The spectacle that is the NFL grows ever larger each passing year, and as time has gone by, the women who cheer on the sidelines often wear clothes that are ever smaller.

In a society that’s rapidly changing, HBO’s Jon Frankel spent time with the Denver Broncos cheerleaders for the August 21 debut of Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, and took a hard look at different notions of feminism and women’s empowerment in a male-dominated sport; one whose television audience is at least 40 percent female — and growing.

Frankel interviews Shawna Peters, Denver Broncos Cheerleaders team director, who calls what her squad does “part of the [NFL] pageantry” and “entertainment package.”

Peters doesn’t see provocative, modern-day cheerleading as demeaning, telling Frankel, “I think the feminist movement is about women doing what women want to do. And the women on this team are doing it because it empowers them. And they’re going to keep doing it year after year on that field because they’ve chosen to.”

Indeed, the presumption that all cheerleaders are models or simply a pretty distraction for men to ogle is blasted into a million pieces by people like Morgan Yost, a Broncos cheerleader who works for Lockheed Martin as a guidance navigation and control engineer on NASA’s next manned spacecraft — Orion.

“You personally have a pretty good answer for anybody who says, ‘Oh, you’re just a pretty face and a cheerleader,’ don’t you?”

Frankel’s question is met with a telling response. “Yeah, I like to start off with the fact that I’m an aerospace engineer,” Yost says.

Of course, not all cheerleaders have Yost’s off-field qualifications. Even fewer have Collette Smith’s on-field qualifications. The former professional women’s football player and New York Jets coaching intern tells Frankel that she gets “a little pissed off” watching today’s routines. “Cheerleaders are athletes. They’re strong. They train. They study. They have their form. But why do we have to have them with no clothes on? You know, let’s treat them as that, and not as some sex kitten– some sex toy to look at.”

Most NFL squads — the Broncos’ included — also shoot swimsuit calendars (many of which are sold as fundraisers for charity) that, at least on the surface, have only a tangential connection to the game’s pageantry. Of course, like most things in the world, cheerleading means different things to different people; creating a complicated web of tradition and emotion that Frankel can only begin to unravel.

Frankel asked Yost, “Is being sexy part of the job?” The rocket scientist’s response? “I think the most important criteria is: Can you dance?”