A group of former Buffalo Bills cheerleaders have filed a lawsuit against their former employer, claiming they were subjected to sexual mistreatment and forced to work at games and public appearances for free at times. The suit is the third such legal action filed this year against the National Football League, as lawsuits are currently pending against the Cincinnati Bengals and the Oakland Raiders alleging they were underpaid and faced similar sexual misconduct. The women are seeking back pay and reimbursement for legal fees.
The Buffalo “Jills,” as they are known, say in the lawsuit that they were made to sign contracts that classified them as independent contractors and were paid less than the $8 per hour minimum wage for the total number of hours worked on game days and mandatory public appearances. With rehearsals, practices, community activities and games combined, each cheerleader worked around 840 unpaid hours per year, according to the charges. The women further allege that they were made to pay for their own travel expenses, as well as $650 for their own uniforms. One cheerleader estimated she was paid $420 for the entire 2012-13 Bills season, and another claimed she was paid just $105.
Public appearances are where the money-making potential is greatest, according to the suit, but even though some of the events grossed thousands of dollars, the cheerleaders saw none of it. The women were also made to endure physical evaluations called “jiggle tests,” in which they did jumping jacks while body parts such as their stomachs, hips and butts were examined. The tests would determine whether a particular cheerleader would be performing at the next Bills home game. If the test was failed, the suit asserted, punishments ranging from warnings and suspension to termination were handed down.
One complainant described an annual golf tournament at which the cheerleaders were required to dress in bikinis and go into a dunk tank where they were dunked into water. Some were auctioned off as prizes to the highest bidder and would then have to ride around with the winner in a golf cart for the rest of the Bills tournament. It was in these instances, according to the suit, that the women endured countless sexual comments and inappropriate touching.
Alexa Brenneman, a cheerleader for the Cincinnati Bengals (known as the Ben-Gals) who recently filed a class-action lawsuit against the team for allegedly failing to observe federal employment laws during the 2013 football season, tells a similar tale. Brenneman said the Ben-Gals were paid far less than the state of Ohio’s minimum wage, which at the time was $7.85 per hour. The suit claims that the Ben-Gals were paid a flat $90 a game for 10 games, despite working more than 300 hours that season in practices, charity events and volunteer functions.
A cheerleader for the Oakland Raiderettes filed a lawsuit during the past season charging the organization with also paying its cheerleaders less than the minimum wage. The suit claims, just as in the Bills lawsuit, the women were unfairly compensated for the work they did on the field and in the community at public appearances, despite signing a contract guaranteeing them $125 per home game. The amount they were paid worked out to less than $5 an hour, according to the complaint.
Commentary by Rick Sarlat