They are beautiful, in great shape and get to entertain millions of fans on a weekly basis, but the life of an NFL cheerleader is not even close to as good as it may seem. In the past four months there have been three suits filed by ex-cheerleaders claiming teams pay next to nothing and exploit them inappropriately for their own gains. The first was filed by an ex-Oakland Raider cheerleader and then shortly after an ex-Cincinnati Bengal cheerleader. This past week five ex-Buffalo Jills, the Buffalo Bill’s cheerleaders, filed a suit as well. The new reports show that these entertainers are classified as independent contractors and because of this the teams are allowed to pay them next-to-nothing wages. Coupled with live unpaid appearances and being forced to partake in events that result in inappropriate behavior, this has all the makings of a new problem for the league. NFL cheerleaders have maintained a code of silence since the 70’s about this unfair treatment, but they have decided to break the silence and demand real change.
Cheerleaders basically work as low-paid interns. They are paid $75 max per game and often have to put in many, many hours during the week that they are not paid for. Compared to team mascots that can make up to $20,000 per year and are given medical benefits, cheerleaders make as much as $1,800 to as little as $108 . . . per season. This is way below minimum wage and some make what equals to less than three dollars an hour. The reason teams can pay them so little is because they are considered independent contractors and do not fall under the state minimum wage restrictions. Lacy T. is an ex-Oakland Raiders cheerleader and was the first to file a suit, paving the way for the others. Unfortunately in March, the US Department of Labor dismissed the case because she was an independent contractor and there was nothing illegal. But the problems go way beyond money.
The five ex-Buffalo Jills filed their suit last week and it was for more than just money. According to the statement of Alyssa U., an ex-cheerleader for the team during the 2012-2013 season, the cheerleaders are held to standards that are not placed on some Fortune 500 CEOs and forced to partake in practices that would easily result in successful lawsuits at most companies. Besides the next-to-nothing pay, the cheerleaders are expected to maintain a certain appearance on and off the field at all times. Money is a big issue and unless they unionize, which would be very difficult to do, it is likely not going to change. What could change is fair treatment for things like personal care and uniforms. The Jills were required to pay over $600 for their uniforms and for all their salon visits; Alyssa U. of the Buffalo Jills was told before one game that her hair was not natural looking enough and had to go to the team’s personal hair stylist to fix it, which cost $85 out of her own pocket, more than she was paid for the game.
The Jills were given a procedural rule book that they had to follow on and off the field and it ranged from how to eat soup at a fancy dinner to how they should properly clean themselves. Some of the rules state that they must go to salons and have their hair in picture-perfect quality even when they are off duty and living their lives. Their nails must be maintained on a weekly basis and the teams restrict what types of pictures they are allowed to post online. For example, they are forbidden from posting ‘selfies’ on Facebook. This, too, is just the beginning, as NFL cheerleaders around the league are breaking their silence and demanding that teams meet their changes as they set new, appropriate, codes of conduct.
NFL cheerleaders are a major part of the team, especially when considering pre-game entertainment. The Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders for example, pull in close to one million dollars per year for the team, yet they are paid $1,800 for the entire season if they are lucky. Besides cheering at the games they are also required to go to various events as ambassadors for the team; most of these events are unpaid, and the ones that are paid are rare and usually only bring along two girls.
One of the events the Buffalo Jills attended was a charity event at a golf course that they were not paid for. They had to parade around in bikinis, take turns in the dunk tank and some of them were auctioned off to ride around with the golfers as their private chauffeurs. Those cheerleaders who were auctioned off went to groups of four golfers and rode around in their golf carts with them all day. The only caveat was that there were only four seats in the carts so the girls had to sit on the laps of the male golfers. The Buffalo Jills also go through what is called a ‘jiggle test’ where they get in uniform, stand in a line in front of their coach who holds a clip board and get judged. They then turn around and get judged again, then finally they are made to do jumping jacks and if parts of their body jiggles too much, they are given a citation. One citation means they are unable to perform on-field cheers and two citations mean they are ‘benched’ for the game and can not participate in any events, also forfeiting their meager pay.
Many CEOs of large companies are required to look a certain way and maintain appearances, but they are given thousands of dollars as an allowance to look this way, on top of their million dollar salaries. Cheerleaders ultimately pay to perform their jobs. Even the calendars that the NFL cheerleaders make so famous are not off limits. The Buffalo Jills were made to purchase ten of them a month for $100 and had to sell as many of them as they could. Not only were they not given any of the profits, they were not given any complimentary copies, and if they did not sell all ten calendars they were stuck with the resulting cost.
The problems that these NFL cheerleaders go through, both on and off the field, need to be resolved, and breaking their code of silence is the first step towards change and attaining their equal and fair treatment.
Commentary by Chris Dragicevich