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The NFL Cheerleader Wage Theft War

Football's most famous fans may finally be getting a voice. After years of NFL cheerleaders enduring embarrassingly low pay and overall poor treatment, working conditions seem to be improving. As a recent New York Times article noted, "The cultural dial is turning." So, what exactly is changing, and why?

Football’s most famous fans may finally be getting a voice. After years of NFL cheerleaders enduring embarrassingly low pay and overall poor treatment, working conditions seem to be improving. As a recent New York Times article noted, “The cultural dial is turning.” So, what exactly is changing, and why?

cheerleaders 

(Photo Credit: Pete Sheffield/Flickr)

Mistreatment

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Though cheerleaders are forced to meet high athletic and aesthetic standards and keep jam-packed schedules (42 weeks of work a year, multiple practices a week, regular media and promotional appearances, and attendance at team events), the NFL has historically (and repeatedly) avoided paying minimum wage by citing cheerleaders’ status as independent contractors, which exempts the League from abiding by state labor laws.

Up until September of last year, cheerleaders for the Oakland Raiders, known as Raiderettes, were paid a mere $125 a game, according to a recent pro-cheerleader op-ed in Time. Given that 11 games make up the average season, this adds up to roughly $1,250 a year in annual take-home, and an average hourly rate of less than $5 an hour. 

Cheerleaders for the Baltimore Ravens and Tampa Bay Buccaneers cheerleaders make even less – $100 per game, according to Mother Jones. The Cincinatti Bengal Ben-Gals receive only $90. The New York Jets Flight Crew make slightly more – $150 a game – but the Buffalo Jills have it worst of all. Their primary compensation is a $90 game ticket and a $25 parking pass for home games, according to Mother Jones.

Former Raiderette Lacy Thibodeaux told the Times that Raiders cheerleaders were also not compensated for travel and other work-related experiences.

“Your contract states that you’re not allowed to talk about your money,” said Thibodeaux. “They think it’s a joke, ‘Oh, these little cheerleaders.'”

To put the compensation (or lack thereof) into perspective, cheerleaders make an estimated $8.25 million in game day TV appearances for the NFL, according to Time, and Commissioner Roger Goodell was reportedly compensated $44 million in 2013 alone. 

Along with unfair compensation, additional subpar treatment has included insulting practices such as body fat and menstrual cycle monitoring, according to the Times. To cite one example, the Buffalo Bills Jills claim to being subjected to weekly “jiggle tests” designed to measure their fat.

Improvements

In July, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill requiring that cheerleaders be considered employees instead of independent contractors, which along with an enforced minimum wage, means breaks and paid sick leave, according to The Los Angeles Times. It will go into effect for the 2016 season.

Earlier this year, New York State Assemblywoman Nily Rozic and State Senator Diane Savino introduced a bill similar to California’s, followed last week by a letter sent by a total of 18 policymakers representing eight states, requesting that NFL legally enforce a minimum wage requirement. 

In reply to the letter, an NFL spokesman told The New York Times, “Teams are advised to follow state and federal employment laws. Under those laws, cheerleaders are not employed by the league.”

Though the NFL’s response wasn’t especially promising, some state legislators are clearly increasingly making moves on the cheerleaders’ behalf, as are the cheerleaders themselves, not only in the form of high-profile media attention but also legal action. 

The latter has resulted in a handful of concrete changes, particularly in the wake of a slew of recent lawsuits filed by cheerleaders from teams including the Oakland Raiders, the New York Jets, the Buffalo Bills, the Cincinnati Bengals, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, some of which have resulted in victory for the cheerleaders.

In September 2014, the Raiderettes received a $1.25 million settlement from the Raiders following an eight month-long class action lawsuit filed against the team. The Buccaneers’s cheerleaders received an $825,000 settlement following a suit of their own in March 2015. Both teams implemented minimum wage as of the 2014-2015 season. According to The LA Times, this means a guaranteed $9 an hour for the Raiderettes, plus overtime, and an overall annual increase from approximately $1,250 to 3,200 a year. 

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