49ers Cheerleader Kayla Morris Becomes First NFL Dancer to Kneel in Protest

Kayla Morris kneels during the national anthem prior to an NFL game. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

There are a couple of cheerleading memes on Pinterest right now that feature a young woman flying through the air, mid-cheer, with perfect, fearless form. The text accompanying one reads: “If you ever feel like giving up… just remember there’s a little girl watching who wants to be just like you. Don’t disappoint her.” The other says: “Be strong. Be fierce.”

If these are key tenets of being a great cheerleader, one from Antioch, California is setting a perfect example. Kayla Morris, of the San Francisco 49ers' Gold Rush squad, has taken a knee during the National Anthem at two games this month—the first cheerleader for an NFL team to do so.

Given the incredibly tight standards NFL cheerleaders are held to both on and off the field, exercising her right to protest was an extraordinarily brave move.

Each NFL team has their own rule handbook, so conditions vary for cheerleaders across the country, but Business Insider has reported that cheerleaders for the 49ers "cannot tell people that they are affiliated with the team." The Oakland Raiderettes face fines for forgetting any part of their uniforms or for not having polished boots on game day. After a New Orleans Saints cheerleader was fired for posting a photo of herself to Instagram wearing a one-piece teddy, the New York Times reported that the Saints' handbook forced cheerleaders to leave any location where a football player may be, even if they were there first. Other teams have rules around wearing sweatpants in public, visible tattoos and navel exposure. The handbooks don't have rules about taking a knee because it probably never occurred to anyone that a cheerleader might do such a thing.

It's not the first time they've been underestimated. In 2015, the Raiderettes, along with four other squads, filed lawsuits against their respective teams and won a combined $2.6 million, as well as guaranteed minimum wage payments, which they had not been making prior. At that time, one 49ers cheerleader claimed she was making just $2.75 per hour.

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That being said, if there is any team that may tolerate a cheerleader taking a knee, it's the 49ers. Team CEO and owner Jed York was vocally supportive of Kaepernick's protests, even in the face of criticism from President Trump. “We need to be above petty attacks from anybody," Ford said in October 2017, "because racial and socioeconomic inequality has existed in this country for too long. We need to get the focus to that and make sure that we make progress there.” In May, when NFL owners unanimously voted to enforce a rule where players had to stand during the National Anthem or else stay in the locker room, Ford was the only one who abstained.

Though Kaepernick is currently in the middle of legal action against the NFL, charging that there's been collusion to keep him off the field, he originally opted to leave the 49ers and become a free agent of his own accord. Importantly, the NFL's motion to dismiss the collusion case in August was denied, which was considered a major victory for the quarterback. The case is, as yet, unresolved.

So what's to become of Kayla Morris? The question is complicated by the fact that Morris, and the other women of the Gold Rush, aren't even employees of the 49ers or the NFL. Instead, they technically work for e2k, an "events and entertainment" company that "view(s) events as a vehicle to bring inspiring visions to life." Who has final say on cheerleaders' employment statuses remains to be seen.

When she took a knee, Morris did more than just unite with all the other athletes who have protested before her, she made an important point about all of the women in her line of work. The overly restrictive, underpaid working conditions are a season-long reminder to cheerleaders of just how replaceable they are. These talented women are supposed to be so grateful for the opportunity that they'll fall in line with whatever their teams ask of them, no matter what. Kayla Morris is an essential reminder about the individuality and agency of these women.

Last year, Morris told the 49ers' website that she had "learned that it takes more than dance skills to be on this team. You learn how to represent yourself in a professional manner and become more confident in everyday life because you are surrounded by amazing women who are constantly encouraging each other."

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Kayla Morris is just the first of these amazing women to exercise her right to protest on the field, but it's possible her actions could inspire other cheerleaders to follow suit.  Could the movement started by Kaepernick ultimately be realized by the women on the sidelines? Morris has made that a possibility.

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