Cheerleaders make the NFL's billions. They deserve to be paid minimum wage
Roger Goodell wants to give these women fewer labor rights than a stripper and less pay than a garment worker? Bring it on
Sunday 30 March 2014 07.30 EDT
Just why would someone ever want to become an NFL cheerleader? For the fleeting, half-baked fame? The camaraderie? Recognition for your athletic-aesthetic prowess? Or maybe it’s the privilege of being one of America’s Sporting Handmaiden – and all the charitable, community-serving femininity you’ll embody forever after. (Provided, of course, you don’t move on to stripping, or bring the NFL into disrepute while you represent it.)
Hopefully young women are looking for at least one of the above, because it’s certainly not the money, honey: as a brewing lawsuit brought against the Oakland Raiders by their cheer squad has revealed, NFL cheerleaders are some of the most poorly paid legal workers in America. With next to no labor rights and making nowhere near the minimum wage, they could use a cheer or two themselves.
Back in January, Oakland Raiderette Lacy T brought a suit on behalf of the entire squad. Factoring in practice hours, charitable appearances and the annual swimsuit calendar photo shoot on top of a 10-game commitment, he and her attorneys argued that the Raiderettes’ $1,250 annual wage worked out to less than $5 an hour. That’s a whole $3 below the state minimum. And it’s more than $5 below an increase the Obama administration has been seeking all year and said in a report last week would close the gender wage gap by a full 5%.
The Raiderettes are also required to fund their own travel and mandated cosmetics. They get fined by the team if they don’t sport the right underwear or the proper shade of fake tan. And in direct contravention of California labor law, these cheerleaders get paid at the end of the season, rather than every two weeks. And so the Cincinnati Ben-gals are joining the fight, too.
Yet last week, the US Department of Labor declared the Raiders exempt from having to offer its cheerleaders the minimum wage because they constitute “seasonal amusement”. Meanwhile, NFL attorneys claim that the Raiderettes never even had the recourse to real justice – that their contracts don’t allow them to sue in court anyway. Now, their case must head to arbitration, as so many matters of sport so often do. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who makes $44m a year heading up the $9bn marketing machine powered in no small part by cheerleaders and the fans they excite, will decide whether cheerleaders deserve a morsel more.
Make no mistake: cheerleaders are instrumental in generating revenue for the NFL. They feature prominently in in-house and television advertising, which will bring in an estimated $3.1bn between now and 2022. Sure, the players are on more commercials and have the skills to demand a low-end salary of $100,000. And, sure, the timeout routines may feature more closeup-ready shimmy than Bring It On-style tumble. But most NFL cheerleaders are trained dancers holding down college degrees or full-time jobs in order to pay for “the privilege” of cheering on Sundays. Even an NFL mascot makes a minimum $23,000 per season, while the women putting themselves out there for the National Football League make “salaries” more akin to that of a garment worker.
You don’t just have to follow the money. A week after the Raiderettes sued, a former Baltimore Ravens cheerleader leaked a list of that team’s draconian dictates from back in 2009. And the handbook had a distinct sexist inflection: no fraternizing with the players, including no discussion of wages or working hours; no jewelry, other than wedding bands and team-mandated earrings; no weighing a single pound more than you did at the beginning of the season; compulsory tans, fake or skin cancerous – the list goes on.
When the LA Times got handed a copy of the Oakland Raiderettes’ rules, their handbook recapitulated most of the above, with the addition of a full page of instructions on how to care for their Raiderettes’ medallion, plus details of the fine scale applied if a cheerleader misses an unpaid pre-game rehearsal.
Then come the rules on “moral behavior”. Back in 2012, cheerleader Malori Wampler was dismissed from the Indianapolis Colts cheer squad for attending a Playboy party in her painted birthday suit. Wampler claimed she was being fired on account of her race – she's Indonesian – but the NFL claimed it was about her disobedience. As officials reminded Wampler in court, her contract forbade “any act that will or may create notoriety, bring Cheerleader into public disrepute, or reflect adversely on Club or its sponsors” – and insisted that said behaviour should be “in accordance with socially acceptable mores and conventions”.
Forget that creating notoriety is the whole point of being a cheerleader. Given the notoriously misogynist allowances the NFL affords its male players – Darren Sharper is currently facing not one but two counts of rape, there was the Minnesota Vikings sex boat, the list goes on and on and on – you'd think the odd shimmy up to Heff would be permitted. The sexist, moral probity expected of NFL cheerleaders is even more unjust. A Double-D standard doesn’t even cover it.
And while the cheerleaders occupy a bizarre liminal space somewhere between Vegas showgirl and belle of the purity ball, at the heart of the NFL’s paternalistic grip is that these women must never, ever be seen as mere strippers. How ironic, then, that the NFL has adopted the punitive practice of fining the cheerleaders when they go off-message – a strategy taken straight from the strip clubs, where dancers are charged for wearing the wrong shoes or underwear. At the end of 2012, Spearmint Rhino dancers successfully sued the club chain to the tune of nearly $13m in back wages and compensation. Even strippers have more labor rights than cheerleaders.
From money to morals, as Raiderettes attorney Sharon Vinick points out, the greatest impediment is the lack of unionization – something with which NFL players themselves struggled for long enough, something that finally made its way into the college game last week. But if NFL cheerleaders can’t prove an employer-employee relationship with the NFL, they’ll probably be exempt from unionizing anyway.
All of which means it’s still up to the good graces of Mr Goodell to afford cheerleaders a fairer share of his league’s mega-profits. The NFL does understand the basics of revenue sharing, after all. Time to share with the women on the sidelines. It costs a lot to be treated that cheaply, you know.