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It didn't take long this season for fans to realize the secondary wasn't the only place the New Orleans Saints were looking to improve their coverage.

When the team's dance squad, the Saintsations, took to the sidelines in 2018, gone were the bare midriffs and bikini tops crowds had come to expect. In their place were one-piece outfits with a whole lot more sleevage than cleavage.

Similar changes were made for the New Orleans Pelicans basketball team next door in the Smoothie King Center.

The Saintsations also scrapped their annual swimsuit calendar, cutting loose a staple among NFL squads who have found scantily clad female bodies popular among memorabilia-collecting male fans.

Some have speculated that the uniform changes were prompted by the team's first female owner, Gayle Benson, who took over the teams after the death of her husband Tom. But the shifts also follow a labor complaint against the team by a former dancer, a raft of bad press about NFL cheerleading squads, and a national mood that is less inclined to give longstanding institutional sexism an easy pass.

The Saintsations referred questions about the shift to the team, which downplays the idea that it is significant in any way.

“Each year we evaluate all aspects of our game-day experience,” Saints Vice President Greg Bensel said. “In the case of the cheerleader uniforms, there were changes made, as there are normally done through the years. And yes, Mrs. Benson did have input.”

Natalie Nocentelli, 22, spent three years dancing for the Pelicans and has friends who are still on the squad. She was told the shift to a more modest look — more skin coverage, less emphasis on curves — was handed down without much explanation.

She also said that during her time there, she often felt that her physical appearance — her weight, posture, how short her shorts were — were as closely monitored as her dancing. But she doesn’t think the team’s approach was a problem, and she considers that a fairly mainstream view among dancers, who work hard at being fit and don’t mind showing it.

Nocentelli said she has seen comments and heard from fans who preferred the old costumes.

“I don’t think anything is wrong with the (new) approach, but I think fans really like the way we used to look,” she said. “I’ve gotten feedback from people who don’t really like this new look.”

The Saints were one of at least two NFL teams to decide their cheerleaders should show less skin this year. The Washington Redskins reviewed their squad's 22 existing outfits and chose the five “most conservative” for their 2018 season, according to the Washington Post.

The Saints and Redskins were among the three NFL clubs whose dance teams drew negative national attention prior to the season.

In March, former Saintsation Bailey Davis filed a federal labor complaint against the team, saying she was fired for violating team rules because she posted a photo of herself in a one-piece bathing suit on Instagram. A dancer with the Miami Dolphins filed a labor complaint as well.

The national stories that followed shed light on the rigid and, critics say, often demeaning rules that govern dancers’ personal lives — rules that don’t apply to the organizations’ male employees.

Then in May, five Redskins cheerleaders spoke out about a 2013 calendar shoot in Costa Rica in which they were required at times to be topless, despite the presence of male sponsors and suite-holders invited by the team as “special guests.” Some of the women were told they needed to serve as escorts for those guests at a nightclub that evening.

There is precedent for teams making adjustments to their cheerleading practices in light of legal challenges and public relations nightmares. The New York Jets shifted to more modest uniforms for their dancers after settling a class action lawsuit over gender discrimination in 2016, while the Buffalo Bills disbanded the Buffalo Jills in 2014 after they were hit with a wage-discrimination suit.

Just before the 2018 season, the Saints became the second NFL team to hire a male dancer, Jesse Hernandez. But though the move drew plaudits from some, skeptics saw it as part of a strategy by NFL franchises to inoculate themselves against discrimination claims. 

Bailey Davis’ complaint, which is currently in arbitration, is about gender discrimination and doesn’t hinge on the aesthetic sexualization of cheerleading. But she told Sports Illustrated in May about a 2016 calendar reveal party in which she was stunned to find her breasts had been noticeably enlarged in a team photo. And she spoke about her frustration at routines being watered down to accommodate women whose looks could titillate male fans but who couldn’t really dance.

The news coverage into the summer referred back to decades of lawsuits over low wages and gender discrimination, weigh-ins and "jiggle tests." Former dancers wrote about how cheering and dancing at the high school and collegiate levels are about spirit, skills and athleticism, while the cheerleading at the pro level seems to be descended from the overtly sexualized archetype popularized by the Dallas Cowboys in late 1970s.

The Cowboys cheerleaders, with their signature two-piece sequined outfits, have hardly changed their look in the ensuing decades, though they did add a belt in 2002.

On the other end of the spectrum are the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants, two of six NFL teams that don't have their own squads. The Packers use a cheer team from a nearby college and periodically push back against the occasional fan complaint that they don't have "regular" cheerleaders.

Giants co-owner John Mara summed up the philosophy of both teams when he told the New York Times that team officials "have always had issues with sending scantily clad women out on the field to entertain our fans.”

Whatever their reasons for showing less skin this season, the Saints and Redskins won't be the last teams to do so, though they might be the last to do it without much fanfare.

Last month, the Indianapolis Colts announced an overhaul for the 2019 season that the franchise said is designed to help fans see professional cheerleading "through a different lens." Kelly Tilley, the program's director, told local media that the aim is to highlight the skills of its "athlete performers" and to tell their stories in ways that break down stereotypes.

“We think now is a good time to look to the future and what we can do to make the cheer program the best it can be, especially for future generations of cheerleaders and fans,” Tilley said.

Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.

This article originally ran on theadvocate.com.

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