performing at famous clubs like Miami's King of Diamonds or Magic City are talented athletes in their own right, confirmed by the slightest glance at those clubs' (SFW, in accord with the TOS) Instagram accounts. Hell, I worked with one dancer who tore her ACL while oil wrestling, and every massage therapist I've ever had has compared me to an athlete. I'm not even close to Tip-Drill-levels of physical risk. But I get what Sherman was saying, which is 1) he's not one of Those Guys, and 2) stripping shouldn't be the only way for a young woman to improve her circumstances. Still, though, it is a better deal in most every way than being a cheerleader for an NFL team.
Speaking of ceilings: it’s common in the strip club for a customer to whine, "That's not fair!" when he's told he can't touch the dancers. One of my favorite ways to reply to this is with "77 cents on the dollar isn't fair!" -- the others are "Fair is where you go to eat funnel cake" and "That's why it's fun!" -- and that's me. I'm white and have a college degree; women who aren't and/or don't make even less than their male counterparts.
Stripping is one of the few gigs where women are paid more than men. It's also, like football, a way for a small number of talented people to do very well for themselves -- think of Blac Chyna, Dita Von Teese, or Gigi Maguire, the MVPs of stripping -- while a larger number just earn a living for a while and then, when their bodies can't deal anymore, go do something else. Something like two to three percent of college players go to the NFL; an even smaller number continue on to careers of serious length or remuneration. One bad injury and you and your non-guaranteed contract are gone. On the other hand, you might make some good contacts that help you later in the working world.
The face that Sherman made while listening to that question was familiar. I know I pulled the "what are you saying?" face last week myself, when an interviewer asked me, "What made you get into traveling, stripping, instead of work?" Unlike Sherman, I let an incredulous "excuse me?" out, which helped the interviewer realize that he could clarify that he meant instead of a more traditional career path. "Oh, good," I told him, "because it sounded like you said stripping wasn't work."
It is work, and it's OK to do it to put yourself through life. That is, for the same reason most people do most jobs. We don't need to be role models or set examples. The issues people take with our work, like those they take with sports, are about bigger systems. And like athletes, our primary purpose is to entertain our audience. That should be enough.