In 2014, the cheerleaders revolted. This January, rookie NFL cheerleader Lacy T. kicked things off when she filed a class action lawsuit against the Oakland Raiders, alleging that the team fails to pay its Raiderettes minimum wage, withholds their pay until the end of the season, imposes illegal fines for minor infractions (like gaining 5 pounds), and forces cheerleaders to pay their own business expenses (everything from false eyelashes to monthly salon visits). Within a month, Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader Alexa Brenneman had filed a similar suit against her team, claiming that the Ben-Gals are paid just $2.85 an hour for their work on the sidelines. And Tuesday, five former Buffalo Bills cheerleaders filed suit against their own team, alleging that the Buffalo Jills were required to perform unpaid work for the team for about 20 hours a week. Unpaid activities included: submitting to a weekly “jiggle test” (where cheer coaches “scrutinized the women’s stomach, arms, legs, hips, and butt while she does jumping jacks”); parading around casinos in bikinis “for the gratification of the predominantly male crowd”; and offering themselves up as prizes at a golf tournament, where they were required to sit on men’s laps on the golf carts, submerge themselves in a dunk tank, and perform backflips for tips (which they did not receive). The Buffalo Jills cheerleaders take home just $105 to $1,800 for an entire season on the job.
Why are NFL cheerleaders putting down their pom-poms all of a sudden? Cheating cheerleaders out of a living wage is an American tradition almost as old as football itself. The dual exploitation of cheerleaders—you’ll perform our jiggle test, and you’ll do it for pocket change!—is nothing new. When I reported on the long hours and low pay of the Washington, D.C. football team’s cheerleaders in 2011, nobody seemed too upset about the fact that the cheerleaders made just $75 a game while working for a team that brings in $76 million a year—especially not the squad members themselves, who told me they appreciated the opportunity to cheer, regardless of the monetary benefits. When I sat down with CNN to talk about the issue last year, reporter Shannon Travis ended the interview by telling me I was the only one who seemed to care. (The notable exception is ESPN columnist Gregg Easterbrook, who has been railing against cheerleader pay, while admiring cheerleader bikini shots, for years).
First, it’s worth examining why NFL teams ever thought it was OK to treat cheerleaders this way. When cheerleaders first took to the professional football field in the early days of the NFL, it was a volunteer position staffed by local high school and college squads (many of which were co-ed), and football players and coaches weren’t making bank, either. But after television turned football into big business, cheerleading got serious: In the 1970s, the Dallas Cowboys led the league by transforming NFL cheerleading from an extracurricular activity into professional sideline entertainment, and other teams followed with their own glam squads. And yet, cheerleading wages remained scandalously low. That’s partly because labor organization in the NFL focused on the rights of the players, and since they’re the main product of a most dangerous game, that makes sense. (The Players Association does not represent cheerleaders.) It’s also because the job description of the modern cheerleader is a hyper-glamorized version of what American women were traditionally expected to do for free, before they entered the workforce en masse: namely, look pretty and support their men.
NFL teams stepped easily into the creepy patriarch role. Today, they enforce expectations for the way their cheerleaders look (according to the suit, the Jills’ guidebook mandates everything from the cheerleaders’ nail polish color to how they clean their vaginas) while rewarding them, not with money, but with the supposed prestige of appearing as one of their city’s most desirable women. (While some cheerleaders go on to model or act, just marrying a player or a politician is enough to cement a woman’s status as one of the most “notable” cheerleaders of all time.) NFL teams like the Raiders extend the patriarch metaphor by encouraging cheerleaders to see the team as a “family” (not an employer), refer to their squad mates as “sisters” (not co-workers), and implying that they’ll break the “sisterhood bond” if they step out of line. Cheerleaders are constantly reminded that they are letting their teammates down when they are benched and fined for weight gain, and, by the way, hundreds of women would be happy to take their spot for free. The old stereotype of cheerleaders as bimbos has also worked in the NFL’s favor. NFL cheerleading is such an obviously raw deal, some might assume that women must be stupid to agree to it. (Tell that to Dr. Monica Williams, who cheered for the Tennessee Titans while fulfilling a research fellowship at Vanderbilt.) That’s not a stigma that, say, coal miners fighting against unfair working conditions have to overcome to get what they’re owed.
So what’s changed? “It’s a reflection of the Occupy Movement,” Frank Dolce, a lawyer for the five Buffalo Jills, posited to me. “There’s an increasing public realization of the tremendous unfairness of America’s present economic situation, and as we grow more and more unequal as a society, those tensions are becoming more pronounced. Professional cheerleading is symbolic of the abuse of workers everywhere by the powerful, greedy people who control the purse strings.” And the plight of the cheerleaders—who are forced to look so sunny and glamorous while making so little—presents a particularly ironic hook for telling this story.
It helps that the cheerleader lawsuits are hitting at a time of intense scrutiny of the NFL overall. Football fans are concerned about the league’s response to rampant head trauma among its players; they’re upset about the Washington team’s offensive nickname; they’re pissed about escalating prices for parking, concessions, and ticket fees. The contrast between the NFL commissioner’s $44 million annual salary and the Buffalo Jill who brings in just $105 is too rich to ignore—for sports journalists, if not for fans. (The photo opportunities don’t hurt, either).
There’s another reason it’s taken so long for the cheerleaders to speak up: feminism. Professional cheerleaders have always presented a dilemma for the traditional feminist movement. On the one hand, feminism is committed to fighting for fair pay for women in all areas where they are discriminated against because of their gender. On the other hand, this particular kind of labor—one where women, not men, are enlisted to jiggle their assets at the local golf tournament—suggests another kind of gendered exploitation, and one that’s hard for some feminists to rush to defend. (Headlines about the recent spate of cheerleader lawsuits may focus on the scandalous details, but looking sexy for men is a feature of the job, not a bug.) Lately, it seems the feminist movement has caught up to the cause; it’s no longer particularly controversial to stand up for the legal rights of the women who perform work that nevertheless fails to reflect the ideal, gender-equitable society. Earlier this year, over 100,000 people signed a Change.org petition urging the NFL to give cheerleaders a raise. (Still, one former Raiderettes cheerleader—who opposes the class-action suit because she fears it will compel teams to disband their cheerleading squads instead of paying up—told me that she thinks these lawsuits are a feminist conspiracy to attempt to end cheerleading for good.)
Ultimately, though, the culture of silence around NFL cheerleading was broken by the courage of one woman—28-year-old Raiderette Lacy T.—who took personal risks to stand up for all of the workers in her field. “I [cheered] for the love of dance, not for money,” says Sarah G., another former cheerleader for the Raiderettes. But until she read Lacy’s lawsuit, “I just had absolutely no idea it was illegal.”