Is NFL Cheerleading As Controversial As It Seems?

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BE022231Photo: Corbis.
UPDATE: The Raiders will pay the Raiderettes $1.25 million for their class-action, wage-theft lawsuit. The cheerleaders will also receive minimum wage for their labor.

UPDATE: The NFL issued its first formal response regarding the Oakland Raiderettes labor lawsuit on Wednesday. The organization claims that, because players cannot bring antitrust claims against their teams, the NFL is "immune from all state Labor Code provisions." While the courts have yet to respond to this statement, it's important to remember that the problem with cheerleading extends beyond fair pay. The over-demanding lifestyle and objectification remains an issue for many — though not all — NFL cheerleaders.

This story was originally published on July 30:
On November 5, 1967, a burlesque performer named Bubbles Cash felt inspired to improvise a performance for the Dallas Cowboys. She emerged from the stands in a fringe halter top, shorts, and cowboy boots. Carrying cotton candy in each hand, she made her way down the 50-yard line. The crowd went wild.

And, so did then-Cowboys manager Tex Schramm. In 1969, he dropped the male cheerleaders from the coed squad, the CowBelles & Beaux Crew. By 1972, he’d hired choreographer Texie Waterman to find and train a group of girls to form what’s now known as the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. He asked that the members of the new squad be over 18, attractive, talented, and don a uniform à la Miss Cash. In a matter of five years, Schramm — and Bubbles — created the modern-day cheerleader.

It’s no wonder, then, that a culture rooted in burlesque garners little attention as a professional sport. Cheerleaders are seen as glamorous peripherals to America’s favorite game. As William C. Rhoden writes in The New York Times, “While cheerleading at the high school and collegiate levels has become competitive and athletic, today’s NFL cheerleaders are little more than props that reinforce objectified sex roles. The professional cheerleader has become feminized and eroticized.”

Yet, the five lawsuits filed this year against the NFL focus on a separate issue: how little cheerleaders are paid. Women from the Oakland Raiderettes, New York Jets Flight Crew, Cincinnati Ben-Gals, and Buffalo Jills filed claims against their teams, claiming they make as little as $2.85 per hour. They also claim they’re not compensated for mandatory events and hours worked outside of game days. They’d make more money selling hot dogs in the stands, and for much less time and responsibility — factors that lead Deadspin to call cheerleading "a Ponzi scheme in hot pants."

Flavia Berys wrote in the New York Post that the cheerleaders behind these suits are missing the point of cheerleading. “The privilege of being a member of that elite sisterhood is priceless, “ she said. And, she’s right: Everyone is missing the point, here. At face value, this is a labor-law issue. But, underneath it is so much more. With these lawsuits came a series of never-before-seen handbooks — a set of rules for the women on the sidelines that reveal a dark underbelly of an American pastime.
180239277Photo: Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images.
Lawsuits & Handbooks

The last six months have been fairly tumultuous for professional sports. Between the Clippers’ Donald Sterling controversy, the Redskins name-change campaign, and Michael Sam's draft, everyone kind of forgot about the girls with pom-poms.

In January 2014, Lacy T., an Oakland Raiderette, filed a class action suit against the Oakland Raiders. She claims the $1,250 she makes per season doesn’t amount to minimum wage when taking into account the hours of rehearsals and mandatory off-field appearances she is required to attend. Lacy also claims she was fined for minor weight gains and had to pay out-of-pocket for many expenses, including hair and makeup for games, events, and photo shoots. Additionally, she alleges the Raiders withheld her pay until the end of the season. In February, Sarah G., another Raiderette, joined the suit. Later that month, Alexa Brenneman, a Cincinnati Ben-Gal, filed a suit against her team with similar claims. She added that she was required to pose for and sell a team calendar, but never saw any profits, which went directly to the team. In May, Krystal C. filed a suit against the Jets. May saw five Buffalo Jills file claims, as well.

Though the details of their cases vary, the common thread is a gross underpayment — approximately $2.85 per hour when averaging in all time and compensation. And, considering the NFL brings in approximately $9 billion a year, that starts to feel a bit laughable.

It’s the Jills’ suit, however, that gave these women’s cases a whole new shock value. A source leaked the Jills’ Agreement & Codes Of Conduct and the squad’s Glamour Requirements.

The Jills were subject to weekly “jiggle tests,” in which a cheer coach “scrutinize[d] the women’s stomachs, arms, legs, hips, and butt while she [did] jumping jacks.” Jills were auctioned off as prizes at golf tournaments, forced to escort male patrons to casinos, and participate in dunk tanks for tips they never received.

You’ll find item 16 in the lawsuit particularly interesting, which describes the Jills’ thrice-changed private ownership. Sure, football players are traded all the time. But, those transfers exist within the league. The constant change in ownership over the Jills reflects the way the women have always been viewed as objects. At one point, they were owned by a fast-food chain called Mighty Taco.

The rule book reads like a recurring nightmare in which you’re 13 again, sitting quietly as your mother tells you about the nuances of being a woman. They detail instructions on what merits acceptable dinner conversation (never religion or politics), how the women should groom their private parts, and when to change their tampons — every four hours.

Though these guidelines sound excessive and invasive to us, what do the real cheerleaders think of them? Donna*, a cheerleader for an NFC team, says her squad’s handbook is more like a guide to living. “Anything that you could possibly have a question on was in that book,” she told us in an interview. “Honestly, it helped a lot, especially in rookie season.” Namely, Donna and her fellow cheerleaders were instructed how to handle their appearance, wash their uniforms, what to wear to charity appearances, how to write thank-you notes and fan mail, and rules of seniority — oh, and how to play football. “[It explained] what qualities they expected from every girl in order to be the best ambassador of the organization,” Donna says.

Lauren*, a former Buffalo Jill, believes the now-infamous book is full of common sense things. “We were asked to behave respectfully and to be well put together at all times. I believe that my teammates would've done these things regardless of being instructed to or not. So, for many of us, this was just something we already did and just had to keep up with,” she explains. Yet, it’s hard to believe the weight tests were part of the Jills’ everyday lives before they joined the squad.

“I was given a rule book which needed to be followed by every member of the team. This included rules such as no fraternizing with the players, game-day appearance, practice weigh-ins, etc. Not adhering to these rules could lead to suspension or termination,” says Melissa*, another former Jill.

Being a professional cheerleader means having a prescribed lifestyle. They’re sexy, glamorous, and — thanks to these etiquette guides — probably the sweetest girls you’ll ever meet, on and off the field. “It’s a lot of pressure to try to be ‘perfect’ no matter where you are. You just never know who might recognize you from a game or an appearance when you’re not in uniform, and no one wants to leave anyone with a bad impression. The pressure can be draining on its own. Imagine trying to never let anyone see you have a bad day!” says Donna.
42-33883772Photo: KC Alfred/Corbis.
The Audition Process & Motivation For Joining

Like any athlete, NFL cheerleaders must try out for their place in the organization. And, the audition process is a bit like a beauty pageant. A solid section of it is about talent and fitness. But, alarmingly, a portion is reminiscent of a swimsuit competition. In some cases, NFL players serve as judges for the final round of tryouts — even though players and cheerleaders are discouraged from interacting. And, it's unlikely an NFL linebacker has the qualifications to determine what a skilled cheerleader looks like.

The squad leaders waste no time once auditions are over. “After tryouts, the first practice we had was about three-and-a-half hours long, and we went over our handbook in detail,” says Tanya* a former Jill. This training session included “how to act on and off field, how you were expected to look (hair, makeup, nails, jewelry, etc.), and which things you can and can’t post on social media," Tanya expains. “Also, which slang words you could and couldn’t use on social media. The management team provided examples of such things (inappropriate photos on Facebook, YouTube videos, and status updates all from girls who had just made the team the week before.)”

So, if the pay is terrible, the hours are long, and the work conditions are restrictive at best, why would anyone become a cheerleader in the first place?

Some just really love cheerleading, and their hometowns. “I wanted to become a Buffalo Jill because it was an outstanding opportunity. I am a huge Buffalo Bills fan, and I love the city of Buffalo. So many opportunities were given to be more involved with the community, including volunteering. Just the experience itself was remarkable, from volunteering to games,” says Lauren.

For Donna, she saw professional cheering as a stepping stone to a dancing and coaching career. “Knowing that the chances of a university hiring me straight out of college at the age of 21 were slim to none, I decided to work on building my resumé, and becoming an NFL cheerleader was a good way to start,” she says.

All the cheerleaders we spoke to said having a second job was not only common, but encouraged. “There are no restrictions on what type of job that you can have,” says Donna, “but they do discourage girls from bartending, certain serving (waitress) jobs, and any other occupations that can put you in provocative situations.” This feels ironic considering there are few things more provocative than a costume that consists of booty shorts and a bustier.

“Almost every girl when I was on the team had another job or was in college. The pay was so few and far in between that you could not rely on this as your primary job. Some girls were bartenders or wanted to be and had to have the jobs approved by management before taking it,” says Tanya. Even if they’re allowed to have other jobs, when can a cheerleader find the time between mandatory events, rehearsals, and appearances outside of the game-day schedule?

Other women joined for the same reason one might join a sorority — a sense of feeling young, alive, and like you belong to a special group of people. “I truly enjoyed the companionship of my teammates. When I first started working for the organization, I thought the highlights of my cheerleading career would come from the traveling and the cool places I would get to visit. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the best part was having the experience with the people I was with or meeting, not necessarily about the places I was visiting. Those are the moments I will treasure forever.” says Donna. In short, being a cheerleader is fun.
42-36795575Photo: Ric Tapia/Corbis.
So, Now What?

The information at hand is alarming, both from an employment and women’s rights perspective. But, not all cheerleaders take issue with the way the cheer system works.

Where Melissa believes cheerleaders, “if designated employees by the Department of Labor, should be entitled to an hourly wage and benefits as applicable,” Lauren says being a Jill is a volunteer position. “As far as the Buffalo Bills, the lawsuits aren’t warranted at all,” she says. “The cheerleaders were very clearly told what the program was all about, and on top of that it was all voluntary. No one was being forced to be a Buffalo Jill.”

Others are torn between the negative effects of causing a fuss and the potentially life-altering effects of joining their comrades. Tanya says she sees both sides of the lawsuits. “I do believe some parts of the organization and treatment were wrong. A lot of girls who would complain about some things the management made us do while being on the squad are against the lawsuit now, even if they agree with some aspects of it because they don’t want to lose the sisterhood we all had while being on the Buffalo Jills, and [they] feel as though they need to defend that.” For some, it’s better to silently enjoy the perks of female camaraderie than to risk losing it all for a bigger paycheck.

There have been some changes since the initial lawsuits were filed. The Raiders doubled its wages, thanks to Lacy T., which indicates other teams may follow suit. Change.org has a petition for those who support a wage increase, and major NFL players have vocalized their support. Some point to the Seattle Sea Gal system as a model for fair compensation. In terms of labor laws, there seems to be a ray of light for the overworked and underpaid cheerleader.

But, where’s the model for a cheerleading system that doesn’t rely on selling sex? In a sport with a 50% female audience — and one that may soon see its first female referee — it still lacks in its support for cheerleaders. When the women are featured in a sexy calendar shoot, their athleticism becomes an afterthought. As the L.A. Times writes, “despite the obvious sexual undertones to the job, cheerleaders are professional athletes too. They are extraordinary dancers with years of training, on-the-job injuries and a short shelf life.”

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Out of 32 teams, six are without cheerleaders at all. Though some argue those teams don't have squads because they're located in colder climates, or because a town is so obsessed with the game it can’t bother to be distracted by the sidelines. But, for some, like the New York Giants, it’s an issue of how the cheerleaders are portrayed. “Philosophically we have always had issues with sending scantily clad women out on the field to entertain our fans,” John Mara, the Giants co-owner, told The New York Times. “It’s just not part of our philosophy.”

The Buffalo Jills disbanded on April 24, making the Bills the seventh team without a cheering squad. Though, there’s no telling if this is permanent or just while legal issues are ironed out.

It’s hard to change something so inextricably American like football. When you suggest a modification, you’re also asking to alter the meaning of something symbolic to its fans. But, we can’t forget that modern-day cheerleading is an invention of one man in the ‘60s. It’s us who decide to keep it this way.