When Oakland Raiders cheerleader Lacy T. filed a class-action lawsuit against her team in January—alleging that she and her fellow Raiderettes were paid less than minimum wage, illegally fined for minor infractions (like gaining five pounds), and generally disrespected on the field—plenty of people told her that her legal battle would backfire. Fellow cheerleaders accused her of “breaking the sisterhood bond.” Former squad members argued that NFL teams would rather disband their cheer programs than deal with a bunch of pompom waving plaintiffs. Cheerleaders, they said, just aren’t worth more than a couple of bucks an hour. “This could be the demise of cheerleading,” one former Raiderette told me. “Mark my words: The proverbial you-know-what is going to hit the fan.”
We’re still waiting. Following in Lacy’s footsteps, cheerleaders with the Cincinnati Bengals, the Buffalo Bills, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the New York Jets launched suits against their own teams. Another group of cheerleaders filed a similar wage-theft suit against the Raiders and the NFL last month. And last week, Lacy and her compatriots claimed their first real victory: In a quiet note on the Raiders website, the team announced that cheerleaders who make this year’s squad would now be paid $9 per hour, in keeping with the California minimum wage. In another hopeful twist, Caitlin Y.—a four-year veteran of the Raiderettes who is currently waging her own suit against the Raiders—was redrafted onto the squad last week. That will make her the first pro cheerleader to cheer on the sidelines while speaking out against unfair practices in the courts and in the press.
The Raiderettes’ raise is a minor win: All it means is that, finally, the Raiders will pay its cheerleaders the lowest wage it possibly can without breaking the law. (For comparison, only 3 percent of American workers over the age of 25 are paid at or below the minimum wage; many of these people work in leisure, hospitality, or service industries, where their wages are often supplemented by tips.) All the Raiderettes who cheered on previous years’ squads are still missing the wages that the team effectively stole from them. It’s not yet clear whether the other issues identified in the suit—like the team’s practice of paying all wages in one lump sum at the end of the season, its habit of fining cheerleaders, or its requirement that cheerleaders participate in endless unpaid charity appearances—will be resolved going forward. Other NFL teams have yet to publicize raises for their cheerleaders. As Caitlin Y. performs for the Raiders this year, she’ll serve as a guinea pig—and also a watchdog—for her industry’s post-scandal practices.
Even if the NFL manages to clean up its legal mess, its cheerleading squads will still have a big culture problem on their hands. Caitlin Y.’s suit alleges that squad coaches ridicule cheerleaders for the size of their breasts and the shades of their tans. Cincinnati Bengals cheerleaders are told in their official handbook that working the job means “ABSOLUTELY NO ARGUING OR QUESTIONING THE PERSON IN AUTHORITY!!!” Buffalo Bills cheerleaders say they’ve been auctioned off at golf tournaments—where they’re forced to wear bikinis and sit on players’ laps—and have been turned into targets at wet T-shirt dunk tanks. The few cheerleaders who have been brave enough to speak out about their working conditions have been met with shaming and derision by their co-workers.
Legal pressure forced the Raiders to finally pay their cheerleaders the minimum wage. But they shouldn’t need a law to force them to treat their employees like human beings. “I do love being a Raiderette, and I love cheering on a football team,” Caitlin told me. “I just want us to be compensated legally, and treated with respect.”